How To Create Empathy For Your Villain (Part I)

We have discussed how to create a likeable protagonist, as well as how to garner empathy or sympathy for him. Now, it is time to see how to create empathy for your villain. And empathy, here, means likeableness, a general sense of why he acts the way he does and/or why we sympathise with him.

However, unlike with protagonists, you do not need to create immediate empathy for the villain/antagonist in your story. You can drip-feed your audience information about him over the course of the narrative, so that we get an all-round picture of his nature by the end of it.

Also, sometimes, giving an expositional info-dump about your villain too early in the story can have an adverse effect on the villain. It can take away some of the mystery surrounding him, or it can make him come across as lame and pitiful. All of these make him less interesting and therefore engaging, which is the opposite of what you want in your villain.

Give Him The Ambition To Restore His Family/Country To Greatness

It may sound (laughably) Trumpian these days for someone to want to make their country “great again.”

But, first, such a saying, in one guise or another, pre-dates the former US President quite considerably. Second, if a villain is serious about wanting to restore greatness to his family, kingdom or empire, it can make him fascinating. This is because his reasons for wanting his family, kingdom or empire to become great again drive his actions.

Example – Lord Tywin Lannister

how to create empathy for your villain - make him want to make his family or country great again, like Lord Tywin Lannister wants to do
Lord Tywin Lannister’s mission in life is to make House Lannister the most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms.

In A Song of Ice & Fire, Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock is revered as the most powerful lord in the Seven Kingdoms. He has the cunning of a fox and the strength of a lion, and we see his Machiavellian genius come to the fore in the Red Wedding. He is a brilliant and ruthless antagonist.

Yet, what makes him fascinating and three-dimensional is his background. In his youth, Lord Tywin watched his father almost bring ruin to House Lannister, both financially and in reputation. Thus, Lord Tywin spends his entire time as Lord of Casterly Rock doing everything he can to make his family great again.

Make Him Do Whatever It Takes To Achieve His Goals

How to create empathy for your villain? Make him willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. The goal should be so important that he must do everything in his power to pursue and fulfil it.

If it means leaving behind his family and loved ones, so be it. Likewise, if it means marrying someone he doesn’t like, so be it.

Example 1 – Jadine in Paths of the Shadow

In Hannah Ross’ terrific fantasy novel, Paths of the Shadow, the villainous Jadine is unsatisfied as a provincial wife and mother. Consequently, one day, she leaves her husband and children in order to pursue her personal drive: to hone her supernatural powers of the Shadow.

Example 2 – Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen

Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale from the TV-show, The White Queen) desires to put her son on the throne, and she will stop at nothing to achieve it.

In Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction series on the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort does everything she can for her son, Henry Tudor. She is a devout woman, but really nothing is so holy as her son’s position.

After King Edward IV (of York) seizes the throne for the second time and Henry flees into exile with his uncle, Jasper, Margaret arranges to marry Lord Thomas Stanley. This is to ensure that she is near to power. Margaret hopes that with good behaviour on her part, she can persuade King Edward IV to pardon her son, let him return to England/Wales, and give him back his confiscated properties.

Then, after Edward IV dies and Richard III (also of York) seizes the throne, Margaret makes a secret alliance with her enemy, Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s widow: she proposes that Elizabeth’s daughter (also called Elizabeth) marries Henry to support his claim to the throne, to rid England of the usurper, Richard III.

Margaret’s idea works perfectly. Henry is victorious at the defining Battle of Bosworth because of her politicking. Margaret’s marriage to Lord Thomas Stanley ensures that (crucially) he sides with Henry rather than Richard during the battle; and her pact with Elizabeth brings about relative stability following the battle. This because the marriage of Henry Tudor (a Lancastrian) and Elizabeth of York unites the two families that had ripped England apart for thirty years.

Make Him Regret His Ambition

Another way on how to create empathy for your villain is by making him regret his ambition. There is an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” This is because you just might get it and wish that you never did.

Alas, it is invariably too late for your villain by the time he realises his mistake. But the admittance of his mistake will grant him some sympathy from the audience.

Example – Lady Macbeth

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character’s wife is arguably the true villain of the play. She is the one who urges him (via sexual manipulation) to kill King Duncan and seize the throne for himself, so that she can be queen.

However, not long after having the crown placed on his head, Macbeth descends into madness as the power goes to his head. Unable to control him any longer, Lady Macbeth regrets her role in her husband’s regicide. Offscreen, she commits suicide for her sins.

Make Him Desire Revenge

When considering how to create empathy for your villain, the desire to gain vengeance and what is owed to him is a powerful agent.

Just as revenge is a great motive to make the protagonist get out of bed in the mornings, the same is true for your villain (after-all, he is the protagonist in his eyes). From his perspective, a wrong has been done to him, and he wants to put it right.

Example 1 – Alec Trevelyan

In Goldeneye, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) learns about halfway through the film that the international criminal, Janus, is really his old friend and former British secret agent, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean).

Subsequently, Alec reveals that his parents were former Cossacks, who fought for the Tsar during the Russian Civil War, had fled Russia following Bolshevik victory, and were then betrayed by the British after WWII. Alec goes on to tell James that everything he’s done has been to avenge his parents and bring down the British state from within. (Not to mention make a fortune for himself in the meantime.)

Alec might be a two-faced traitor (like the Janus bird), but we understand what drives him.

how to create empathy for your villain - alec trevelyan has a need for revenge
James Bond (Pierce Brosnan, right) with his supposed friend and fellow secret agent, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean, left). James has no idea of the resentment that Alec harbours.

Example 2 – Miranda Tate

During the climactic battle in The Dark Knight Rises, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) shockingly betrays and stabs Batman, her alleged lover. Subsequently, she reveals that her true identity is Talia Al-Ghul, the daughter of R’as Al-Ghul, who Batman essentially killed in Batman Begins. Moreover, she reveals that her true motive all along has been to avenge her father and finish what he started.

Thus, everything that Miranda/Talia has done up to this point – investing in ‘peaceful’ nuclear energy, ingratiating herself with Gotham’s elite, and getting to know Bruce Wayne – has all been a ruse. It was just part of her plan to destroy Gotham once and for all.

Make Him Feel Wronged

How to create empathy for your villain? Make him feel wronged because when a man feels like he has been wronged, it is as if an injustice has been done to him.

The reality may be different, but that is irrelevant. In his eyes, something unfair has been dished out to him and he must put it right, any means necessary.

The trick for a writer here is to portray the wrong/injustice done to him as a legitimate grievance.

Example 1 – Scar from The Lion King (1992)

Scar is one of the best Disney villains for good reason. He is calculating, patient and dangerously intelligent. But what makes us empathise with him (love him even) is the sense of unfairness that the wheel of fortune has given him.

First, Scar is the second son, so is not first in line to become King of Pride Rock. Second, Scar is physically weaker than his older brother, Mufasa, thereby ensuring that he cannot beat his brother in a duel if it came to it. And, third, Mufasa has a son, Simba, at the start of the narrative, pushing Scar further down the pecking order to inherit the Kingdom.

In Scar’s mind, this is all completely unfair. And he has a point. It is simply because of the accident of birth that he is not first in line. Mufasa has not done anything of note to qualify him for his position.

In addition, Scar’s charm (voiced no less by the wonderful Jeremy Irons) wins us over, as does his opening line: “Life’s not fair, is it?” This line is one every member of the audience can relate to. As a result, we understand Scar and empathise with him (even if he is not entirely right either).

how to create empathy for your villain - scar
Scar hiding his bitterness through charm, sarcasm and intelligence as his older brother, Mufasa, scolds him.

Example 2 – Loki in Thor (2011)

In similar vein to Scar, Loki is charming, intelligent and a second son. His older brother, Thor, is physically stronger than him and will inherit the Kingdom of Asgard. Again, (seemingly) all Thor has done to earn his position is being born first, which makes Loki feel like the (Marvel) universe is against him.

Where Scar and Loki differ, though, is that Loki believes that that his father, King Odin, favours Thor and does not listen to him. Later, Loki learns that he is in fact adopted from Odin’s enemies, the Jotuns, which only riles him further. Thus, he has been living a lie for much of his life.

This causes an identity complex with him, adding another layer to his multi-faceted character. Indeed, it gives us more reason to empathise with him and to understand why he acts the way he does.

Deny Him His Inheritance

This we shall discuss in our next blog piece on how to create empathy for your villain. I hope you have enjoyed Part I, and that it has made the writing process a little easier for you as well.

See you for Part II on how to create empathy for your villain,


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