Sympathy for the Devil

First of all, the WordPress app has somehow gotten even worse.

Second, thanks to Alexander Hellene (@AHelleneAuthor on Twitter) for this gem:

I’d like to expand on his theme a bit. First of all, the villain is wrong, or he’s not really a villain. But why he is wrong is important. Usually, the sympathetic villain is right about a problem, but his SOLUTION is wrong. His reason for villainous behavior is entirely understandable. Thanos thinks he’s preventing universal suffering. Magneto thinks he’s saving his people from genocide. Contrast with e.g. John Wick’s villains, who want to run a criminal empire, or who are simply stupid and malicious. Nobody sympathizes with High Table crime bosses, or puppy killers. But the comic book villains kill far more people than the assassin-fantasy gangsters, and in more horrific ways. So why do people like them more?

Motivation and respectability.

The villain who employs evil for noble ends is relatable. Most of us, if we’re being honest, can imagine a situation that would drive us to do horrible things to people, or can at least understand why the villain has been driven to it. Many tragic stories begin with a hero doing what he thinks he must, and end with him as a villain, laid low by his own evil methods. He may realize that he has fallen (Bane: I am a necessary evil), he may not (Ozymandias), but either way he is usually unwilling to change. The end of a hero’s fall story is the beginning of his villain arc in another hero’s tale.

This brings us to the issue of respectability, the other component of the sympathetic villain. “Cool” villains aren’t broken or lashing out, but have considered their options and decided that villainy is the best or only, way. Darth Vader was much more popular when he was the stone cold executioner for the galactic empire than when Lucas turned him into emo teenager shouting “IT’S NOT FAIR!” Even when he’s doing horrible things, the villain should display admirable qualities: the erudition of Hannibal Lecter, Killmonger’s loyalty to his people, Col Jessup’s unwavering dedication to the defense of his nation. The only thing Col Jessup did wrong was losing his bearing on the witness stand.

Personally, I like the idea of writing a villain who is cool (but evil) from the moment he is introduced, and later reveals his motivation. I never want him to reach “misunderstood hero” status, merely “oh, THAT’S why he’s the way he is.” And I want to write a villain who is neither cool, nor motivated by anything noble, to provide contrast. I feel the conflict between the two provides much of the distinction, and encourages you to hate the latter even if the former gets more attention as an antagonist.

You’re dressing all in black
From your front to your back
And all your evil ways
They seem to go on for days
and as a matter of fact…

– Powerman 5000, Super Villain

4 thoughts on “On Villainy

  1. Great post!

    “First of all, the villain is wrong, or he’s not really a villain. But why he is wrong is important. Usually, the sympathetic villain is right about a problem, but his SOLUTION is wrong.”

    This is the crux of the matter when it comes to writing these types of “cool” or complex villains. If you’re going for someone who’s just a scumbag a la your example of the John Wick baddies, cool; you can do that too. It works. Those types of villains can be plenty memorable as well.

    But I suppose it all depends on if you want to write something that is way heavier on the end of being plot-driven as opposed to character-driven. My answer to this alleged conundrum is usually, “Why not both?”


    1. I am also unwilling to sacrifice plot or character, when they are in no way mutually exclusive. Of course, setting a really high bar for myself is part of why this book is taking so long to write, but I think it will be worth it in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

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