How To Create Pity For Your Villain (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at a series of ways on how to create pity for your villain or antagonist. Today, we shall discuss a further four ways. That way, you can forge a villain that your audience can empathise or sympathise with, or even like.

Deny Him His Inheritance

The first way on how to create pity for your villain is contrive a situation whereby you deny him what is his. It is a bit antiquated today for people to have a divine, God-given right to inheritance, whether that be:

  1. A position; or
  2. Property.

In general, in the 21st-century, one must earn their position and whatever property they acquire in this world. Nevertheless, if you are writing a story that is set in by-gone era, then you can make the villain feel aggrieved that he has been denied what is legally his.

Example for Position – Stannis Baratheon

Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane in Game of Thrones) feels aggrieved that his rightful claim to the Iron Throne has been denied.

In A Song of Ice & Fire, King Robert Baratheon dies and leaves no legitimate heirs. The children who have his surname (Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen) are not his children at all, but Jaime Lannister’s bastards with (his twin sister) Queen Cersei.

Consequently, by the laws of primogeniture, Robert’s rightful heir is his younger brother, Stannis. However, due to a mixture between a lack of knowledge and a lack of desire to put Stannis on the Iron Throne, Stannis’ claim to the throne is denied.

Thus, he has a legitimate reason for feeling aggrieved. Indeed, his fight to claim his (rightful) position as king is one that many root for.

Example for Property – Anne Neville

In Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Anne Neville, the protagonist, finds herself in a vulnerable position after her father is killed at the Battle of Barnet (1471). Her brother-in-law, George, Duke of Clarence, is her guardian and is refusing to let her get married. Thus, if she dies heirless, her half of the Neville fortune goes to her sister, Isabella, and him.

We empathise with Anne’s position. It is not her fault that her father, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, fought against King Edward IV and got himself killed. Likewise, the way her George and Isabella treat her is awful.

Therefore, we are right behind Anne’s desire to change her fortunes for the better, and claim her rightful inheritance.

Make Him Want A Forbidden Relationship

For someone who loves a person he cannot be with, it is the equivalent of mental torture. Day and night, he will think about her, even though it does him no good. In fact, it can tear him apart, inside, in a similar way to an internal confliction.

For a writer to show the villain’s inner turmoil, you must make the villain make decisions that reflect his anguish. Invariably, it should lead to bad decision and after bad decision.

Example 1 – Jaime Lannister Loves His Twin

In A Storm of Swords, the third volume in A Song of Ice & Fire (ASOS), Jaime Lannister becomes a POV character and our perspective of him changes very quickly. From the earlier books, we know that he loves his twin, Cersei, that Robert Baratheon’s children are really his, and that he is a member of the Kingsguard.

But in ASOS we learn that the reason Jaime Lannister became a member of the Kingsguard was because Cersei sexually manipulated him into it. He agreed to give up being the heir to Casterly Rock just to be close to her in the capital. It is a staggeringly bad decision, and highlights how much he wants to be with her.

Once we appreciate this, his decisions to have children with her and to push Bran Stark out of a window, to keep their affair secret, makes sense. It also shows that Jaime’s desire to be with Cersei leads from one bad decision to another.

how to create pity for your villain - make him love someone he cannot, like how Jaime Lannister loves his twin, Cersei
Jaime loves his twin, Cersei. The question is – does she feel the same way?

Example 2 – Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony & Cleopatra

Although, this really happened, Shakespeare dramatised it and we’ll go with Shakespeare’s version of events.

After forming the Second Triumvirate with Octavian Caesar and Lepidus to defeat Marcus Brutus at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, Mark Anthony was sent to Alexandria to govern the eastern part of the Roman Empire. There, despite being married, he fell in love with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and rebelled against Rome.

During the crucial Battle of Actium against Octavian in 30 AD, Cleopatra betrayed him. She turned around to head back to Egypt. Rather than stay with his men and fight, Mark Anthony, a seasoned commander, fled to follow his love. His decision costs him his men and the battle.

After returning to Alexandria and finding out (falsely) that Cleopatra was dead, he committed suicide. It was a sad, pitiful end to his distinguished career.

Give Him A Traumatic Childhood

The third way on how to create pity for your villain or antagonist is to give him a traumatic childhood.

A traumatic childhood can explain a lot about why a villain acts the way he does. It is like he was damaged at a significant point in his development. And, because of the damage, he goes on to become the villain that we know him to be.

Example 1 – Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto

how to create pity in your villain - Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a traumatic childhood
Erik Lehnsherr, whose traumatic childhood ultimately makes him become Magneto.

In X-Men: First Class, we understand why Erik Lehnsherr is hell-bent on gaining revenge. As a boy, he was in the Holocaust and watched his mother get murdered before his eyes. This made him realise that the only he can defend himself (and other mutants) is through force.

He feels that there is no other way to survive other than to kill people who have harmed him (or who want to harm him). Ultimately, his desire to use force causes him to reject Charles Xavier’s way of mutual co-existence.

While Erik Lehnsherr is not wholly wrong, he is a sad and flawed character. Nothing underlines this more than when Charles tells him that killing will not bring him peace. Erik responds: “Peace was never what I desired.”

Example 2 – Henry VII

In Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel, The White Princess, King Henry VII is the husband of our protagonist, Elizabeth of York. He acts in a suspicious and paranoid manner throughout the narrative, and treats his wife horribly as well.

Yet, Gregory gives us good reason to empathise with Henry VII too. Henry’s father died before he was born and, as an infant, he rarely saw his mother, since Margaret Beaufort re-married twice: first with Sir Henry Stafford and then with Lord Thomas Stanley.

Moreover, in 1461, his uncle and guardian, Jasper Tudor, fled into exile following King Edward IV’s victory at Towton. For the next decade, Henry was looked after by Sir William Herbert, who was loyal to King Edward. Then, in 1471, Henry fled to France with his uncle, Jasper Tudor. Henry was still only a teenager, but was now broke and at the mercy of the French King, Charles VIII. Henry went to bed every night, fearing that he would be sent back to England, to face the wrath of Edward IV.

Thus, by the time he becomes King in 1485, it is not surprising that Henry is a suspicious and paranoid man, who likes to spend time with his mother. He has never known safety and he has never spent significant amounts of time with his mother either. It just creates a sad picture of a king who is otherwise best known for ending the Wars of the Roses. 

Give Him A Traumatic Childhood With Mental Illness

The fourth way on how to create pity for your villain is through a traumatic childhood capped by mental health issues. (Because in case just having a traumatic childhood weren’t bad enough, add mental illness to the matter.)

The mental health aspect will give your villain another dimension. Plus, it will make the audience pity him because it is not (entirely) his fault that he turns into the man he becomes.

Example – Arthur Fleck in Joker (2019)

how to create pity in your villain - arthur fleck from joker laughing and crying
Arthur Fleck’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues are on view whenever he cries and laughs, as both are painful to watch.

From the off in Joker, it is clear that our villainous main character, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), is a deeply troubled and pitiful man. But as the narrative plays out, we come to realise that he never stood a chance in life.

Gotham is a horrible city; Arthur’s mother abused him and lied to him; and his mother’s onetime boyfriend abused him so badly as a boy, it gave Arthur his laughing condition. What’s more, Arthur has no positive role models in his life, and even those he works with set him up to fail.

Feeling powerless and hopeless, and getting beaten by Gotham’s nastiest citizens, we understand why Arthur becomes a killer. The only time he feels empowered is when he is holding a gun. Killing people is liberation for him. As is making the city burn.

Give Him A Crippling or Debilitating Injury, or Some Sort of Mutilation

This, we shall tackle, in Part III on how to create pity for your villain or antagonist. I hope you enjoyed Part II, and that it helps to make the writing process a little easier for you as well.

Let me know what you think in the comments below,


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