How To Make Your Villain Sympathetic (Part III)

In Parts I & II, we looked at a variety of ways on how make your villain likeable, empathetic, and intriguing. Now, we shall look at the final part on how to make your villain sympathetic.

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

How to make your villain sympathetic? A crippling or debilitating injury affects the villain’s life. The audience sees the hurt it causes him, and how it has turned into the person he has become. Thus, we empathise/sympathise with him due to his injury.

Example 1 – ‘Bond Baddie’ Rénard

how to make your villain sympathetic - make him feel no pleasure, like Renard from The World Is Not Enough
Renard feels neither pain nor pleasure, which is pitiful.

In the 19th Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, we are told early on that ‘Bond Baddie’ Rénard (Robert Carlisle) suffered a bullet wound to the brain. The bullet is slowly killing him, but that in the meantime he feels no pain.

Ostensibly, this is great for a villain as it means he can take blow after blow, without it affecting him. However, there is another side to his inability to feel to pain. Later on in the movie, he lies in bed with the beautiful (and naked) Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), and he feels nothing when she touches him.

Thus, just like he cannot feel pain, he cannot feel pleasure either. This makes us pity him, since he cannot enjoy life. It is no wonder why he is a villain, with a dreadful personality.

Example 2 – Harvey Dent/Two-Face

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) starts off the film as Gotham’s ‘White Knight’ (in contrast to Bruce Wayne’s Batman, the ‘Dark Knight’). Harvey legally fights crime as Gotham’s DA, even though he gives us a hint or two that he is willing to use illegal methods to get to the bottom of matters.

However, half-way through the movie, he suffers a mutilating facial injury that turns him into Two-Face. In addition, at the same time, he loses his girlfriend, Rachel Dawes. Both the injury and Rachel’s death bring his dark side to the fore. At first, he finds those who wronged him. Then, he goes after the loved ones of those who wronged him.

By the end of the film, Harvey Dent is unrecognisable (physically and in terms of character) from the person he was at the beginning of the film. But we understand why he becomes the person that he does, even if his actions are murderous.

Example 3 – V in V For Vendetta

In V For Vendetta, the villainous V covers himself completely, including his face with a Guy Fawkes mask. (The mask is important as V is an anarchist.) We never see V’s face, but we do get a glimpse of the burn-like wounds on his hands.

Subsequently, we learn that he was part of a governmental experiment that went horribly wrong. As a result, he was scarred to the point of disfiguration. This explains why V is keen to bring down the government; why he lives under ground; and why he does not show his face to anyone.

Have Him Cheated On By A Partner

Another way on how to make your villain sympathetic is to make his partner cheat on him. This is because being cheated on is an awful feeling.

Moreover, the cheated one instantly has the audience’s sympathy. This is because being cheated upon can crush a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Indeed, it can make someone feel worthless.

In a story, a twisted mind will ensure that his partner pays for cheating. And the more villainous the character, the worse he will make his partner pay.

Example – Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)*

How to make your villain sympathetic - make her a woman scorned, like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl
Amy Dunne is a woman scorned in Gone Girl. Her reaction is extreme, but it still explains (some of) her actions.

William Congreve wrote in The Mourning Bride that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and boy to we see this with Amy Dunne. In Gone Girl, Amy sees her husband, Nick, cheat on her in broad daylight. Humiliated, she decides to pay him back, publicly.

Like a true psychopath, she meticulously sets him up for murder whilst also leaving clues of his infidelity. This is all so that he will be forced to apologise to her and confess to what he’s done.

We sympathise with Amy for being cheated on. (Additionally, because her mother made a better version of her in her Amazing Amy series). Nevertheless, what she makes Nick go through is horrible, even if it is genius.

(However, all that we feel for Amy is somewhat undermined by her other crimes: she once falsely accused an ex-boyfriend of raping her, and she murders her friend, Desi.)

*Disclaimer, Amy Dunne is as much an anti-hero as a villain, depending upon your point of view. That is why she has been in used in our anti-hero blog piece/video; and why, here, she is a villain.

Make Him A ‘False Villain’

One of the two ways of being a ‘false hero’ is to make out that your central protagonist is a good guy, until we learn (through a twist) that he is in fact not a good guy at all. A false villain is the inverse of that: we think our villain is a bad guy until we learn (through a twist) that he is in fact a good guy.

This twist changes our entire perspective on him. Subsequently, we empathise with all that he did to hide his true colours.

Example – Professor Snape

For pretty much the entirety of the Harry Potter series, Harry (and the audience vicariously) believes Professor Severus Snape to be the Dark Lord’s Trojan Horse at Hogwarts. Indeed, Harry’s worst suspicions of Snape seem confirmed when Snape kills the much-loved Professor Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince, too.

It is only after Snape dies that Harry learns the truth in the Pensieve: that Snape was really Dumbledore’s spy on Voldemort; that Snape killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s orders; and that Snape had been protecting Harry all along.

The revelation is a wonderful one. As a result, we admire Snape for all that he did and empathise with his previous (unenviable) situation.

Professor Severus Snape is a villain… until we learn the truth, and then we see him in a whole different light.

Have A Mother Wanting To Be Reunited With Her Children

A mother will do terrible things to save her children. It is totally understandable, and we admire a mother for doing what she must. In a story, one can take this further, even to the paranormal, as horror films have done. This is another way on how to make your villain sympathetic.

Example – Mama in Mama

In this 2013 paranormal horror film, the monstrous (ghost-like) Mama terrorises Maya (Jessica Chastain) and the two young girls that she is looking after, Victoria and Lily. At first, we just think Mama is like any other evil spirit, haunting them for the sake of it.

But then we learn Mama’s backstory. In life, Mama had her baby taken from her. She found her baby and took it back, before jumping off a cliff with the baby. Mama drowned, but the baby got stuck on some branches in a tree. As a result, in death, the mother and daughter were not together, and Mama rages to find the remains of her baby.

Once we realise that this is what Mama wants, we feel for her. What happened to her was cruel, and it only seems fair to give her what she wants. (Except, Mama now also wants Victoria and Lily to join her in death. Which is not okay!)

Make An Ominous Prophecy/Curse Hang Over Him

In the 21st-century, this one is a bit of stretch since people don’t generally believe in the words of a fortune teller or a witch like they did centuries ago. The world has moved on for a variety of reasons. Now, ‘fortune tellers’ and ‘witches’ are laughed at as charlatans and scammers.

Still, if you want to set your story in an ancient or medieval setting, then having a villain believe in a prophecy is a good way to enable your audience to understand the character better.

Example – Cersei Lannister

How to make your villain sympathetic - Cersei lannister has a curse or an ominous prophecy hanging over her
Throughout the series, Cersei fears an ominous prophecy coming true. This explains many of her terrible decisions.

In A Feast For Crows, the fourth volume in A Song of Ice & Fire, the villainous Cersei becomes a POV character. We learn that in childhood that she visited Maggy the Frog, a witch, who told her through blood magic:

  1. All three of her children would predecease her;
  2. She would become the Queen until one younger and more beautiful than her would take her position; and
  3. Her younger brother would strangle her to death.

Consequently, everything that Cersei has done in her life has been to stop the witch’s prophecy from coming true. She is ultraprotective of her children; has Margaery Tyrell imprisoned by the Faith Militant, so that she cannot challenge her position as queen; and urges Tyrion’s execution, believing that he will be the younger brother who Maggy prophesised will kill her.

The prophecy may not make us think any more highly of Cersei as a character. But it enables us to appreciate why Cersei acts the way she does. Moreover, we empathise with her desire to stop her terrible fate from coming true.

Thank You & My Two-Year Anniversary

Thank you for reading my blog post on how to make your villain sympathetic. I hope you enjoyed it, and that it helps to make the writing process a little easier for you as well. Let me know what you think of my tips in the comments below.

Furthermore, 1st April 2021 marked my two-year anniversary since I started blogging. It has been amazing so far, and I intend to continue blogging, among other things. I will discuss more about this anniversary in May when it marks my year anniversary on YouTube.


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