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How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?

09 Apr 2019 22:03 #63665 by Silhouette
While working on my pending story, I pondered whether or not to create a "sympathetic" villain.

The truth is... I kind of don't like sympathetic villains from a strictly storytelling perspective. I have no problem with how ordinary people turn into villains but "gray-area" villains have always troubled me because the emphasis should always be on the hero. People always gravitate to your most sympathetic character and if you give a villain any amount of sympathy, it takes away from the hero.

I know that some people will always root for the villain no matter how evil you write them; It's just in their nature. After all, there's a certain percentage of people who think that the Earth is flat and that the moon landings are a hoax (oh, please, I don't want to get into a discussion about those two topics...). Yet people seem to like "sympathetic" villains because they're "realistic" (as in, "Oh, she's a villain but she's really just misunderstood!").

It's a real challenge for me because without a good "bad villain," you can't have a good "good hero." I have my own ideas how to "sympathy-proof" villains even if they have some events in their life that are sympathetic but I want to know what everyone else's thoughts on the topic are. Thanks.

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09 Apr 2019 22:16 #63666 by shadar

Silhouette wrote: While working on my pending story, I pondered whether or not to create a "sympathetic" villain.

The truth is... I kind of don't like sympathetic villains from a strictly storytelling perspective. I have no problem with how ordinary people turn into villains but "gray-area" villains have always troubled me because the emphasis should always be on the hero. People always gravitate to your most sympathetic character and if you give a villain any amount of sympathy, it takes away from the hero.

I know that some people will always root for the villain no matter how evil you write them; It's just in their nature. After all, there's a certain percentage of people who think that the Earth is flat and that the moon landings are a hoax (oh, please, I don't want to get into a discussion about those two topics...). Yet people seem to like "sympathetic" villains because they're "realistic" (as in, "Oh, she's a villain but she's really just misunderstood!").

It's a real challenge for me because without a good "bad villain," you can't have a good "good hero." I have my own ideas how to "sympathy-proof" villains even if they have some events in their life that are sympathetic but I want to know what everyone else's thoughts on the topic are. Thanks.


I don't think you should make a villain someone we sympathize with. They should be evil and nasty and horrible and lethally dangerous. But it is good to make the villain a bit complex. Their goals or their motivations or the things that made them evil should be interesting to the readers, but whatever happened, they should now have a black heart and should be someone we'd really like taken down. 

While I think redemption is a great topic -- its one of my all-time favorite themes in life -- it's hard to really do that well in anything less than a novella-length work. Short stories don't get to deal with all the "how they change over time, or remain steadfast" kind of character growth stuff.

But once you get to 30,000 words or larger, there's room to do a fair bit of character evolution.

Or if you use the same character in many stories, and then you can show how they change over time based on experiences or events and people.  

tl;dr: Bad ass villains who excel at evil and dangerous threats are best for short stories, which mostly focus on the hero being heroic. Or the villain doing villainy stuff. 

IMHO

Shadar

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10 Apr 2019 00:46 #63669 by erikphandel
Replied by erikphandel on topic How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?
If I may, I think you misunderstand why people root for the villain. I believe people root for the villains when the heroes are too boring. There's lots of good examples of this in professional wrestling, with the most famous being The Rock (who was booed until he turned villain because he was too boring), and John Cena,(against which whoever is fighting him will always be praised unless he's using his rapper persona). I honestly don't think it has anything to do with maliciousness or stupidity from the audience

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10 Apr 2019 03:29 #63670 by d_k_c
A sympathetic villain is simply a realistic villain. People aren’t bad for the sake of being bad. No one ever said, I want to join the Nazi party because of how evil they are. So give your bad guy some real motivation, don’t be a lazy writer. 
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10 Apr 2019 09:12 #63676 by Woodclaw

d_k_c wrote: A sympathetic villain is simply a realistic villain. People aren’t bad for the sake of being bad. No one ever said, I want to join the Nazi party because of how evil they are. So give your bad guy some real motivation, don’t be a lazy writer. 


Actually there are a number of people that think like that. Usually they're as****es who use "evil is cool" as an excuse to hide some other problem or goal.

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10 Apr 2019 10:17 #63678 by conceptfan
Replied by conceptfan on topic How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?
Never avoid writing a "Sympathetic" villain.  Or hero.  Or minor character.

Human beings are complex and flawed whether they are batting for the good guys or the bad guys or they are watching the game or just walking
obliviously past the stadium.  Every character should be "sympathetic"
in some way.

The more sympathetic characters you can have, the more you can draw in your readers.

Never underestimate or patronise your readers.  Don't confuse these two unrelated facts: a) Some people have different tastes/preferences.    b) A small number of people are unintelligent.

Usually, when the villain distracts from the hero it means the hero is boring.  I've seen it in films where the villain is a better/more convincing actor than the hero.  If you want to achieve a strong balance towards the hero, make your villain  "sympathetic" and your hero twice as "sympathetic".

Why do people write stories?  Surely it's to entertain?

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10 Apr 2019 13:43 #63681 by Woody
When it comes to sympathetic villains I'm reminded of the phrase "history is written by the winner"

I'm in your boat and writing my first real villain at the moment as well. Like your hero you need to work out what their motivations are. 

They will be inherently working towards their own often misguided justice or reasoning. What you need to decide is if you want to reader to see merit in their cause. If they can relate to that then the sympathy will come as a natural by product of that. if their cause is to volatile to garner that support then that's when people will root for the hero to take them down

Back to the phrase your writing a losing cause from the outset for this character. the question you need to ask is what is that characters legacy?

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10 Apr 2019 14:00 #63682 by Pepper
A good story has characters who are relatable, even if they're not sympathetic.  I think very few people consider themselves evil, and the whole "kneel before me, insignificant mortals" approach just doesn't do a thing for me.  But plenty of people believe that they're good even while doing evil things.  We do have a great capacity for self-deception, even self-delusion.  Someone who robs a bank can believe that they're entitled to the money.  Someone who kidnaps and enslaves another person can believe they're doing it for their captive's own good.  Someone who overthrows a government believes they'll be a more just and fair ruler, once they root out and kill everyone loyal to the old regime.

I can think of stories that did that kind of thing well.  Good villains are understandable, and are more threatening because of it.

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10 Apr 2019 14:46 #63683 by shadar
Example: Lex Luthor in recent episodes of Supergirl

He’s not a sympathetic hero, but he’s a complex one who is so incredibly accomplished at being a villain that he’s always a step ahead of the other characters, and the viewer. 

Yet the seeds of his own destruction are within him. That’s his tragedy.

One can respect him without having the slightest shred of sympathy. He’s utterly evil and concerned only with himself. He kills without remorse.

Sometimes sympathy gets confused with complexity and skill, and even respect, IMHO.

Shadar.

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11 Apr 2019 14:25 #63700 by ace191
Great thread!  One of my favorite things is conflict for the hero.  Great Villans manipulate Heroes into making bad or selfish choices.  Lex Luthor is about to kill Lois Lane, but he has also just released posion gas at the orphanage.  What does Superman do?  Save 100 kids or save Lois? Either way he loses. Then the Villian can rant, “Now you know how I felt when I was a kid and had to chose between saving my sister or my parents from our burning house.”  The world is not black or white, but rather,
many shades of grey.

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11 Apr 2019 15:58 #63702 by ChaozCloud
Replied by ChaozCloud on topic How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?
I don't neccessarily think a good villain needs to be relatable or sympathetic, as long as they are interesting.

For example, King Joffrey, Frieza and the Joker. Neither of them are especially relatable or sympathetic but they are all interesting. Their brand of unapologetic evil and charisma keeps you interested in them and even better yet, when they finally gets taken down it feels great.
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14 Apr 2019 04:18 #63721 by Jabbrwock
Replied by Jabbrwock on topic How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?
If you don't want readers to sympathize too much - or at all - with your villains, don't spend much time showing them why they should.

Villains do bad things. Given the power levels we like to read about here at SWM, they typically ramp it up to horrible and monstrous things. Also here at SWM, people will enjoy and like any character who is a super-powered sexy woman. I'm assuming you're not planning to do anything to avoid that last point, so you're at a disadvantage from the start. But you can still do some things to at least try to get them rooting for the heroine, especially if she is also a super-powered sexy woman.

First, don't spend too much time showing the villain being, well, not villainous. Don't have her helping old ladies across the street, saving children from runaway trains, or petting stray dogs. She's a villain. She needs to be robbing banks, murdering anybody who gets in her way, or wrecking things just for the pure fun of wrecking things. And if she has some kind of noble or admirable goal, make it pretty clear that she's taken it to an extreme that is entirely deranged.

Second, don't dwell too much of the heroine's flaws unless those flaws are in their own way sympathetic. People like heroes to be heroic. It's fine if she takes the edge off the stress of saving the world every day with a good stiff drink, but not if she goes out every night, gets smashed, and wrecks the bar. Roughing up some criminals as she is stopping them from committing a crime, OK. Murdering them in cold blood, not so much. Using her super powers to help her do a good job at work, OK. Using them to sabotage and ruin her rivals at work, not so much. She doesn't need to be perfect, just don't make her petty, vindictive, or uncaringly destructive. Those are villainous traits.

Nobody becomes evil for the sake of being evil, but people become evil nonetheless. Often not out of any great purpose, but just because they don't care enough to bother being good. Most of the worst people I've met just can't be troubled at all with caring about the consequences their actions inflict on other people.
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14 Apr 2019 14:23 #63723 by Thefirstone
Replied by Thefirstone on topic How to Avoid Writing "Sympathetic" Villains...?
Personally I don’t think having sympathetic villains is a bad thing.  For instance Salem from RWBY is probably my favorite villain in the show because of her sympathetic qualities.

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15 Apr 2019 15:42 #63728 by Akane
Sympathetic villains aren't actually better than un-sympathetic ones and viceversa.

The only important things to have in mind when writing a good villain is how much charisma and presence they possess, alongside a fun personality and how much they affect the plot and the protags.

Everything else is like adding some candy over your ice cream. It's good but some people just prefer it vanilla for certain stories,

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19 Apr 2019 17:39 #63772 by Woodclaw
Something very relevant to this thread.


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19 Apr 2019 19:07 #63774 by shadar
That video was perfect, Woodclaw.  Anyone creating a villain should study it.  

Clearly, pure evil villains can be great if done right (like Disney once did), but complicated villains are a different kettle of fish and can also be done right. The trick isn’t to mix them. 

Also, we are in a particular phase of cultural sensitivity where bad guys need to be complex. Villains need to have sympathetic backstories and to be redeemable and not just destroyed.

But that wasn’t always true, nor is it likely to be true in the future. The question is whether you write for the cultural perceptions of the time, or just write whatever the heck you want. 

The trick is to understand what makes a good villain work in YOUR story.

Shadar

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19 Apr 2019 21:50 #63780 by Woodclaw
My personal rules to write a good villain are.

Be consistent with the scope.
Not all villains are created equal, but there's nothing worse than using a potential Doctor Doom style megalomaniac for a small scale story or trying to make an insignificant character into the center of a massive epic. It's not impossible (Geoff Jones did it with William Hand during Blackest Night), but it's extremely hard.

Understandable Motivations
One of my favorite villains in the MCU Phase 1 was Obadiah Stane in the first Iron Man, because he had a really simple, but by no means simplistic motivation: he had worked his ass off for years to keep the Stark Industries at the top of the world and he wasn't keen to relinquish command because Tony had a change of heart. That's a perfect motivation, it's clear, consistent with the scope of the character and set up a nice conflict with the hero.

Make It Relevant to the Plot
Unless your villain is some kind of unseen overseer, like the Emperor for most of the original Star Wars trilogy, he/she must be introduced - and possibly showcased later in ways that are relevant to the plot in some way shape or form, at least at first. Back to Star Wars the introduction of Darth Vader at the beginning of A New Hope is perfect, in a comparatively brief scene he is introduced in a way that develops the plot (forcing Leia to hide the projects of the Death Star), establish his role (as the long arm of the Emperor) and set the stage for future interactions so that don't look forced or out of place.

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20 Apr 2019 02:00 #63782 by shadar

Woodclaw wrote: My personal rules to write a good villain are.

3rg 
Make It Relevant to the Plot
Unless your villain is some kind of unseen overseer, like the Emperor for most of the original Star Wars trilogy, he/she must be introduced - and possibly showcased later in ways that are relevant to the plot in some way shape or form, at least at first. Back to Star Wars the introduction of Darth Vader at the beginning of A New Hope is perfect, in a comparatively brief scene he is introduced in a way that develops the plot (forcing Leia to hide the projects of the Death Star), establish his role (as the long arm of the Emperor) and set the stage for future interactions so that don't look forced or out of place.


What is interesting about Star Wars is that we have both kind of villains perfectly demonstrated. 

The Emperor is the simple, unsympathetic pure evil bad guy. He loves being a villain (listen to his cackles) and he is not redeemable or complex or conflicted or anything else. And like a perfect "pure evil" villain, he's really scary and gets seriously into killing anyone who disobeys him or is a threat. He loves to blast them with his lightning, reveling in their agony and death. He's a monster.

In contrast, Darth Vader is revealed as a classic sympathetic villain. And given that
the core struggle of all the movies he appears in is between he and his son, it make sense that he's complex and sympathetic. He has feelings, and they betray him. He's not a monster, but he's a very good villain. 

Shadar

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20 Apr 2019 09:19 #63784 by Woodclaw

shadar wrote: What is interesting about Star Wars is that we have both kind of villains perfectly demonstrated. 

The Emperor is the simple, unsympathetic pure evil bad guy. He loves being a villain (listen to his cackles) and he is not redeemable or complex or conflicted or anything else. And like a perfect "pure evil" villain, he's really scary and gets seriously into killing anyone who disobeys him or is a threat. He loves to blast them with his lightning, reveling in their agony and death. He's a monster.

In contrast, Darth Vader is revealed as a classic sympathetic villain. And given that
the core struggle of all the movies he appears in is between he and his son, it make sense that he's complex and sympathetic. He has feelings, and they betray him. He's not a monster, but he's a very good villain. 

Shadar


I think that Vader became a sympathetic villain only after the big reveal in Empire Stikes Back, before that point he was a much more mysterious and figure. He was portrayed as the last known Force-user in the galaxy, he was the evil sorcerer of the story.

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20 Apr 2019 13:38 #63785 by shadar

Woodclaw wrote:

shadar wrote: What is interesting about Star Wars is that we have both kind of villains perfectly demonstrated. 

The Emperor is the simple, unsympathetic pure evil bad guy. He loves being a villain (listen to his cackles) and he is not redeemable or complex or conflicted or anything else. And like a perfect "pure evil" villain, he's really scary and gets seriously into killing anyone who disobeys him or is a threat. He loves to blast them with his lightning, reveling in their agony and death. He's a monster.

In contrast, Darth Vader is revealed as a classic sympathetic villain. And given that
the core struggle of all the movies he appears in is between he and his son, it make sense that he's complex and sympathetic. He has feelings, and they betray him. He's not a monster, but he's a very good villain. 

Shadar


I think that Vader became a sympathetic villain only after the big reveal in Empire Stikes Back, before that point he was a much more mysterious and figure. He was portrayed as the last known Force-user in the galaxy, he was the evil sorcerer of the story.


Agreed, he seemed 'totally evil' at first, but as we came to understand him over the span of the middle episodes, he became fully formed as a "sympathetic" villain. He was complex and had nuances and weaknesses.  The Emperor never changed. 

Or course, that didn't stop Vader from remaining a serious bad-ass villain, but now we understood his motivations and him "human-ness" a little. 

Which allowed him to remain a powerful and interesting character who underwent changes, while the Emporer was just a "totally evil" monster. Star Wars would not have worked with only the Emperor as the major villain for such a long and involved story. But he might have been perfect for a shorter one. 

I love cross-universe stories, and would love to read a story about a young Kryptonian or Velorian, just coming into her powers, who has to fight the darkside Force and the Emporer, in a Star Wars setting, to save a member of her family who the Emporer is corrupting to try and make him a wweapon for his own use. 

Shadar

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