Do you remember 1980s cartoons? A lot of them are being remade, but I remember a day when villains were just bad guys who did bad things. I’m still a fan of those villains in the right circumstance. Horror movies (most of them) follow that format still.
However, over the last, I’d say, ten years, readers and moviegoers have had a higher standard. They want sympathetic villains. Now, this isn’t exactly a “new” trend. I’d even admit that most great stories had sympathetic villains. Now, I know I’ve talked about sympathy sliders, but in this case I honestly mean villains I understood and felt a connection to.
I feel this has become the standard. What I’ve tried to do is think about situations where the reader demands a connection to the villain as opposed to those situations where they don’t care so much.
This is honestly just me musing on the subject, and I’d be interested to hear your comments below.
My thesis: The more they see the villain, the more the reader wants to understand him.
Jon Doe from Se7en. He’s the shadow in the dark. He’s the mysterious monster who we never even see until the last act of the movie. So when we finally come face to face, he’s a monster. That’s because this story is about Somerset and Mills. We get to know them. We care for them. A lot of mysteries follow this format (of course some don’t). The point is, I’ve never once talked to anyone about this movie and heard that person say, “that movie was terrible. I really couldn’t understand John Doe’s motivation.” That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but we don’t see him a lot, so we really don’t care what his side is. We just want Mills to put that gun down.
As I think, I’d posit that this style is most common in mysteries and thrillers. When the capture of the villain is the main plot thread. Again, there are exceptions, but the point is you can have a huge hit with a villain no one understands, so long as we don’t have to keep interacting with him. Short fiction where the bad guy is one to be chased and captured seems acceptable.
This is less true with larger works. It’s rare in epic fantasy to have a villain who isn’t at least understandable. But let’s take a look at two huge successes and see what distinguishes them.
The Lord of the Rings:
Sure, we understand the motivation. Get the ring; rule the world. But it’s not like we find ourselves ever feeling for the great eye do we? Also note, that eye and all his minions have less than ten percent of the story. This does a few things. It amps up the mystery and the threat. In fact, Wheel of Time shows us that the more we see the villain, the less imposing they are. In Eye of the World, Myrddraal are just horrifying. But after a few more books, we’re not so afraid of them anymore. We only THOUGHT they were imposing, but the Forsaken! Sure, in books 2-5. Now what Jordan did with that problem is he made them more sympathetic. So the Myrddrall are just made to be minions. The Forsaken, however, begin to get personal chapters, strife and pain. I love the series, but I can admit this was a bit hit or miss. The point is, the reader learns about them, and there’s opportunity for some degree of understanding.
Here’s where I admit that I’m struggling to think of a case where the villain is known. They’re out there, but it’s a challenge. The challenge is because while there is opposition to the main character, that opposition isn’t the main threat of the book. The main opposition isn’t seen much. The less we see them, the less we care (and I’d even argue want) to understand them.
I’m currently look at Best Fantasy Books HQ’s list of the best-selling fantasy series of all time, and I’d argue that while there is opposition to the main character, the main threat is still mostly unknown.
Harry Potter: We don’t see that V guy (no way I’m trying to spell that name) in the flesh until the fourth book. Sure we know about him, but we don’t really build a bond do we? Was anyone I’m unaware of sitting there going, “Well, I really think he has an argument for why he should be in power”? Nope. Sure, we could argue some affection for Draco, and did anyone not cry when Snape said, “Always”? But they weren’t “the main threat.”
Lord of the Rings: Discussed above.
Chronicles of Narnia: Well, it depends on which book you talk about, but in the ones I can remember, that there “main villain” was pretty much only showing up when it was time for the showdown.
Wheel of Time: Discussed above.
Discworld: I’ve only read one book. I’m sorry folks. It just didn’t grab me.
A Song of Ice and Fire: Anyone on team White Walker? Yes, there are many evil, hateful people in that book, and we know their motivations. We even understand most of them. However, that Night King is THE bad guy, and no one has posted a single meme asking “why don’t we know more about why he’s trying to ruin the world?”
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Luke, I believe, dies a hero. Kronos (the big bad) is there to scare people and get beat in the last book.
Inheritance Cycle: Murtagh is a tragic character, but he’s a victim and a pawn. Galbatorix? We saw him at the end for like, a second.
So, after careful consideration and research, I’ve formed a new thesis, especially when it comes to antagonists and big bads.
Conclusion: Fantasy sagas have two forms of opposition. 1) A sympathetic opposition. A character whom we feel something for as the series progresses. (Examples: Draco, Vader, Murtagh.) 2) a “big bad.” This is a force or evil we don’t see until the end unless it’s to threaten the hero and make him feel very small. (examples: Kronos, The Emperor, Galbatorix. Voldemort, (HEY! I spelled it right!))
I don’t feel this is an absolute. However, I do feel it is the standard. I once did a post about the symbiotic nature of heroes and villains, but those are in series and comics where the main conflict is the bond between those characters.
What are your thoughts?
Thank for reading,
7 thoughts on “Everyone is A Hero in His Own Mind, Even the Villain”
I definitely agree that some villains double as “the monster”, and I think you’re right that many stories with an unsympathetic villain often don’t spend much time with them. I’m trying to think of any that get a lot of screen time but have no sympathy. Offhand I want to cite the Nazgul from Fellowship of the Ring. For the first quarter or so they are a fairly recurring threat, but they’re very mechanical, a force of nature as much as they are characters. If we look at comic books, Batman’s villains often get a fair amount of screen time. For example, the Joker, a character who fascinates us with his complex and unique brand of logic, but I don’t think we ever pity him, unless the story focuses on a formal origin story.
The origin story is definitely a key part in deciding whether a character is sympathetic, since most villains are too cruel/evil in the present to be sympathetic.
I think you are right that it’s difficult to maintain a “pure evil” villain and include a complex origin story.
However, I actually think Voldemort was transformed into a sympathetic character in book 6. Through the memories Dumbledore shares, we learn how, right from birth, Voldemort struggled and suffered. Granted, he also responded very poorly to his struggles, but I can’t help but think of how Dumbledore remarks that “Voldemort” is a mask that the character created, to hide behind, because the truth is he’s in terrible pain, a mixture of loneliness and self-hatred. It is late in the series, but I think the shift from “clear cut evil” to “victim that became a villain” is a mark of how the series itself is trying to gradually transition from young to more mature storytelling as the series progresses.
At the end of the day I think a villain can either be “evil by nature”, or a former victim that suffered such intense pain that they snapped and became a perpetrator of pain. I imagine even Palpatine would seem more sympathetic if we learned enough about his upbringing, uncovering some secret struggle that led him to become what he was.
Everyone is a mix of nature and experience, and depending on which side the story emphasizes, we either perceive the character as choosing darkness, or being drowned by it.
I think it’s also an interesting example of “what stories are interested in”. Some stories are interested in the complex issues raised by a sympathetic villian, while others, like Lord of the Rings, want to focus on other things, and strive to keep most of their villains simply “evil by nature”.
I do think heroes and villains start out walking parallel paths, from their own perspective. I think often what separates the hero and villain, in addition to the moral choice, is where they are on the path. I think the villain is often at least at the 1/4 if not the 1/2 way point by the time they first encounter the hero, and often the villain’s completion of the path, their triumph, occurs at the hero’s 2/3 or 3/4 mark, where the hero falls low, and must dig deep to find the strength to rise and fight again, bringing about their own completion by undoing the villain’s success.
The dynamic between heroes and villains is always a rich topic for conversation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
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Thanks for stopping by. This was a great reply. I think it holds up to the new thesis. The more the reader sees your villain, the more he should understand your villain. The sympathy slider must move proportionally to the amount of time we see him.
Glad to read your comment!
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I definitely agree that the more audiences know about a character’s past, the more likely they are to sympathize, but I think audiences can spend a great deal of time with a character without learning anything about their past.
I keep thinking of characters like the Joker, who is too chaotic to offer any coherent insights into his past, or villains like the Nazgul, who are completely focused on the present.
I also wonder if we’d sympathize with a character who didn’t suffer. What if the character was a spoiled child, who never wanted for anything? Granted, that could lead to a very maladjusted and cruel character, but in the absence of tragedy or pain would audiences sympathize with a character who only suffered an absence of negative experiences?
The Nazgul never have chapters in their point of view. I don’t think it’s necessary to sympathize because their only function is to threaten. The reader isn’t ever in their head, so they don’t demand to understand. Joker is unique in a lot of ways, but I feel readers grow to like him, and have grown to like him. One, we do understand his motivation. 2) he becomes powerful based on how shocking or funny (depending on which version we discuss) he is. Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog, we need him. If we don’t see that temptation, we don’t see Batman’s redemption.
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I think there’s a lot to this.
If we don’t see them, they become more and object than a person. A wall in the way rather than a person blocking the way,
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That’s my theory.
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