We’ve all heard the age-old writing advice: “Always make your villain as sympathetic as your hero!” But is it ever okay to have an unsympathetic villain? Absolutely. It’s more than okay – it can be incredibly powerful when used correctly. In today’s post, I explain why authors should write unsympathetic villains.
*walks in with a bang*
Was that an epic enough entrance? XD
I am BACK FROM MY HIATUS! And as you can probably tell from all my caps and exclamation points, I am extremely excited to be back! I’ve missed this little blog family so much. I mean, I’ve still been around on everyone else’s awesome blogs, but there’s just something about posting on my own blog again. It feels so good to be here with y’all again, and I have a ton of epic posts planned out for you!
Like this one. Today we’re gonna be talking about why authors should include unsympathetic villains in their novels. This will be a great discussion, and I can’t wait to get into it! I hope you guys enjoy it!
Ready… set… leap!
The case for sympathetic villains
Why are sympathetic villains so popular in the first place? Why are writers always encouraged to write them?
Sympathetic villains didn’t use to be so popular. In fact, I remember one of my writer friends (thanks, Issabelle!) telling me that the reason all Disney villains are pure evil is because making your villain relatable is a new thing. I actually did not know that until she told me, but when I got to thinking about it, I realized it’s true. In the past, villains were never supposed to be sympathetic or relatable or have tragic backstories. They were supposed to be just that… villains. Pure evil. Horrible. Skin-crawly. Cruel.
But the times have changed.
Today, writers are constantly being told to “make the reader feel for the villain as deeply as they feel for the hero.” I can’t even begin to count the number of articles I’ve read on that subject. I even wrote one myself, way back when I first started this blog! ‘Tis right here if you’d like to take a look.
Now that I’ve mentioned that article I wrote about making villains sympathetic, lemme talk about that for a moment. I now disagree with some of the points I made in that article. Which is only natural, since we grow as writers, and I won’t be the same writer in December 2020 that I am in July 2021….
Wait a minute. It just hit me that this blog is almost exactly eight months old now….
I can’t believe this family has grown so much! Thank you, guys.
Anyways, getting back to the subject. I just had to say that, since the realization just hit me.
Let me share something from “My Method: Create Empathy for Your Antagonists.”
The thing is, no one becomes vain and mean overnight. No one is cruel to animals just as an accident. It’s not enough to say, “Her stepsisters hated her because she was nice.” It’s not enough to say, “She killed dogs because she loved luxurious coats.” Nope, that won’t cut it.
No one is evil for no reason. We never want our characters to read like statues, especially the antagonists. If they do, something very powerful will be missing from the story, and it will fall flat. You can’t slap a “bad guy” label on someone and call it a day. You want readers to see what made them what they are. Empathy for antagonists, just like for protagonists, will make the battle all the more impactful and heart-shattering for readers. Antagonists must have their own motives, their own development, their own characters. The more you make your characters real, the more memorable your story will be to readers.– the old article from Yours Truly
Before I explain why I now disagree with this, let me clarify that I am not here to bash sympathetic villains or discourage you from writing them. I think sympathetic villains are awesome. I love them. Their characters are powerful and moving. They will always be a part of my novels.
But while it’s true that sympathetic villains are powerful and moving, that absolutely does not mean unsympathetic villains can’t be equally as powerful and moving.
I think that old quote of mine pretty much states the case for sympathetic villains. “No one is evil for no reason…. Empathy for antagonists, just like for protagonists, will make the battle all the more impactful and heart-shattering for readers…. Antagonists must have their own motives, their own development, their own characters.”
That’s the reasoning to pretty much every article I’ve ever read on the subject of sympathetic villains. But I disagree.
Why do I disagree?
To be honest, I don’t know what I was thinking when I made those points in “Create Empathy for Your Antagonists.” LOL. (But like I said, we grow and change as writers, am I right? 😂)
To illustrate, I’m gonna be using one of my favorite stories, Les Misérables. (I’m sure you knew Les Mis was gonna make a grand appearance alongside me!)
Les Mis has two villains.
One is Javert, the Inspector of Police.
The other is the family of Thenardiers – namely, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.
Javert is what you would call a sympathetic villain, while the Thenardiers are anything but.
Let’s talk about Javert first.
Take a listen to “Stars” while you read! 😁
Javert was born to a fortune-teller whose husband was incarcerated. His Gypsy upbringing made him feel deeply ashamed, an outcast of society. “He grew up thinking himself out of society, and despaired of ever entering it” (Hugo 169). Long story short, he decided to try and overcome his humiliation by working his way up. To work his way up, he joined the police. Eventually he was promoted to Inspector, became zealous for upholding the law, and there we have it. “He would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue” (Hugo 170).
Throughout the novel, Javert is heartless, cold, cruel, and lacks any compassion or kindness or mercy. He’s a difficult character to deal with, and a difficult one to sympathize with, especially when we see how he persecutes Jean Valjean. But, in the lyrics of “Stars”: “He knows his way in the dark // Mine is the way of the Lord // Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward.” Javert is doing what (he thinks) is righteous. It’s clear he honestly believes this, and is pretty deluded, which evokes a sort of reluctant sympathy in the reader.
And at the end of the novel, that’s when we can’t help but feel anything except sorrow and sympathy for Javert. After Valjean saves his life at the barricade, Javert doesn’t know whether to fulfill his duty or let Valjean go free. He can’t abide the thought of owing his life to a convict or turning in the man who just showed mercy to him. His answer? To end it all and commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.
Once we reach the scene of Javert’s suicide, we just can’t help but pity him. At the end of the day (pun intended!), Javert is a victim of society. I’ve even heard some say that he’s arguably the most tragic figure in Les Mis. I think I concur to some degree. Like all other readers of Les Mis, I feel empathy for him. I don’t love him, but I don’t hate him. Who among us, at some point in our lives, has not believed the lies society teaches us? The end of his story is pretty sad. If you want a great example of a sympathetic villain, look no further than Javert.
What about the Thenardiers?
Monsieur and Mme. Thenardier
In all the 1,460 pages of Les Mis, we are never given any reason to empathize with the Thenardiers. Their despicable actions are never explained by any kind of backstory.
The Thenardiers are the epitome of evil: They commit robbery, fraud, murder, child abuse, and more. (Which is why I’m not particularly keen on their being portrayed as comedic figures in the musical.) From the beginning, we’re given abundant reason to be completely revolted by them and their wicked deeds – and we are more than revolted. They abuse Cosette and exploit Fantine, forcing her to turn to prostitution and causing her death. Then they do everything they can to withhold Cosette from Valjean’s arms. When Valjean does succeed in taking her from them, they relentlessly pursue him with hatred and greed. They disguise themselves as poor people to get money from him, then quickly tie him up in their apartment, where Monsieur Thenardier forces information from him under threat of torture by burning.
Is any of this explained? No. The only explanation given is that the Thenardiers are greedy and evil. That’s their motive. They have no tragic backstory to explain why they’re so greedy and evil. They just are. Unlike Javert, who’s just doing his job, the Thenardiers are directly out to hurt Valjean because they hate him. And they’re directly out to hurt others because they’re hateful, and they enjoy doing so.
Comparing the two
With all this being said, are the Thenardiers any less of a powerful villain than Javert? Not one bit. Javert’s presence makes the novel all the more moving and heartrending because he’s sympathetic. The Thenardiers’ presence makes the novel all the more moving and heartrending because they’re unsympathetic.
Both villains are worthy. Both keep the readers on the edge of their seats. Both contribute to the many tears readers will shed throughout the novel, and especially at its close. Both make the battle impactful and heart-shattering for the readers. Both have their own motivations, their own development, their own characters, and their own depth, and both are real. Javert’s motivation is his shame at being born an outcast of society. The Thenardiers’ motivation is their greed. Both motivations are valid and realistic. The only difference is that we can empathize with Javert’s, while we can’t empathize with the Thenardiers’.
Had Victor Hugo chosen to provide a tragic explanation for the Thenardiers’ actions, I believe the novel would have lost a ton of its heart and emotion. Why? Because there are people who are greedy and cruel for no reason. And it’s incredibly moving to see the hero of a novel battle those evil people with the power of Christ, who has the authority to cast out demons.
As the Bible says, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils (1 Timothy 6:10). Someone can be evil simply because they’re hungry for wealth, and indeed many people are evil precisely because of this. Some people are evil for no reason. Some people are greedy just to be greedy, abusive just to be abusive, etc. The only explanation we need is that they have Satan’s power over them. Their only motive is power, greed, etc., and their only motivation is to obtain these things. Or, more simply put, their motivation is Satan.
I feel strongly that writers, especially Christian writers, should portray these villains in their stories.
As Christian writers, we should not always be in a hurry to explain our villains’ wickedness with tragic and empathetic backstories, motivations, etc. (And when portraying sympathetic villains, the explanations should explain, not excuse or justify.) One of the duties of a Christian writer is to be honest with our every word. We should portray the world as it is – evil – and Satan as what he is – the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). Because Satan is the god of this world, he does possess many people and influence them to do evil. We shouldn’t shy away from portraying that. We should portray it because it does happen.
Bottom line: There are people in this world who are cruel and evil simply because they’re possessed by the devil.
There are countless real-life villains like Javert, but there are also countless real-life villains like the Thenardiers. Let’s portray both the Javerts and the Thenardiers.
Here’s a new song to listen to, since you’re probably done with “Stars.”
This one is also from Les Misérables – but the French version, which I love! Take a listen to “A La Volonte Du Peuple” (At the People’s Will), which is the original French version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
I really want to know what you guys have been up to! How’s your writing going? How’s life going? Give me all the tea! I can’t wait to chat in the comments again with all of you!
I needed the hiatus, and it was a helpful time for me, but it’s so good to be back!
Make sure to let me know what your thoughts are. Do you agree or disagree with my points? What’s your opinion of unsympathetic villains? Do you think Christians should write them? Who’s your favorite unsympathetic villain in fiction?
That was a lot of questions! 😂 But I really want to hear your honest answers to all of them, so please do share!
Before I close, I’ve got three things to share with y’all:
First up is this beautiful sketch of Temira. My talented friend, Relia, drew it for me. Isn’t it awesome?
The second thing is this amazing new song from Faouzia! Hero was just released a few days ago, and I’m obsessed. I highly recommend Faouzia’s music. Her voice is heavenly, and her lyrics and music videos are always so appropriate. You never have to worry about swear words, revealing clothing, or anything like that. I absolutely love her!
Listen to Hero as soon as you’re done with A La Volonte Du Peuple.
The third thing is that I’ve started a new novel!!
Unfortunately, I’m gonna be mean and say you won’t be hearing much of anything about it, probably not for a while. It’s still in its baby stages. Right now, I’ve gotten no further than daydreaming and outlining the main character’s backstory. I’ve been struggling so much with that backstory, but the story idea and the MC’s voice have totally captivated me. I know I’ve got to write it, and I’m excited to see where it goes!
Oh, and one more thing. Instead of JC Woodbury, I’ve changed my name to Joy C. Woodbury, because that’s what I want to publish under. I like JC Woodbury, but I prefer using my first name and my middle initial. You guys are absolutely still welcome to call me JC, though! Pretty much everyone on the blogosphere does now, and it’s completely okay with me. 😉
I can’t wait to talk with y’all! Join me down in the comments!
As we move forward with writing and life, let’s always remember that we are disciples who write.