Sympathy for a Good Villain

The Sympathetic Devil
The Sympathetic Devil

Bad Villains Blow Your Cover

A hero is only as good as their opposition, which is why their enemy has the power to bring down the entire story. Before card carrying villains can break your hero, they set their sights on the suspension of disbelief. If their motivation is world domination, who says they’ll stop at their own? They might make the transition into their writer’s reality.

How you ask? The monocle models, mustache twirlers, and glove rubbers, draw attention to their authors. The train track trespassers, the rope wranglers, and the damsel distressers, wink at the reader. The spark plug pinchers, the lever pullers, and the timer primers, blow their creator’s cover.

Every time the villain kills a henchman for no good reason, a light goes off in your reader’s brain. Every time their monologue reveals the details of their master plan, the reader questions your reasoning. Every time they choose the sinister option over the one that’s results driven, the reader wakes from your vision.

It’s good to have a clear antagonist, but you don’t want them to be transparent. Sometimes their desires are simply incompatible with the hero’s. Sometimes the hero and the villain share a common destination, only to differ on how to get there. Sometimes they start with the same beliefs only to have them tested by their environments.

Present your case against the antagonist, and let your audience come to their own conclusions. The subtler the evidence, the smarter they’ll feel for putting the pieces together. Too many reminders of who they’re rooting against will pull them out of the experience.

The skyscraper pacers, the power hoarders, and the top floor lorders, insult your audience’s intelligence. The quiet loners, the speech sputterers, and the monotone mutterers, spoil your twists. The police taunters, the body stackers, and the artistic killers, highlight how flimsy their basis in reality is.

Every time they laugh at their own quips, the reader flashes back to saturday morning cartoons. Every time they show up with skulls on, the reader flashes to Halloween costumes with pictures of the character on the front. Every time they play into a cultural stereotype, the reader doesn’t feel right.

When stock villains wander from production to production the audience is sure to spot a pattern.

Bullies in matching letter jackets transfer high schools, to stuff as many protagonists as possible into lockers. Men with loose ties and looser tongues are on a perpetual pub crawl, interrupting dates, baiting bachelors to brawl. Attackers in unseasonable wool caps tour back alleys, on a scavenger hunt for vigilantes.

They ought to recognize themselves in other stories.

Drewly Whiplash
Drewly Whiplash

What’s My Motivation, No Seriously?

As writers, sometimes we conspire with our baddies to drive our plots forward.

Gazing over the edge of the skyscraper, the screenwriter spun on his heel, “I know you don’t have a reason to do this, but I need you to abduct the hero’s love interest.”

Pacing the helicopter pad, the villain scratched the back of his head, “I’m more of a lawful evil person. I’d rather defeat him through litigation than harm his loved ones. I mean, if I’m the catalyst for everything that’s happening, shouldn’t my choices make more sense?”

Sighing, the screenwriter tented his fingers. “But we need to give the hero a reason to drive his motorcycle into the lobby, tear his way through the robot guards, empty a few clips into your henchmen,” he pointed to the roof access door, “Kick that down, and shoot you in the face.”

The villain made the universal sign for time out, “Wait, what? When did this become a video game? Why kill me? I’m not even armed.”

Widening his eyes, the screenwriter snapped his fingers, “You’ll snatch a gun off one of your boys and point it at the hero’s wife.”

A guard stepped forward to offer his sidearm.

Shaking his head, the villain pushed it away. “How would aiming a gun at the hero’s wife help me in anyway? I’m a billionaire, it’s his word against an army of lawyers.”

“He’s going to arrest you.”

“Let him. Billionaires make bail.”

The screenwriter ran his fingers through his hair, “Is it your name up on the marquee? No, it isn’t. This scene isn’t about you, okay. So quit your bitching and take your bullet like a champ.”

Sorry if this example spoiled the ending to a certain cybernetic policeman reboot, but it was my most recent reference for poorly motivated villainy.

3. Ghosting

Tyrants are Tattletales

Take a good look at your villain. Are they serving themselves, or are they slaves to a design? If they were under interrogation, could they tell us why they commit their crimes, or would they say, “It seemed evil at the time?”

What made them swerve off course? How were they seduced by the dark side of the force?

Poorly motivated characters have a talent for drawing attention to poor structure. They wrap Christmas lights around plot holes. They hang decorations from dangling threads. They ring bells at convenient coincidences. When you forget to payoff all your setups, they sit across from your reader with a package in the shape of Chekhov’s Gun.

While you try to keep your reader entranced, these villains snap their fingers in their face. Charging headlong into the forth wall, they break character. Chewing the scenery, they take the story down from within. They make their presence known, shattering illusions, and sabotaging sequels.

Poorly motivated characters stay with a story long after the thrilling conclusion. After the right brain does its song and dance, they sit on the left side criticizing it. After the applause, they set the buyer’s remorse in. They rain on the parade, raising awareness of unresolved questions.

The thinner your characters’ motivations, the more they fall apart upon examination.

"When I can, I prefer to eat the rude"
“When I can, I prefer to eat the rude”

Madness shouldn’t be so convenient

The audience doesn’t have to relate to every villains’ motivation. “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Chaotic evil is allowed to be a mystery. Sometimes it’s more frightening the less we understand. Sometimes horror arises from abstraction. Some kill for riches, rage, and revenge, others kill out of curiosity, just to see what will happen.

We can revel in the character’s madness without being compelled to share in it, but the moment you reveal their motivation, we develop expectations.

Characters should develop, but radical change requires radical reasons.

If the villain is a geneticist developing a serum for regenerating limbs, his mutation into a lizard man wouldn’t make him hell bent on spreading his newfound “perfection.” Sure his condition might make him do crazy things, like keep a video journal so he can talk to the audience, but if he’s lucid enough to make decisions, it’s hard to follow how he went from a healer to a mad scientist bent on creating an army of lizard men.

Now that we’re picking apart the Amazing Spiderman series; I’m still trying to figure out why a Spiderman fanboy would turn on his idol, for not recognizing him, after his electrical powers altered his skin tone.

“I’m disfigured, so I guess I should kill everyone.”

Madness shouldn’t be so convenient.

Was this article an excuse to to create this image?... Maybe
Was this article an excuse to to create this image?… Maybe

Sympathy for A Good Villain

The best villains think they’re going to get away with their actions, because life doesn’t function like a narrative. They know something we forget: reality is ambivalent to their bad behavior. Karma isn’t rerouting their path off a cliff. Fate isn’t looking over their shoulder. They don’t turn away from the injustice of civilization, they use it to absolve crimes of desperation.

If the hero thinks they’re in a light hearted action thriller, the villain thinks they’re the lead in something grittier. Their actions are justified by an insight the hero is too naive to see. They’re not just competing goals, they’re competing philosophies: not just romanticism versus cynicism, or existentialism versus determinism, but pragmatism versus realism.

These villains teach heroes truths they couldn’t learn on their own. They force good guys to refine their arguments. Their plights can be so compelling heroes might take them up after they’re gone, using their heroic means to reach a juster end.

My favorite villains are the ones painted in grey tones, the ones who are unaware of their status, the ones on the border of becoming anti-heroes, the ones whose redemption we cheer for, only to watch them break our hearts in the end. They hold our interest in the palm of their hands. We keep hoping that they’ll change for the better, but all they change is our expectations.

Good villains get our sympathy, especially when the trial for their soul teeters back and forth until the last page. It’s what separates characters from caricatures.

What better way to celebrate Hannibal getting a 3rd season than to turn myself into Will Graham's Antler Man hallucination.
What better way to celebrate Hannibal getting a 3rd season than to turn myself into Will Graham’s Antler Man hallucination?

28 thoughts on “Sympathy for a Good Villain”

  1. Hannibal is such a good example because it’s been done so many times now that it’s been done to death (cooked perhaps?) but it never ceases to horrify and push the boundaries when it comes to characters. Is someone actually capable of that kind of horror and would we really understand what goes on behind those cold eyes? I love when characters do things totally left of centre, with no rational but in creating it, you have to be able to picture it actually happening, or it just happens. I’d love to create an unexpected story with stock standard type characters. Would be so challenging!
    Love the last picture, seriously excited for the finale! Not entirely sure what I’ll do with my life afterwards, except enjoy all of the beautiful (yet so so disturbing) fan art! Or maybe rewatch 🙂

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    1. My friends and I can’t stop debating about the new Hannibal show. We love the characters, but it’s really hard to believe they live in a world populated by so many localized serial killers who all happen to have a similar artistic streak in the medium of flesh. We loved the antler man hallucinations early in the series when Will had a degenerative brain illness, but now that the condition has passed we’re wondering way antler man has stuck around.

      Their interoperation of Mason Verger, literally drinking children’s tears, might as well be twirling his mustache and tying damsels to train tracks.

      I still love their interpretation of Hannibal, with his cool exterior, calculated suggestive dialogue. He’s brilliant.

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  2. Great post. I love writing villains. I love hiding their little secrets throughout the plot. It is all too easy to fall into the traps you outline here though and I know I’ve got some hard work to do around my villain yet to ensure these things don’t happen.

    Great pictures as ever. I do believe the bubble pipe would look rather spiffing with the twirly moustache and monocle! 😉

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    1. I’ve been working on motivating the villains for my current WIP. They went from being driven by greed to being driven by revenge. You need a motivation that’s equal to their level of malice.

      Thanks for reading this.

      … the bubble pipe, why didn’t I think of that?

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  3. What made the Dark Knight iteration of the Joker work so well was that he was a force of nature, without an extensive, silly and ultimately unrewarding origin story (like the Lizard in TASM as you point out.) I think Mike Myers nailed the silliness of the overwritten “villain origin” with Dr. Evil’s speech in the first Austin Powers. This post does too.

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    1. TV Tropes has a fantastic list specifying the different types of evil villains; be they chaotic evil, our lawful evil. Many blockbuster baddies run the gamut through all of them, with no consistency or motive, as though their agenda the entire time was to bring down the narrative.

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  4. Great post, as always! “I’m disfigured, so I guess I should kill everyone.” Yes. That. Never understood it. Lol 🙂

    I think my favorite kind of villain is the villain who is witty, intelligent, maybe insane, and always straddles that line between good and evil by saving someone’s life, then ripping out someone else’s throat…to eat or whatever. Very much why I love Hannibal Lecter’s character! He is so fucking awesome. He is all those things. Oh and Professor Snape from Harry Potter. Deep down in my heart I always knew he was good, lol, even before it was finally revealed, but he was always such an asshole and it was never crystal clear whose side he was on. I also root for the joker in Dark Knight…if a villain makes me laugh, I can’t help but love them.

    I also like Jack from The Shining…not in the sense I root for him, I don’t, but it’s entertaining to watch his descent into madness. And you are absolutely right, “good villains get our sympathy,” which is what distinguishes the boring cookie cutter villain from the interesting, dynamic villain that is more complex than being simply pure evil to move the plot along.

    I also like the villians in 70s/80s slasher films, even though they aren’t very deep and just there to scare everyone…which is what makes them so fun. I love old horror films.

    My favorite point you made: “These villains teach heroes truths they couldn’t learn on their own. They force good guys to refine their arguments. Their plights can be so compelling heroes might take them up after they’re gone, using their heroic means to reach a juster end.”

    I have never seen this TV show Hannibal. If it’s on Netflix or Hulu, I may need to check it out. Sounds like something my sister and I would like.

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    1. The television version of Hannibal might be the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on TV, certainly network TV. It’s amazing what they get away with week after week. Standards and Practices have fallen asleep at the switch, which is part of the reason I love it. It is a absurd, how many creative killers they come across. I choose to think the show takes place in a heightened universe, where intelligent psychopaths grow on trees.

      The TV interpretation of Hannibal himself is less sympathetic so much as he’s fascinating. Though his behavior is erratic, his motives make sense in the manner he is defined. You root for him on a scene for scene basis.

      As far as those classic slashers go, part of their brilliance is they don’t tell us what keeps the killers going. They keep it simple, which keeps us guessing. There’s less for us to poke holes through. I’m a sucker for all of those.

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      1. This Hannibal show sounds even more like something my sister would like. Intelligent psychopaths growing on trees…damn, I am really curious now, that sounds both disturbing and fascinating.

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      2. The music and the editing make the show feel like a fever dream, that and the surplus of hallucinatory imagery. It’s a show stitched together from nightmares

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    1. Thank you so much. I knew you’d like the first one. I wish I had time to do more of these. I’d like to do one Photoshopped costume a day for the month of October, leading up to Halloween.

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      1. Haha! Yes, I remember the conversation about a possible pic of you gluing those onto your head, so I laughed as soon as I saw it. Awesome.

        Yes, Halloween costumes!!! You should do a poll and let your readers pick what we want you to dress up as 🙂 Or take suggestions…or just surprise us. Lol 🙂

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      2. It’s my favorite too!!! I always have a Michael Myers marathon (except #3…so bad) while eating lots of candy, popcorn and hot chocolate, dress up in a kickass costume, prance about in the chill fall wind celebrating the autumn leaves, beginning of football season, and the start of the holiday season 🙂 Dammit…now I’m all excited. Haha!

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  5. I agree that the movie version of Electro isn’t a great villain, but I think he had the potential had he been a bit more of a slow-burner. The movie shows that he’s unstable–that no one knows him. He becomes a Spider-Man fanboy because Spidey is the first to acknowledge his individual worth (albeit in passing). We see the guy swooning over Spidey and almost worshiping the guy, but maybe it’s not long enough. Maybe we don’t see the character enough before he is transformed to understand him, but I don’t think we’re supposed to understand him. His pain is of the outcast. He can only be ignored for so long before he lashes out (either at himself or someone else).

    Also, the Spider-Man universe is a different place from Nolan’s Gotham. Spidey’s New York is a glossier place that feels flatter. Maybe it’s on purpose? It definitely feels on purpose in the more recent Amazing Spider-Man run. At least Raimi’s Spider-Man spent time on people.

    I enjoyed the post, though. First time reader. Looking forward to reading more.

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    1. Thanks for reading.

      You’re right Spiderman’s New York doesn’t need to be Nolan’s Gotham. Spiderman’s heroics ought to be fun. His universe is forgiven a bit of camp here and there.

      My main problem with where they’ve taken Spiderman has to do with the boardroom slipping notes to the screenwriters. Sony saw Marvel’s success with the Avengers and they want to make spin-off and crossover movies of their own. They just don’t want to space them out or justify them, so they bogged down Spiderman’s movie with another trio of underdeveloped villains who really do play out like cartoon characters.

      I agree Electro, even in this form, had potential to make sense, but here he ducked out of the film for long 30 minute stretches, just like Sandman in Spiderman 3. The film would’ve been better if it was only about Electro and Spiderman, then we moved onto the Goblin and the Rhino.

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      1. Now, villain gluttony is something I definitely think Spider-Man guilty of. It’s a bit of a “sins of the fathers” situation now…especially since it seems we’re moving toward a Sinister Six film. THAT is too many villains.

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  6. I enjoy the villains that don’t let us know why they are evil. This makes them seem less human, but more powerful. I want to see their madness in action, but don’t want to know what’s hiding behind the curtain. Great article.

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    1. Glad you liked it. I did like that they never fully explained why the Joker was the way he was in The Dark Knight, and that every explanation he gave was a lie. In that case his mystique was preferable to a spelled out explanation of his motivation.

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