Tips for Developing a Sympathetic Villain | NY Book Editors
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Developing a Sympathetic Villain for Your Novel


When you hear the word “villain,” you probably think of someone who’s pure evil. But a well-written villain doesn’t fit neatly into the evil box. The best villains are nuanced. Think Hannibal Lecter, Gollum, Baby Jane. There’s a reason why these villains need no introduction. You remember them because they’re complex. They are evil but they’re not just evil. They’re disturbing, haunting, and unnerving. You can’t look away from them in much the same way as witnessing a train wreck.

To reduce a villain to pure evil is not only predictable, but it’s also lazy. The goal is to create an unforgettable villain who’s so well-characterized that they become sympathetic and, dare I say, relatable. The reader should be able to see a little bit of themselves in the villain, and that insight should terrify them.

Protagonists are easy to write. It’s the villain that requires mastery. In this post, we’ll help you come up with a villain that’s a worthy opponent and an interesting read.

Villains Aren't Necessarily Antagonists

Let’s not mix up villains with antagonists.

Although we often think of villains and antagonists as interchangeable terms, they're actually different.

A villain is a character who's evil actions develop the plot.

An antagonist is a character who opposes the protagonist.

While an antagonist can be the story's villain, they're not always one and the same. Your story's protagonist can encounter many antagonists along their journey. The antagonist's job is to frustrate, delay or, in some way, sabotage the protagonist's plan.

Without the antagonist:

  • The story would not have tension - Tension is a necessary element to every story. Tension creates anticipation as the reader wonders how the newly introduced challenge will impact the protagonist and their goals. Tension elicits nail-biting emotion and it's something that the antagonist brings.
  • The protagonist would not develop - Challenge forces characterization. That's because each problem forces the protagonist to make a choice. The reader will learn more about the protagonist based on how they respond to antagonistic action.

Antagonists can be evil, but that's not always necessary. Their role in your story is to oppose the protagonist.

In most circumstances, the antagonist isn’t completely consumed with the idea of foiling the protagonist. Instead, the antagonist is following his or her path when coming across the protagonist.

The protagonist wants X. The antagonist wants Y. Both can’t happen, so conflict occurs.

Your story can have multiple antagonists. However, you’ll probably have only one true villain.

It’s tempting to think of the villain as the ultimate antagonist, but the villain is much more. The antagonist is a plot device and the villain is a character type. This distinction means that the villain can actually be the protagonist— i.e. the main character in your novel. That's right. You can throw a curveball at your readers by giving them an unreliable narrator who's actually evil.

Define Evil

Understanding what makes a person evil will help you develop a realistic villain.

Think about it. How would you define an evil person?

Some psychologists argue that no one can be completely evil or good. According to this study, all of us have dark personality traits. However, the ones who score the highest are considered the most evil among us.

The scientists found that so-called evil people are:

  1. Self-centered and focused exclusively on their own needs
  2. Manipulative
  3. Not concerned with doing the “right thing”
  4. Narcissistic
  5. Entitled
  6. Lacking in self-control
  7. Sadistic
  8. Self-important
  9. Harboring ill-will with the intent to harm others

As you can see, we're all guilty of these traits to some degree. However, an evil person exhibits all of these traits to an alarming capacity.

In addition to the above traits, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck argued that evil people are prone to self-deception as a means of preserving ego and avoiding guilt for their actions. They cannot (or will not) understand the victim's point of view.

So, how exactly can you make someone like that sympathetic?

Consider the Villain's Perspective

The villain is always right— in his or her own mind, at least. Not only is the villain right, but the protagonist is wrong and antagonizing them! By shifting your focus from protagonist to villain, you’ll see that your story’s protagonist is actually preventing the villain from reaching his or her goal.

This shift will help you create the ultimate villain. Even when he or she does bad things, the villain doesn’t consider himself or herself to be intrinsically evil. To the villain, the ends always justify the means.

Confused about the difference between point of view and perspective? Check out this guide.

Weave an Intricate Backstory

Developing a sympathetic villain

Every main character in your novel needs a backstory. The villain is no exception.

A sympathetic villain always has a tragic backstory. A backstory won’t justify the villain’s actions. Instead, the backstory gives the villain a compelling reason to do what he or she does.

But here’s the thing about backstories. They’re not really meant to be shared in-depth with your reader. When inserted into your novel, backstories will slow the pace to a grinding halt. Instead, the backstory is for you, the writer.

Knowing your villain’s backstory helps you write a rounded character who’s both evil and sympathetic.

Here are 5 essential tips for creating a backstory.

Give The Villain An Admirable Trait

Villains are sinister, but they can also be admirable. Weave into their darkness some commendable characteristics. Your villain may be a bad guy, but he’s so darn funny. Or fiercely loyal. Or smart. Your villain should possess a quality that your reader desires for themselves.

Explain the Villain's Motivation

Your villain wants to kill all dolphins. Yikes, that’s evil. But why do they want to do that?

Knowing the "why" won't make the villain’s intended plan any less evil, but it will give the reader more insight into who the villain is and what motivates them to act. This understanding adds dimension to the villain, turning them from a flat character into one that's more realistic. A realistic villain is a lot easier to understand than one who’s cartoonishly wicked.

Give Your Villain a Personality

Developing a sympathetic villain

Fleshing out the villain is one of the best things you can do to make them seem more human. When you assign a personality to your villain, you invite the reader to view your villain as more than the token “evil” guy. A villain with an attractive personality becomes more complicated and less overtly evil.

Don’t make your villain an anti-social misfit.

Improve your story by giving the villain charm. This way, the villain can even seduce the reader. This has the dual effect of pulling the reader in and then, once the villain inevitably acts villainous, giving the reader cause to sympathize with the villain’s victims.

Protagonists are easy to write. It’s the villain that requires mastery.

Give the Villain a Fanbase

Speaking of charm, let’s talk about the secondary characters who may be enamored with the villain.

Some villains act alone. They may be loners who no one else cares about.

But other villains have fan clubs. They support and love the villains, and may even do their bidding. Explore why. Perhaps they know something about your villain that the protagonist and the reader do not. This is your opportunity to show the villain in a softer light that may make them more relatable.

Final Thoughts

Every story needs a villain, but not all villains are equal. Make your story stronger by creating a villain who’s charming and understandable.

Who is your favorite villain in literature, and why?

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