Is it Ever Right to Sympathize With A Villain?

Jun 08, 2024 by S. R. Watts

As a writer, I find many aspects of storytelling fascinating discussion topics. Everything from world-building to the prevalence of themes is worthy of an in-depth look, making it easier for me to develop my skills as an author of fantasy and science fiction. However, some topics within the realm of fiction writing should be tackled with great care to avoid glorifying them to the point of making them permissible in society. One such element that I approach cautiously is the role of the villain and whether it is ever right to sympathize with them given their actions within a story.

Over the last decade, the entertainment industry has gone to great lengths to create stories that aim to convince the audience that villains are not the evil, one-sided antagonists we had previously thought. Whether it’s revising a well-established villain’s backstory, as we see with the Disney live-action films “Maleficent” and “Cruella,” or making the villains the protagonists of the film, such as in Dreamwork’s “Megamind” or Illumination’s “Despicable Me,” the villains of these stories are more or less portrayed as victims of circumstance. They have to take up the mantle of the villain simply because society has cast them out for not conforming to established rules.

While such tropes do make for interesting stories, they can, without us realizing it, lead the audience to think that villainy is somehow acceptable, or at the very least excusable, under the right circumstances. Many people have even been led to admire such characters for bringing a little anarchy to the established order of the system as they come to sympathise, or maybe even empathize with the very characters that society has long taught them to despise for their attempt to destroy civilization as we know it. This, of course, could have devastating consequences for the mental and spiritual well-being of viewers as such content can warp their understanding of what is morally right and wrong regarding the social contracts we ultimately agree to live by as people living in first-world countries. 

That’s not to say that the injustices depicted in such stories do not occur in the real world. Like the heroes and villains of hundreds of stories written throughout the centuries, nearly everyone has been the victim of corruption in one way or another, and there is no excuse for any of it. But what defines a hero and a villain are their actions to stamp out such corruption and whether they are willing to violate the morals that govern civilization to accomplish such ends. A hero will do everything he can to uphold those morals while fighting those who benefit from a corrupt system, while the villain is more than willing to violate those same morals to get what they want. Additionally, the hero’s motives for fighting corruption tend to be more altruistic, while the villains are more self-centered and often driven by a desire for revenge.

So, in closing, I will ask again: is it ever okay to sympathize with a villain? Put simply, the answer is “no.” If anything, a villain is a character designed to be pitied above all other characters. They serve as a cautionary tale of what happens to us when we choose to make bad choices in the face of hardship and trials. Their selfishness was never meant to be admirable or aspirational in any way, for it would go against the morals that ancient storytellers have strived to instill in their readers to create a stable, functioning society that is happy and prosperous. So the next time you watch a movie that paints the hero as sympathetic, don’t be pulled in by the writers’ attempt to make you feel sorry for them. Think about what the villain has done, and then determine for yourself whether his actions were truly justified.