These can be interesting if done right, but you have to be very careful. Sympathetic Villains, as mentioned in the last post, are usually villains who hate themselves, or hate what they’ve become, but they don’t see a way to change. The change usually comes through some intervention on the part of a hero, but not always.
There are right and wrong ways of doing this, and what is right or wrong to you will depend on what fundamental views you hold on the nature of evil. I can only give you advice based on what my views are, but ultimately, tell the story you want to tell as it makes sense in your mind.
The Sympathetic Villain is a pattern in storytelling these days where we see someone we would hold as being inherently evil, but they are not what they seem. They do unspeakable things to innocent people and seem to feel no remorse for it, or they actually feel joy from it, and we as the audience tend to hate them and want to see them punished.
Then the storyteller flips it around on us and shows us something the character had been through sometime before, some sort of horrible childhood or even a single experience or years of experience that desensitized them to those horrors and now, as a direct result, they inflict suffering on others without a twinge of conscience. The audience is then left wondering what real evil is, or if there even is such a thing, if apparently anybody can be turned.
Personally, I disagree with any story that implies that a person is evil only because of what’s been done to them. Feel free to disagree with me – this is just my own personal take. There may be historically documented accounts of that principle at work, and I won’t discount that, but I also don’t think we hear often enough about the accounts of men and women who have been put through tremendous suffering and persecution just because of their beliefs, and have refused to change into what their enemy wanted. I’m thinking of course of missionary martyrs, but I know there are other examples. I’m not denying that people have breaking points, but breaking is not the same as conforming.
As I see it, there are two kinds of people in the world, when it comes to suffering and how they respond to it: There are those who experience intense suffering and then try to bring balance to their world by doing whatever they can to inflict the same suffering on others, and there are those who experience intense suffering and try to bring balance to the world by doing whatever they can to avoid others having to go through the same kind of suffering.
Obviously, intentional jerks are the first kind. Life screwed them over, so now they screw over everyone else, which in their minds is what everyone else deserves after what’s happened to them. Then there are all the people (both real and fictional) who excuse the fact that they’re rapists by saying that they were sexually abused as a child. Some people are sexually abused as children and don’t grow up to be rapists – they grow up to work for Child Protection Services. They take preventative measures instead of spreading the suffering.
So how to properly write a sympathetic villain? I would say the best examples are those who do something wrong without realizing how much they will come to hate themselves as a result of the path they’ve chosen. This is the case with Gollum. He murdered his friend for a ring. There is no excusing that. He deserves some kind of punishment. But to become a slave to the ring for hundreds of years (a little under a millennium if I remember correctly) cut off from the sun and eating dirty fish and goblins, sounds like possibly a worse fate than even what he deserved. The death sentence may have been more merciful had he been caught, but the ring enabled him to hide and thereby prolong his suffering.
Monsters are a different kind of character than simply a Villain, because Villains are generally held responsible for the damage they cause because of the choices they make. But Monsters, traditionally speaking, are simply the way they are, naturally, instinctively, without any choices to make on the matter. They do not do what they do out of evil intent or misguided beliefs, they simply do it because it’s what they are, and nobody blames them for it. This is the case with King Kong and Godzilla. It’s like a force of nature.
It’s like in a disaster movie where nature has gone haywire and sends earthquakes and tornadoes to destroy cities. The people in the film hardly blame the storm for doing what a storm naturally does. Nature is not the villain. But in some disaster movies the storm is “caused” by the unnatural work of scientists prioritizing business and profit over safety, and those people are considered the real villains. The storm is just a result of the villains’ actions. Godzilla was created by nuclear explosions, so the real villain is man.
In some cases the Monster makes a connection with a child or something, and then chooses to fight the villains in order to protect civilians. So it is possible for monsters to become heroes. Many Monsters are considered pure-hearted anyway, especially if they’re simply animals.
Other examples of Monsters…
My next post will talk about one of the most hated (or loved) villain types of all – The Doosh.
Godzilla photo Attribution: Bandai Namco Entertainment America under Creative Commons
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.