Friday, 4 November 2011

Are your villains too sympathetic?

I find unremittingly evil villains boring. Take Voldemort, for instance - what does he get out of life, what motivates him? What does he do in the long winter evenings? He must, surely, get fed up with thinking up ways of being nasty to people and gaining world domination 24/7. Doesn't he ever fancy going out for a pizza and a film?

I tend to err on the other side. In my first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation,  the baddie Skardroft became so sympathetic I had to introduce a further baddie, Corfe, who as a torturer was hard to like. But I have to say, in the sequel, I feel sorry for Corfe as he attempts to continue his evil ways after suffering well-deserved head injuries...

There is an interesting discussion on this topic on Kindleboards. The suggestions of how to make your baddie sympathetic, but still evil, are so insightful I'm going to quote them here:
  • My current WIP is a fantasy, and my villain became so cool, charismatic, and *sympathetic* that he was dominating the whole story! The problem was - I think - that we had too much of his POV.  We saw too much of his thoughts and related to him too strongly.  I went back and either cut his POV scenes, or rewrote them from another POV. And suddenly - voilĂ  - he became scary again.  He's still a very charismatic villain, but he's clearly a villain. Sandra Miller
  • I always get into the heads of my villains and yes, their self-justification can be surprisingly effective. I wouldn't consider this a drawback, however. A richly drawn, slightly sympathetic villain is a wonderful detail to include in your novel. Michael Wallace
  • Sympathetic is fine; what is important is fear. The reader might understand and even sympathize with a villain but when that villain is in the same room as the protagonist there needs to be fear, uncertainty about what that villain might do. It's that fear and uncertainty in the heart of the reader that makes a villain effective and if the villain is also sympathetic that's even better. KM Johnson-Weider
  • To create a good villain, you have to be willing to completely, utterly, irrevocably damage the lives of characters you love. Otherwise, you're just having guys wave around guns with blanks instead of bullets. David Dalglish
  • The uncertainty has to be there.  I think what I need to do now is make something happen to throw the readers the other way again.  So you thought you understand this person? Think again! Several people have commented that it's best to keep the villain off-stage as well, at least initially.   The monster in the shadows is scarier than the one you can see, as long as you also see the bodies strewn around. Masha DuToit
I think I'm getting better at writing convincing but dislikeable villains. One reviewer commented about Sir Peter Ellis in Replica: ' the oily and cold-blooded boss is totally believable'. That'll do me.


  1. Oh it must be so tiring being a villain 24/7!! LOL! I'd like to think they have time for a nice cup of tea every so often!

    Thanks for the tips on how to make villains authentic and complex!!

    Take care

  2. Hi There Lexi... What a star you are? Just listened to you talking about your books on Radio 4 You & yours. You sound just how I told you would. :-)

  3. Kitty, if only JK Rowling had shown us Voldemort putting his feet up with a nice cup of tea, it would have added that certain je ne sais quoi to our view of him.

    Jamara, I have not yet nerved myself to listen to the interview. I am always taken aback by the way I sound...

  4. You were on Radio 4? That's fabulous!

    Interesting post, btw.

  5. Hi Oracle! You and Yours contacted me after I left a comment, voted the most unpopular, on a Daily Mail article about evil Amazon:

    I biked to the BBC for a quick interview with Peter White - so nice to meet someone you feel you know from the radio. A very interesting experience, and I'd do it better next time :o)

  6. Radio interview? Really? How do I listen to it?

    Back to bad guys (or gals). I'm with you on the one dimensional issue. If they've got nothing to offer but mean and nasty they are boring. I like it when they are also funny, or vulnerable in some way or obsessive about something weird or, like Shakespeare's Richard III, are completely aware of their wicked nature and have a bit of fun with it.

  7. Your last sentence sums it up, Alan - in fact, you make me want to write a new villain now, and I would except I'm in bed, soon to turn out the light.

    Obsessive about something weird...

  8. Good night! I'm off to see if I can find your BBC interview.

  9. I loved the villain in the first Torbrek book! I thought he was quite nasty enough to be scary and his love of family added just the right amount of ambivalence - you couldn't full out hate him and in a way that made him scarier.

  10. I'm fond of Skardroft. At one point I was tempted to have Tor rescue him at the end of the book, thus making an enemy of the Hundred Knights and becoming a renegade. Skardroft wouldn't have settled down to a sequestered retirement, and the sequel would have been much darker. I didn't want that.

    That discarded bit of plot gets a mention when Tor and Barlanik talk on the battlements.

  11. Fear and uncertainty has to be true. I'm off to see how my villain(s) are doing in the fear and uncertainty stakes.

    The human element is important too. I think that's why Alan Rickman always manages to portray such menacing villains.

  12. Another thing worth remembering is that in the villain's mind, he is the hero.

    Jason Black has a very good post on the topic here:

  13. I think villains often become the star of a narrative. I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "too sympathetic villain." I think if the villain is very sympathetic, it just adds all kinds of tasty nuances to the story (especially when he or she is ultimately crushed). I think the really cool trick is to make the villain both sympathetic and totally twisted (the joker?).

  14. The Joker doesn't work for me, especially played by Jack Nicholson. But I'm with you on sympathetic villains - I've changed my mind since writing the post.

    I suppose The Day of the Jackal has the villain as the hero. I certainly wanted him to get De Gaulle...

  15. Yes - the best villians are the ones you can relate to or feel sympathy for. The fear might be lost when they're up front but another kind of fear replaces it - the reader's fear of 'agreeing with' or even 'rooting for' the villian. I'm talking about the 'there but for the grace of god go I' villians that have very good reasons for doing what they do. Reasons that make you think you could do that if you were in that terrible position.

    My favorite baddies to love are the ones whose day goes horribly awry. Since we can all relate to that, I find myself wishing the bad guy could catch just one break and then freaking out at myself for rooting for him!

    It's devilishly fun.

  16. For some reason, Blogger took against your comment and whisked it off to Spam to teach it a lesson.

    I think there's a lot to be said for everyone in a novel, good and bad, having terrible days. Makes for a more entertaining read...