Why Authors Should Write Unsympathetic Villains

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.

Villain, Crime, Cartoon, Criminal, Man, Black, Thief

*walks in with a bang*

HEY Y’ALL!!!!

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….

THAT’S CRAZY.

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.

Image Credit – Broadway Buzz

The other is the family of Thenardiers – namely, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.

Les Miserables Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenardiers 8 x 10 Inch Photo
Image Credit – Amazon

Javert is what you would call a sympathetic villain, while the Thenardiers are anything but.

Let’s talk about Javert first.

Javert

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.

Let’s chat!

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.

Love,

Joy

34 thoughts on “Why Authors Should Write Unsympathetic Villains

Add yours

  1. True thoughts you have, Joy! As I read your article, it also occurred to me that as a result of sin we are all inherently selfseeking instead of selfless, and so perhaps that’s why some seem to have no reason for their evil, since that reason dwells within all of us. The difference lies in how we have decided to deal with that selfishness – to embrace it, or to abandon it and turn our faces toward the kingdom. (Welcome back from hiatus!! and best wishes for your novel! 🤗 (By the way, as it relates to “Project Psalms and Proverbs” *wink wink* I’ve been finding it so hard to choose JUST one verse; so lets cut ourselves some slack and include the prior or following verse for context when needed! 😂)
    Have an amazing day, Joy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Makayla!

      THAT IS A GREAT POINT. “As a result of sin we are all inherently selfseeking instead of selfless.” Wow. That’s poignant! You are so right that the difference lies in how we decide to embrace that selfishness or listen to Christ.

      Ah, thank you! Alrighty, let’s do context! That’s always the best way to read the Bible anyway. *wink winks back*

      You too!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First off, WOOHOOOO JOY CAROLINE IS BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s sooo awesome to have you back in the blogosphere, girl!! 🙂

    Anyway, FINALLY someone who sees this as I do!!! So, though I don’t normally go around debating writing rules and stuff (well, not online. I have plenty of debates at my house, but they’re more one-sided cuz my dad never has a clue what I’m talking about 😂), anyway, I’ve never bought into the whole unsympathetic villain thing. I mean, yeah, I’ll write it, I don’t mind reading it, but I never thought villains HAD to be unsympathetic because EXACTLY like you said, evil just exists in this world, and the reason why people are evil is because of satan. Done and done. Yeah, satan uses tragic backstories and things like that to keep people doing his will, but people themselves are just evil because we are born with sin.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this thoughtful post and I LOVE the drawing for Temira!!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha, thank you so much! It’s great to be back!

      *gives you a high-five* It’s pretty fun to debate well-established writing rules. XD

      Ooh, that’s a really great point. Satan does use traumatic experiences to convince people that his way is better. Needless to say, we need God to fight our battles.

      Thanks! I know – it’s so pretty!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *GASP* I realize I worded something wrong. *facepalm and grumbles something about my lack of rereading* I MEANT that I never bought into the whole sympathetic villain thing. *sheepish smile* I’m SO sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. This unsympathetic, sympathetic thing is confusing me in all honesty. I’m getting them all backward now. 😂 I don’t really know half of what I’m saying anymore. Basically, I agree with you. Just ignore all my other nonsensical words. XD

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, JC! Great article. I haven’t heard much from this perspective, and I think you’re right. Both kinds of villains are great, and I’m still trying to decide whether to make my own villain sympathetic or not… so thanks for the advice! My favorite unsympathetic villain in fiction… interesting. There are way, way too many to choose from! And I think some of my favorite villains are sympathetic, so it’s hard to choose… 🙂 I think my opinion is that both kinds of characters are necessary, and it’s probably dangerous to have two sympathetic villains in one novel, but sympathetic characters often pack the biggest punch. If Gnag the Nameless from The Wingfeather Saga, Bruno from City of Orphans, and Dr. Hellion from The Girl who Could Fly weren’t sympathetic, the story wouldn’t be as good. But it would be very hard to redeem the villains in Freckles and still make the story a good one.
    That’s great! Quick question, though… are you still writing the one about Paul and Temira, or are you taking a hiatus from that, too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Faith! Thank you so much!

      I’m so glad the article helped you! Oh yes, there are so many great unsympathetic villains out there. Some of my favorites are sympathetic, too. Like Javert. XD

      I would definitely agree with you. Having both kinds of villains in one novel packs a super powerful punch, like in Les Mis. Yeah, you’re right there as well. It just depends on the story and the character, I think. I’ve been wanting to read The Wingfeather Saga, by the way!

      Thanks! I’ve taken a step back from TAS right now, because there’s a lot I need to think through. I’ll still work on it in the next couple of months, but not every day.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Like

  4. Excellent Joy! Very well said and definitely true to real life. History is full of evil people who chose to be evil. Who were not victims and deserve to called what they were.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Joy! This was a really interesting post to read about. Your comments about sympathetic villains really made me think back to the Star Wars movies, as they are another excellent example of how more sympathetic villains have become popular over the years. When the first Star Wars movies were released back in the 1970s, George Lucas portrayed the main villain, Darth Vader, as being completely evil. Over time however, especially with the newer movies explaining Darth Vader’s past, it’s clear that Vader/Anakin was just an innocent farm boy who felt unsatisfied with the Jedi and wanted to save his wife and mother from death, and was thus ultimately used by the completely evil Palpatine. There are definitely some parallels between Palpatine and Satan, providing an interesting metaphor for the rest of the Star Wars universe as we learn about all of Palpatine’s evil doings attempting to destroy democracy and make Anakin Skywalker evil.

    Congrats on starting your new book! Best of luck! 😀
    Isaac

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Isaac!

      Oh yes, Star Wars. Vader is the classic villain in the first few. I actually just read an article about Anakin Skywalker and how he’s basically a fallen hero. He doesn’t start off evil, and when he does go off on the wrong track, it’s all motivated by his desire to protect his mother and Padme. He’s got a complex past, as most sympathetic villains do. And I would agree about the parallels!

      Thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. YAY YOUR BACK!! I’m so happy!!

    This was a very interesting post! I agree that a mix of both types of villains is needed. And I intend to portray both in my WIP. Speaking of my WIP, I finished my first draft and I’m so happy!!!

    Oh my gosh I love Hero!! It’s such a good song and since I first heard it I can’t get it out of my head!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thanks, Trixie!! <33

      Yes, I think a mix is the perfect solution! Just one of the many things I love about Les Mis is that it has both. It creates two more interesting and moving perspectives, and that's what we want as writers, right? To have as many interesting and moving perspectives as we can.

      OH MY GOODNESS! You finished your draft!!!?? *showers you with chocolate and confetti* That is amazing!! And it's awesome that you're portraying both kinds of villains in your WIP!

      RIGHT? Same here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your welcome! I missed you!

        Yes! Les Mis sounds awesome! I need to get around to reading and watching it one day!

        Why thank you! *takes chocolate and confetti* Thank you so much! H

        Haha yes!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You totally do need to read and watch it! And definitely see the theatre version. Just today I was rewatching Colm Wilkinson live with “Bring Him Home” and cried so hard all over again. XD

          Good luck with the next step on your novel!

          Like

  7. I’m so glad you’re back! I’ve missed your posts! 😄

    LOVE this post! Villains play a very big part in my WIP series…I think I have at least seven secondary character villains 🤣
    I have my main villain as being just plain old EVIL, and some of the ones that follow him have sympathetic stories and backgrounds.
    I definitely like a good balance!
    Also I think I need to watch Les Miserables. 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Arein! I’m glad to be back!!

      Thanks! Wow, that is a lot of villains. But I say the more villains, the better. The more tense and epic the story will be! That sounds like a great plan. In the new WIP that I’m outlining, my main villain is plain old evil, but I have some other villains to feel sorry for. I agree that a balance is usually the best way to go!

      Yes, you totally do! Though in my humble opinion, the music in the movie isn’t all that great. But listening to the original London and Broadway theatre casts kind of ruined me for the movie soundtrack. 😂 The acting is excellent, however, and when I watched it, I sobbed through practically the whole thing. XD

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Villains make a story cooler. 😎

          Those London and Broadway soundtracks will always be the best ones for me! The other day I found an old 1985 recording of the opening song (live show) and got so happy because there are so few audios of Roger Allam singing live as the first Javert. (Like, none.) I’m pretty salty about that. 😂

          Definitely let me know when you see it!

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this, Joy! I see the need for both sympathetic and unsympathetic villains. Regarding sympathetic villains, I do dislike the ones portrayed as “he grew up in a horrible life and now does horrible things, but you should pity him because he didn’t have the best childhood” or whatever. Those I do not like. It’s too close to condoning the villain’s evil actions simply because they don’t have a stellar background or whatever the excuse is. Whatever the circumstance, it is possible to turn your life around, and when I read villains who have the opportunity, but refuse… ugh. (There. There’s my literary rant for the day XD).

    We see plenty of both in literature, but the Bible provides wonderful examples of unsympathetic villains. Saul, Judas, Haaman (uncertain on spelling), etc. They’re evil because they’re evil and have turned their backs on God. We need villains like that, sometimes, although I do think we have to be careful and not get too tropish.

    Just one small correction… the love of money is the root of all evil, not money itself. 🙂

    Tsk, tsk, not telling us about your new project. I’m on the edge of my seat, girl! But I understand. And I definitely get what you mean by having to write it. When we get that feeling, it’s like we’re consumed until we’re able to get the words down. Hope it goes well! May I ask what genre it is?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Madi! Ah, I really dislike those ones, too. I feel like “he had a bad childhood” is often used as a lazy explanation to garner sympathy for a villain. Sometimes I do start to think the author is excusing the villain by slapping a traumatic experience on him. And there are so many heroes with horrible backstories who rise above it and do the right thing! So why can the hero do it, but not the villain? *shakes head*

      That’s true – the Bible is full of unsympathetic villains. XD In fact, I can’t think of a single sympathetic one, except I must admit that sometimes I find myself feeling sorry for Saul, just ’cause he seemed ill. But then again, that was his own fault. I agree that we shouldn’t get too tropish. Speaking of Biblical villains, in Marjorie Holmes’ novel The Messiah, she invents an entire backstory for Judas that is just like… dang. I never thought I would find myself feeling bad for Judas – even relating to him. That’s one of my favorite villain backstories because I think she handled it extremely well. She wasn’t excusing Judas, but she sure was crafting a doozy of a story.

      Oops. Thanks for the correction!

      Haha, sorry! Maybe soon… like in a month. 😉 Thanks! It’s Biblical fiction – but with a twist. Biblical fiction meets fantasy, which I’ve never written before, so this will be an experience! XD

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You can put that to rest then, ’cause I totally do and I know there are lots who do also! Especially God. 💗💗 (Also, sorry for the late reply – I’ve been out all day today.)

      Like

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