Day of Debate: Sympathetic Villains

Day of Debate

This is a feature my brother came up with— wherein we tackle certain topics on books, young adult or not, and give you guys the low down on our opinions of them (which, mind you, generally differ). I’ll be encoding our conversation, and if you guys have any opinions of your own on the topic, or on the heated discussion, feel free to once again make my day and comment!

My brother is seventeen, a college sophomore, approximately one year and two days older. His name is Juan (that’s pronounced like the number, one), and he’s my best friend. No matter what anyone else says.

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Jasmine: Hi there, bro! *brofist*

Juan: Hello, non-bro. *sisfist*

Jasmine: UR LAME.

Juan: Sue me.

Jasmine: …. Anyway. For this week’s feature, we’re going to discuss sympathetic villains– before anything else, however, let me just give you guys a brief overview on the way we define “sympathetic”. It goes a little something like this: we construe them as the types of antagonists one can particularize with, relate to, understand, fathom. It may or may not have been stated that they aren’t inherently evil. Though they wreak havoc and establish misery, there’s usually a rationale behind this train of thought and consequential action, and sometimes, we cannot help but “sympathize” with these characters (Hence, the term). Therefore, Lord Voldemort is not a sympathetic villain because no matter how much we shelf out his past, he never seems to be anything less then damnable, nefarious, malevolent, and just downright atrocious (though Ralph Fiennes is SCORCHING). Axel Mortmain, on the other hand, maybe classified as sympathetic– his clockwork army is the product of a relentless vendetta against the people he believes to have left him biting the dust. And that’s that! Now you tell me: Yay or Nay?

Juan: Aw man, my brain needs to restart. And well, nay.


Juan: Erhm… with pleasure. It’s just that sympathetic villainy is so overused and hackneyed nowadays. Every villain seems to have an excuse for his terrible behavior, even though we all know he should have tried to find another way. No– I like sociopathic, disgusting, psycho villains who commit heinous crimes and revel in it. For example, Assef from The Kite Runner is an ass… ef. GEDDIT?

Jasmine: … I have officially lost faith in humanity

Juan: Uhm…No? Assef? ASS-ef? Nothing? Okay. Anyway. He rapes little kids, is the leader of the Taliban, kills puppies… sort of. And I like him! I mean, I like villains like him– those with god complexes, psychotic breakdowns, crackpot tendencies, awesome stuff like that. They’re way better because they’re more effective in instilling fear. Consequently, they’re more memorable, because you remember how utterly loathsome they were. That’s the point of villains, see? To make us wonder how much evil there is in this world,

Jasmine: Hmm… I’m not against the Voldemort types, though I much prefer sympathetic villains in my books, especially if they’re done right. They tend to elicit more emotional response, because of the traumatic or life-changing experience that drove them to feral rage and coerced into seeking unwarranted revenge. In addition, I find them more realistic– I’m probably the underdog in this matter of contention, because for some reason, I enjoy feeling torn whenever something is told from the antagonist’s point of view. Their actions, however irrational and disagreeable, stem from something extra, and something humane. I think its refreshing to see them in that light, because I’d like to try and grasp the notion of what makes them tick. Sometimes, I feel that a villain is more effective not when he can scare you pantsless, but when he can talk you into agreeing with his antics, and for even just a split second, persuade you stake claim to the reason behind his cause. Make YOU the antagonist. THAT’s scary.

Juan: I understand your point. For me, however, sympathetic villains have a different effect. You start nursing a soft spot for them, and you somehow wonder why they chose the path of spite and offense in the first place. With sociopathic villains, you know that it has to happen sooner or later– they just wouldn’t have it any other way. So many sympathetic villains were actually kind before traumatic experience X occurs. Those evil by nature don’t need anything to set them off. Baby, they were born that waaaaaay.


Juan: CEASE ALL DISTRACTION! Anyway, it’s a question of nature versus nurture. Sometimes, nature just seems more believable… and scarier. Plus, genuinely evil antagonists are generally harder to fight because its impossible to appeal to them without ending their lives, in which case you STILL can’t appeal to them. Yeah, that.

Jasmine: Let’s see. It may seem unnecessary to many readers that some villains have to appeal to them, when they’re supposed to make you feel automatic and immediate aversion. However, I’m one of the few people who want to examine the flip sides of the metaphorical coin– I’m a naturally emotional person so easily swayed, and the inner turmoil caused by sympathy for an antagonist is one of the few things about a good book that make me stop and think– and I like that. Some authors, however, make use of smashing, teenage hunks for this cause, which is probably the only time it feels like a cheap trick, because I have a HUGE weakness for eye-candy. Remember though: sympathetic =/= hot. I don’t dislike sympathetic villains simply because I’m able to sit on both ends of the spectrum. I usually feel sorry for them when they die slow, painful, yet inevitable deaths, but when done right, its the sort of tragedy that attracts me to a certain title. I know not many people feel the way I do, but hey, I try.

Juan: I see. Well then okay, that’s it. In conclusion: I love evil, sympathy is boring, you disagree. I still do think antagonists are better off when you can’t understand them, when they have god-complexes, when they want to kill every single human specimen on earth, when they’re heartless aliens, or fire breathing dragons, or racists, or ruthless leaders of military camps with thousands of soldiers. The sympathy card is unnecessary.

Jasmine: Fine then! I’m not against those types of villains, either, because then, characters would need the extra grit, the intestinal fortitude, the determination, the–

Juan: The moxie.

Jasmine: Err… yes, to come head to head with them. So of course, this invariably depends on the effect their behavior has on the reader. Some readers like me feel a sort of understanding, and like that, especially when they become the unlikeliest of assets (which tends to agitate the characters, and that’s even better) while some others just feel like the villains are making lame excuses and should be beheaded on the spot. But that’s it for now everyone! If you care to tell my brother and I what you think, sound off in the comments below.

Juan: Goodbye! I’m off to study the Economics… of love.

Jasmine: You know what now?

Juan: Just kidding. PEACE OUT! FO SHIZZLE!

Jasmine: DEAR GOD. We are NOT having this conversation again….

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So what do you think?  Have any suggestions? Criticisms of the constructive variety? Life changing praise?  Comment if you do! 😀

P.S. We’d appreciate suggestions on future topics!



31 thoughts on “Day of Debate: Sympathetic Villains

  1. I honestly don’t think I’ve given the topic of villains a whole lot of thought. Some yes, but not a ton. I generally just think of them as evil, and I’m glad at the end when they’re overthrown. But sometimes they are more complex than that, and the mixed feelings comes, and you start to wonder exactly what is going on. Not sure what I really prefer from my villain… But a fun Day of Debate to read, as always!

    • Haha I see XD I haven’t given it much thought either, since this one was something of my brother’s idea 😀 Maybe as long as they’re overpowered in the end, all is well. Haha! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  2. I agree with Juan that unsympathetic villains have that bone-chilling fear born from pure evil going for them, but at the same time, I like seeing a villain struggle (as sympathetic villains do). He may be cruel, but seeing him falter now and then makes him human. I’m currently reading Romeo Redeemed (on your recommendation Jasmine!), and I absolutely adore it – even more than Juliet Immortal – mostly because Romeo IS the epitome of a sympathetic villain. He was all cruel and crazy in Juliet Immortal, and even at the beginning of Romeo Redeemed, he is seducing Ariel for simply selfish reasons, but the reader also gets to witness his inner struggle as he does these dark things. Maybe what I like is a redeemed villain!

    • OH I see! And I am SO glad you’re liking Romeo Redeemed at the moment! And I’m glad you agree with me to an extent– I guess “redeemed” villain does sound pretty convincing to me. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on that book! 😀

  3. Villains are difficult creatures. On the one hand, I love me a villain like The Darkling. He’s brooding, evil, but you can still love to hate him, or hate to love him? I just downright love him. OFF THE DARKLING, CHIARA. Okay.
    Sympathetic villains are interesting, because you can root for them to change. Your past doesn’t decide who you are, villain! You can change. I can change you (that was my thought process with Heath Ledger’s The Joker).
    I mean, we love to think that people aren’t inherently evil, and that they weren’t born that way, and perhaps they can change if only this, or that were to happen. It’s fun to want a specific something to happen to a character (even if we are disappointed when they really turn out to be evil, and inevitable die, crushing our poor souls).
    But, on the other hand, truly evil villains are fun. It’s fun to really hate a character, and wish they were gone (or is that just me?). I mean, there is also something fun about watching an evil villain’s plan unfold, and watch the good guy win. It makes you feel all fuzzy inside, and gives you hope that evil can indeed be beaten.
    So I guess, both villains are fun, but in different ways. 😀
    Lovely debate, Jasmine!

    • Haha oh, I like that train of thought! 😀 Like you, I always seem to try so hard to find the good in whatever a certain villain is doing, especially if he’s an interesting person with an interesting mind set. I don’t mind it when they change for the better or anything like that (even though that IS far fetched, and sometimes too convenient). I’m just a big believer in all’s well that ends well XD But yeah, I guess it’s generally more satisfying to beat a villain that was truly evil. And thanks for stopping by Chiara! Reading soul-mates it is 😉

  4. I like the really evil villains, because they just have a way for making chills run up and down my spine.

    But then, I don’t mind villains I can sympathize with either. It’s just that I think it takes more skill to create a character that really going to make you feel scared and build tension in a book than a character who has this horrible life story. And mostly, those kind of characters don’t really get any pity from me because they made the choice to be bad, so I don’t really care what they did before.

    So I’m all for evil characters doing unspeakable things.

    • HAHA okay this is what I mean by it depending on the reader XD I’m happy that you have your own opinion on things! I don’t think I’ve ever really been closed to trying to understand why a certain villain is doing what he does, and I have to admit that when they explain themselves, it makes sense to me (and that scares me). But yeah, it does take a lot of skill to be able to portray a fearsome character. So, we’ve carved out our differences– and I really think you and my brother are going to get along smoothly XD

  5. I totally agree with you on the sympathetic villains. Although there’s always something to be said for those heartless villains who are pure evil, I think it adds so much complexity when you relate (even in just a minor way) to the villain. It makes them realistic, seem more human, and creates a lot more emotions in the reader. It’s like you said, the fact that a villain might be able to persuade you (even for a second) to get behind him/feel something other than hatred for him is sometimes even scarier than the pure evil.
    You guys have such interesting & funny discussions!

    • Aww thank you Audrey! 😀 I think that like you, I just really like being able to relate to a villain, and get to understand his thought process. A good author knows its hard to do that right, but I do agree that they become more complex and realistic that way 😀 It’s happened to me quite a lot actually– being somehow persuaded that a villain isn’t that bad, after all. I was shocked at myself XD And thank you for stopping by as well~

  6. You know, I’ve been thinking about this for the past few weeks! Well, it was more like “likable villains”, but it’s close ;D

    I agree that some villains are capable of bringing my sympathy to life. Some of them have hard lives and turn to what makes it easier, not right. They crave more power, But when you’re torn between hating and sympathizing with the villain, it adds much more to the story. Who doesn’t love developed characters? Sometimes I just love to hate them and hate to love them. I have a complex relationship with a few villains xD

    • Haha! I guess likable villains works too 😀 I agree that the fact that you’re torn in your understanding of the way a character’s mind works is a great way to add depth and complicate the story, which is a good thing. I love developed characters too! Those were some great thoughts Eve 😀

  7. I actually love sympathetic villains! It’s one thing to love to hate a villain, but it’s another to see a side of them that actually makes you care for them. It brings a whole different side to story! 🙂

  8. I’m on the fence. I love VILLAIN villains, like Lord Voldemort and The Joker, people who have no reason to do bad things except for being evil or just liking to do bad things. Even though they’re not as relatable, I think they’re still more like us than we’d like to admit. But I also LOVE sympathetic villains because it provides for a more depthful read. It makes the reader confused and at odds, because sometimes we want the bad guy to win because there’s a part of us that agrees with them. Great discussion!

    • Oh I see 😀 I also feel fine with evil villains, and I don’t actually get bothered by them– in fact, I think they’re part of what makes a story exciting and suspenseful. But of course, I still prefer being able to sympathize with a villain, and sometimes like getting confused HAHA if that makes sense XD So I agree with you! Thank you Janita~

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