Sympathetic Villains

by Pommy

Question: I'm writing a story with a friend of mine for fun, but I'm feeling uneasy about the villain I made myself. She's supposed to be the character you feel sorry for who is doing villainy to pretty much survive, and I worry that, by making her more of a threat, I'd be downgrading the despair in her character. Any tips?

Answer: Obviously, not knowing the story, I can only comment in a general way.

That said, as the writer, you are free to stack the evidence for or against your character any way you choose. Sometimes this can be done via a subplot in the character's point of view, in which the reader discovers why this character behaves the way she does. Or you may be able to show how, in her current situation, she feels that she has no option but to act as she does - because of pressure from the people around her, etc.

Everybody has ways of justifying why they do what they do, even though someone else in the same situation might act completely differently - and with different justifications. It's often hard for people to see other options.

Most people can also name the things they feel would satisfy their drive - make them stop doing what they're doing. If you want your character to serve as a villain, and not undergo a redemption, then you
can't give her the thing that would satisfy her.

If you want the reader to have sympathy for the character, you might also consider giving her some redeeming qualities - perhaps qualities she has little avenue to express in her current situation.

A tragic ending to your character's story would also encourage the reader to have sympathy for her, so that the reader can feel that this is a wasted life.

For example, in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, the character Blanche is an intelligent woman, a teacher, who is unfortunately plagued with a desire for men which (it is implied) got her into trouble in her home town. Her reputation was shattered because she had an affair with a student. Throughout the play she is desperate to win a husband in order to satisfy her desire and give her the happiness, respectability, and security she needs to survive. (Sadly, her effort fails.) In the course of pursuing her goal, she comes close to ruining her sister's marriage (though much of the blame must also go to her brother-in-law). The play is carefully written so that the audience is torn between feeling sorry for Blanche and feeling like she deserves her horrible fate.

Of course, you have to decide how much time you will spend developing this character's story compared to your main character. (Sometimes characters can take over if you let them.)

Comments for Sympathetic Villains

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Sep 22, 2012
Sympathetic VIllains
by: Pommy

This is extremely helpful! Thank you so much!

Nov 05, 2012
by: Anonymous

The idea with sympathetic villains is to have them be partially sympathetic, but ultimately unable to gain our total sympathy. People are a mix of virtue and vice. But at one point they are going to have to let readers down to still be villains. You could make your character an antiheroine.

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