Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Concerning Sympathy and Villains

I'm currently revising a novel I started about five years ago, and I just got a comment that I should not make readers sympathetic to my villain. I'd like to hear others' thoughts on that, but here is my take: Villains exist not to take us out of ourselves, but to place us in ourselves.

Allow me to explain. A truly successful villain is not one who goes to the corner store and shoots someone for no reason or blows himself up in a bus for something we can't comprehend. A truly successful villain goes through a very long logical and emotional process and then reaches a conclusion with which the reader agrees but which revolts the reader at the same time.

A true villain is the person we can see in ourselves when we are at our darkest and most vulnerable. A truly successful villain forces a reader to look into the dark, unswept corners of his or her mind and agree with the monster which lives there while at the same time detesting its existence. This dynamic of agreeing with the most horrid thing in any given world causes the true hatred of a villain to form. Because who is a stronger critic of our own evil than ourselves?


  1. Hm, I agree with your view of a villain. I would also add that there has to be a certain amount of sympathy in order to make the villain real. Because, honestly there are few people in the world who would simply walk into a sore and shoot someone. But there are a lot of people out there who have been slighted one too many times, or a has a wound that has been opened to the point of no healing. These villains make the most believable, and yes, the most sympathetic. This is why I like villains such as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, or most of the Marvel Comic villains. Because they are real. Doc Ock isn't just a raving lunatic with metal arms, he had a path to get there. And one feels a little sorry for him.

    I think a lot of the readers' struggle (or mine at least) comes from wanting the villain to be done away with (face it, the story is *happier* without him right?), but also feeling guilty because you can't help them out of a situation that is self-made.

    Good question.

  2. Heydon, you're brilliant! A successful villain really does has a piece of all of us in him/her. Thanks for the insight and for starting a fabulous blog!

  3. I think you have some good insights, which I agree with.