Writing Tips

5 Traits of the Sympathetic Villain

By May 19, 2015 23 Comments

Writing Good Villain

If you’ve seen the Daredevil TV series, you’d know how multi-dimensional and sympathetic their villains are.

Aside from the obvious example of primary antagonist Wilson Fisk, whose portrayal in both the comics and small screen is nothing short of emotionally complex, the TV series bring us Vladimir Ranskahov, who is one of the more memorable secondary villains in recent years.

Here’s five traits of the sympathetic villain

Despite being the more cantankerous and trigger-happy half of the Ranskahov brothers, I understood his motives and raison d’être much better than I did Fisk’s, whose evil deeds were largely conducted from the shadows.

Like Vito Corleone, that other great fictional criminal, Vladimir simply does—and goes to great lengths for—what he thinks is best for himself and the person he cares about, bar none, and that is pretty damn relatable.

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Millie’s Note: Who are your favourite sympathetic villains?

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • So well articulated, Millie! In most of the literature/films that don’t work for me, it is because of superficial back stories leading to characters that I just don’t care about. In literature/films that I love, ALL of the characters are fleshed out, leading to an intriguing complexity and a satisfying work.

  • I agree one hundred percent, Millie! One of the most complicated antagonists I’ve ever come across is in an older historical series known as The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter, another pen name for Ellis Peters who wrote the Brother Cadfael series. The villain’s complicated and competitive relationship with the protagonist, a stonemason named Harry, is carried on to the next generation through Harry’s son. Ralph is a damaged veteran of the Crusades, rigid and strict, yet admiring of both the work and character of Harry. It goes awry when his mistress, who was clear that she could never love Ralph, falls in love with Harry. Harry is true to his principles and to his wife and doesn’t love her back in that way. It is all a complicated mess with disastrous consequences for them all, but a fascinating character study of both men.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Wow, The Heaven Tree Trilogy sounds like it should move to the top of my To Read list! Multi-generational conflict has always been an interest of mine. Have you ever read Holes by Louis Sachar? It’s ostensibly a children’s book and a more stripped down version of what you described, though with less disastrous consequences once the two adolescent protagonists, descended from conflicting families, inadvertently worked together and broke a two hundred year old curse and a whole lot of emotional baggage. Regarding Harry, looks like the character who stays true to his/her principles very quickly gains the reader’s respect. I’ll check out the Pargeter books. Thanks for the recommendation!

      • I haven’t read Holes, but my husband and kids did, and so I loosely aware of the story–might have to check that one out (so to speak).
        The Heaven Tree Trilogy has a lot of English history woven into it, which I love, even though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It is one of my favorite series, and I reread it every ten years or so. I love Harry, who is an amazing and memorable character, but not in the superhero kind of way. He is a quiet man of passion and principle who lives his life according to those principles, often at great personal cost. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

    • kvennarad says:

      Edith Pargeter was her real name – Ellis Peters was the pen-name. Just mentioning.

  • Great post! I don’t have a villain in my novel, but I do have a very naughty college girl who mucks things up. I gave her a painful history, but it wasn’t until seeing this post that I realized it was to make her sympathetic to some degree. Sympathetic and also believable. (I think deep down we don’t want to believe that people are truly evil. There must be some cause for why people do bad things, and having a troubled past is a good way of making motivation clear.)

    • Millie Ho says:

      I wonder if not making motivations clear makes characters more intriguing instead of sympathetic. Sympathetic characters are rampant in Lost because the flashbacks keep showcasing their personal tragedies. However, I found that the most intriguing characters were the ones whose motivations were kept under a veil. Looking forward to reading your novel!

      • I tried to watch “Lost” but I couldn’t get over the polar bear thing. I found myself totally fixated on the polar bears and I couldn’t pay attention to the stories. I eventually just stopped watching. I needed a polar bear payoff that never came. (Although, I’m sure if I had the payoff, I would have been disappointed.)

        I agree to some extent about the motivations, but only when the motivation is a part of the tension in the plot. Otherwise I just find it annoying when some character does something for what appears to be no reason. Of course, there’s a way to reveal motivation without smacking someone over the head with it. Just little clues that something in past has made this person the way he or she is, but we might not have to do a flashback to that particular scene or make it crystal clear.

        I hope I finish my novel someday! It’s on hold right now…more drama in my life. My husband’s in the hospital with pneumonia. I could theoretically take my laptop to the hospital room and get some work done, but I probably won’t. I want my life to be boring again!

  • kvennarad says:

    Pick any villain in a Shakespeare play – if you prick him, does he not bleed? What I love about Shakespeare’s villains is that the playwright always gives them their moment in court, their chance to speak about their world view and justify themselves, whether that justification is skewed or not. They can be a rash but noble antagonist like Harry Percy, an anti-hero like MacBeth (yes, I know an ‘anti-hero’ is not a ‘villain’ as such), or most famously Shylock who, in one short speech, bucks the anti-semitism of the day. In a tragedy you almost want the villain to walk away at the end – Iago ought to be able to flee and have his own tragedy in a follow-up play, and his resolution to remain silent under torture must generate grudging admiration in us. In a comedy, when the pompous Malvolio stalks off, declaring “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, who can resist wishing him good luck in the endeavour of getting his own back on the tormentors who despised him for his middle-ranking – “Art any more than a steward?” – oh the spite in that singular address!

    But I think my favourite sympathetic villain would have to be Mervyn Peake’s Steepike. Though he is a conniving murderer who slips ever deeper into insanity, he has escaped the hell of the Gormenghast kitchen into the purgatory of the ritual-ridden castle. If Lady Fuchsia could, with a small twist, be beautiful, then Steerpike, with a small twist, could be a hero. He deserves his end – and worse – but he provides the fascination in the first two Gormenghast novels.

    I shall now watch your video, and may come back to comment again.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Based on your description of Steerpike and the Guardian review I read, I’ll need to consume the book (or BBC adaptation) first before responding. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Fave sympathetic villain would have to fall very close to the style you mentioned: Gentleman Johnny Marcone from the Dresden Files. He’s a gangster, kingpin, loads of thugs at his beck and call, an he’s on a kind of mission to dominate Chicago. He wants the whole town in his pocket, so nobody can threaten him or his own. He also has a weakness, a skeleton in his closet… I won’t go into it because it’s spoilery, but let’s just say he certainly knows how to feel both guilt and compassion.

    Ace post, Millie!

    • Millie Ho says:

      He sounds like he’s cut from the same cloth as the Vitos and Wilsons. Fighting to protect someone/something that contributes to the greater good (however subjective that good is) is a hallmark of the sympathetic villain. Thanks for the recommendation. Did you read both the books and see the TV series? If so, did you like one over the other?

      • I haven’t seen the TV series, but I have a feeling it’s the kind of series that benefits from a fresh take (from not having read the books). Apparently they kind of mauled the original storyline, so it wasn’t well loved amongst the book-fans.

        There’s audiobooks too, if you don’t mind them absolutely screwing up the spellcasting pronunciation haha

  • Wow. First off I’d say you covered quite a lot in this video so well done. The lack of sympathetic villains is probably one of the reasons I’ve not liked Ultron ((: as much as the other Avenger films..a franchise that sort of specializes in symp villains..In Ultron they’ve marginalized Tony Stark who is best as a recovering SV, (war profiteer) and also taken out solid antagonists, like Thor’s SV brother in the first and best, or Paul Pierce’s complex SV character in the second and replaced it in AIII, with a robotic AI villain who’s “difficult to relate”. One of the other things though is how an actor completely alters the character, which I’d call a wild card factor, maybe as they’re initially written. “Butch” is sort of a sleezy boxer, highly conflicted, willing to throw a fight for the right price, and living in a dump, but Bruce Willis adds sort of non-tangibles, that make Butch more heroic than he might appear in the script. But all the back story about the watch (LOL) does give Butch a more human side.”

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yeah, the Ultron film sacrificed relatability for a higher cool factor, which isn’t bad but made the action sequences monotonous. Familiar actors get typecast and/or carry with them a specific set of connotations that could either add to or take away from the story. In the case of Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis’ character added to the story. Even if his morality is very grey, his narrative is redemptive, which makes him likeable despite what he did. Marsellus is in the same category, though less redemptive and more “I like him because he helped the main character out”.

      • You could almost look at Pulp Fiction as a bunch of individual stories,.. the cab scene where Butch is making a quick getaway, is surreal , and film noir. Surrealism isn’t used that much lately, in really good sci fi its the best, like Interstellar, but then its maybe way too sophisticated for the special effects type movies now. Tarantino though I think, has made his own type of noir..

        • Millie Ho says:

          I would compare Taratino’s brand of surrealism to the Coen brothers, especially some of their late 80s/90s efforts. But yeah, Pulp Fiction was almost an anthology of stories. A really interesting study in narrative.

      • dekutree41 says:

        I do think that Ultron was interesting in at least one regard: the sense of how he was, personality-wise, truly Tony Stark’s child. The snarky Pinocchio to Stark’s Gepetto. It was almost as if he and the Vision were the little warring devil and angel versions of Stark. I’m hoping the full 3.5 hour cut of Joss Whedon’s film brings more texture to the character (and to all the other characters in that movie…you could really feel that you were watching the abridged version of what the filmmaker intended)!

  • dekutree41 says:

    I’m one episode away from being finished with Daredevil and it’s amazing how much deeper it goes with all its villains. It does amazing things with Fisk and Wesley and Vanessa in the last stretch of episodes. Just totally unexpected things. I think Vladimir was definitely a strong and complex presence, too, although he stood in really stark contrast to both Fisk and Murdock, in that he wanted to create a better world for himself and his refugee brother, and not for the city around him.

    So now I’m trying to think of a fictional villain that I love for their complexity (non-Daredevil-related)…it’s hard because the villains that stand out for me are the ones I really, really hate. The Joffrey Baratheons. Remember Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III? Hated that guy! No punishment could have been sufficient. I think I’ll have to go outside the box here: Javert in LES MISERABLES (not so much the Russell Crowe portrayal, though). There’s something so childlike and innocent about his black-and-white perception of the universe, you feel sorry for him and fear him and hate him all at once.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yes, the last couple of episodes are excellent at giving each character their inevitable (yet still surprising) endings. Daredevil actually appears to be a show mainly about villains. There’s just a huge variety of them, ostensibly working together but with very different goals, which allows you to compare and contrast and see qualities in the characters. In some ways, they shouldn’t even be called villains. The fact that they scrape, plot against, and ultimate kill each other makes me see them more as just people with different goals.

      Javert is really interesting. He’s a tragic character, not necessarily bad, but his lack of awareness and flexibility makes him contribute to bad things. Perhaps most villains that are pitied and hated all lack this flexibility and awareness.

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