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Creating Sympathy for Your Villain

The devil is in the details, so if your antagonist is diabolical it is still possible to create a semblance of sympathy for him in spite of his actions. Readers don’t necessarily have to like a character, but since we’re all human, surely there are a few redeeming qualities even in the most unlikeable of people. We can sympathize with and have compassion for someone because of the human qualities we all share. Good writing skills can help the writer elicit that sympathy for the villain by creating an arc of believable events and conditions throughout the development of their character’s behavior.

Creating a detailed biography first for each of your characters is essential, but especially so in crafting a diabolical or other villainous character as they play out against each of the other characters in the plot. Through layers of nuanced information, the writer guides the reader into identifying with some aspect/aspects of a villain’s complicated personality. Here’s where back story becomes very important. This is not an info dump, but one that is gradually revealed throughout the character arc of the plot. Readers want to know how the villain’s soul became so twisted.

Each scene that he appears in should in some way reveal more of his essential nature and personality. You can play with a reader’s emotions—first by making them sympathize with the villain’s past, then after knowing his nature and motives, writers can cause the reader to fear where his evil intentions are heading towards an intended victim. After a period where a reader shuts down his sympathy, it may be restored again once they learn another piece of the villain’s back story.

The writer must create and reveal the villain’s prior history of trauma, addictions, disappointments, work history and financial stability to name just a few elements. Did the villain grow up in a dysfunctional family? Maybe the villain’s life was shaped by a series of incidents involving some really bad luck. Did something happen that forever prevented him from living an otherwise normal life? Maybe he/she suffered a disempowering experience of sexual/physical abuse as a child that later led to emotional and physical displays of fulminating rage, resentment, or revenge. Writers must include the influential roles that others have played in their villain’s life such as parents, friends and co-workers, etc. and whether the villain has re-enforced their roles or managed to rise above them.

In the case of a truly evil antagonist such as a murderer, or a serial killer, it is still possible to craft a character that a reader can sympathize with based on the conditions that made him that way, not to excuse their behavior, but just to understand it. Show his viewpoint, which to him will always be normal, but it will be hard not to understand his motives. It is essential when writing about characters with basically anti-social behavior patterns to do some serious research into abnormal psychology. Your readers will expect your evil character to have depth and a motive that drives him, and that you will fully flesh him out during the story. If not, he will come across as too simplistic and clichéd.

For instance, if your antagonist is a serial killer, their brain was probably encoded incorrectly during the development of their Amygdala, in essence creating a born-killer who is pathologically incapable of feeling any emotion at all behind their behavior. As is true for any villain, but especially with a serial killer, what happens when they are pitted against vulnerable characters? Conflict is what happens, and that is what you’re after in your plot.

There is also the possibility of giving a seemingly unforgivable person a streak of humanity by making him do something decent that would otherwise be contrary to his expected behavior. As idiosyncratic as the majority of his behavior may be, there will always be logic to it even though it may surprise you at times. It may even surprise him.

Another way for a writer to create sympathy for a villain is to reveal his thoughts, showing readers a deeper and more chilling side of him. This works especially well during times of anger, resentment, and arrogance, especially if he’s drinking or doing drugs. The villain is undergoing a personal internal trial of some sort that readers can sympathize with because they too have felt similar emotions. No matter how vile your villain is readers can sympathize with what it feels like to be vulnerable, humiliated, or in agony; the very emotions that may set your villain off. If your villain is self-deprecating, his thoughts may be so honest that he comes across as almost admirable. Make your villain believable and you can make readers sympathetic to something about him even if their behavior is heinous.

P. J. Woods is the author of the Harper Simone Mystery Novels. You can keep up with Pat at her website: or her professional website for editing manuscripts at:

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