Reader Friday: Sympathy for the Devil

“The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.” – Dean Koontz (see also Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)

Do you agree with Koontz? Is there an example in book or film that comes to mind? Do you think about the sympathy factor for the bad guys in your fiction?

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25 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Sympathy for the Devil

  1. This post reminds me of the first draft of the first book I wrote and the critique I received: “antagonist one dimensional” and too unbelievably bad. OUCH! But a good lesson.

    I am still learning how to craft my villains believably–some books they are easier than others–just depends on the story.

  2. Hannibal the Cannibal comes to mind as a favorite villain, but for me, the most sympathetic villain of all time has to be King Kong. He’s cast as the antagonist mainly because we see the story through the eyes of those who are trying to capture him, but we also sense his human qualities in his fascination with Ann Darrow, which eventually turns to unrequited love. On Skull Island he protects her from savage creatures that would kill her, while on Manhattan Island he protects her from the bullets raining down on him, gently placing her down safely before taking his final swan dive, at which point he is fully transformed to the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, of the story. Pretty amazing stuff.

  3. Absolutely! Most of the MCU villains come to mind.

    I always make sure I know my bad guy’s backstory. Even if it doesn’t make them any more sympathetic (I, at least, can’t make a racist more sympathetic) but it makes them more human. My current antagonist has a UC Burkley certificate in her office.

  4. To me, the best villains can evoke pity. I don’t know if it’s required to make them a great villain or not. Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” is my favorite action-film villain. Do I pity him? Not really, he made his bed, now he gets to lie in it πŸ™‚ On the other hand, there is schadenfreude watching him and his thuggish associates try to carry off their plan despite the interference of our hero, John McClane.

    I distinguish antagonists from villain. Both oppose the protagonist, but the villain enjoys it a lot more. My first Empowered novel, Empowered: Agent, featured a psychopathic super-powered villain, Mutter, who lived to be cruelly dominant. The other books had misguided antagonists, who all believed they were doing the right thing, while Mutter was doing his thing.

    • Villains who are “charming” or “urbane” (like Gruber) have a pull that is not necessarily sympathetic…but is magnetic. Which is what makes them dangerous!

  5. Wile E. Coyote, without a doubt. As a kid, I rooted for him 100% of the time. The Road Runner had a cocky attitude and, frankly, intentionally put himself in harm’s way just for his own psychopathic amusement. Meanwhile, a starving coyote, made by God himself to hunt road runners, was stuck in both starvation and what must have been overwhelming credit card debt due to constant overnight orders from the Acme Company.

  6. Absolutely, I agree. Bad guys are people, too. In my Mayhem Series, the bad guy’s wife suffers with ALS. The tender moments where he cares for her shows his humanity.

  7. Hannibal Lecter…his superior intelligence makes him sympathetic in my mind. He didn’t kill out of hatred, but the need to kill.

    It makes him sympathetic, but far scarier than a bad guy who just kills for the fun of it.

    • Harris creates sympathy for Lecter by having him abused by the head doctor, Chilton. That’s why it’s perversely satisfying to hear Lecter tell Clarice at the end, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

  8. I agree with the idea but not his examples. I’m not a fan of monsters or sociopaths who don’t have a choice in what they are. Characters who make the conscious choice, each time, to do bad things are much more interesting and frightening. If they make the conscious choice to do a good thing, too, they are extremely interesting. Give me complexity.

    I watched the pilot of a new SYFY series called RESIDENT ALIEN, last night. Really excellent with a murder mystery through-plot. Lightning hits the ship of an alien sent to present-day Earth to wipe out humanity, and he crashes and loses his death bomb in the Colorado mountains in winter. He transforms himself into a human he kills and ends up interacting with the eccentric people of a small town. A murder occurs, and, since he took the identity of a retired pathologist, he’s dragged into the investigation. He’s ready and excited because he learned English by watching episodes of LAW AND ORDER.

    Humans are less than lizards in his eyes, and he’s perfectly happy to kill them in mass or individually. But he connects with one human, and he makes a choice at the end of the episode that shows that he may not be quite the unfeeling alien monster the viewer thinks he is. That moment made me decide to keep watching. The final scene which had an OMG twist to the worldbuilding cemented the “I love this show” deal.

  9. Don’t laugh πŸ˜€ But I adored captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean: The Hunt for the Black Pearl. The last scene when he dies and never eaten green apple falls from his hand hit me hard, and his revival in the second movie was the BEST thing that happened in that series. πŸ˜€ I so wanted him to eat that apple, finally.

    But I think though he was marvelously written character, that his appeal is like Hans Gruber’s in Die Hard — it’s not only how they are written, but also who is the actor. Both actors were superb, and we rooted for them.

    • Amen! Barbosa is a wonderful villain. I love that movie particularly because none of the characters are “good.” Even Will and Elizabeth didn’t hesitate to lie and steal to get what they want.

  10. In Connie Willis;s Passage, the villain is faintly ridiculous albeit very irritating.

    Jay Brooks

  11. Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes stories is a sympathetic protagonist. And who can’t shed a small tear for Ricardo Montalban’s Khan in “Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan”

  12. How about the shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? Also, the bear in The Edge. I feel sympathy for the animals since they’re just doing what they do. But I don’t feel bad when they lose the ultimate battle.

  13. The days of the villain twirling his moustache are over, I hope. Those stories of folks being evil for the sake of being evil. More and more, we’re seeing tons of popular stories/movies where the “villain” is the protagonist. That’s quite a shift!

    Examples both old and new: Wuthering Heights. Vigilante. Interview with the Vampire. Twilight. Lucifer…

    IMHO, psychopaths/serial killers (with the exception of Hannibal Lecter) are boring. When someone commits a heinous crime, most of us want to know WHY. And if the answer is: because they’re crazy, it’s a let down.

    So long winded response: Stories of good vs. evil are better when villains have a particular, empathetic, REASON to commit their terrible crimes.

  14. “Even the man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

    Lon Chaney Jr.’s werewolf still breaks my heart. Poor Larry.

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