Empathizing with Villainy

I love writing about villains. Villains can do all the fun things that heroes can’t. They can spit in public and throw cigarette butts into children’s sandboxes. They can drink all morning and pass out in an empty church pew during evening mass. They can steal a car or make store returns without a receipt. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a good villain, but it’s important that people empathize with your villain, otherwise your story may fall a bit flat.

A lot of writers do this is by making the villain charming. Add a little swag and everything’s forgiven. “Don’t worry, I’ve got clean sand in the shed outback. That cigarette butt’s not a problem.”

I’ve also seen self-depricating villains, which causes people to feel for them on some level, but I have to say, I hate it when the bad guy hates himself. I’m supposed to hate you, not the other way around.

Another way to create empathy is to let your hero have a slightly darker side. Let the hero have a hand in breeding reader empathy. For instance, your hero could accidentally run over and kill the villain’s dog. Or, say there’s a battle, the hero could slay the villain’s family. (Squeaky clean heroes are overrated, anyway.)

What I enjoy most is getting to know the villain. Show me his kids and his mother. Show me his dog and that he used to get beat up in gym class. Show me the bad uncle who used to share his weed with him every summer. Show me his first broken heart and the dream he still has of skydiving when he’s old.

Building a complex villain will make your readers love to hate him. I’m still learning how to create good villains in my own writing, but I’m really enjoying the process. And I love that in some instances, you really can’t tell who is good and who is not.

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2 thoughts on “Empathizing with Villainy

  1. Hi Valerie,

    I’m with you on the bad guy hating himself. If done tastefully and with humor, it can work, and I’ve seen it do so, but it’s rare. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing!

    Joey

    1. Thanks joey! You’re right. If done properly a self hating villain can still be entertaining, but most of the time it just comes off as winey. Thanks for commenting and the tweet!

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