Creating Sympathetic Villains

Villains are supposed to be the bad guys. The ones in dark swirling cloaks, riding black horses on stormy nights. Well, yes, technically. I’m all for creating mean, evil baddies.

But, here’s the thing…cardboard villains are boring.

The creepiest, most memorable bad guys are the ones who believe they’re in the right. The ones who are sympathetic in a “There but for the grace of God go I” kind of way.

I’ve been watching the show Flashpoint lately, and it offers some great lessons on how to create this kind of sympathetic villain. The show follows members of a fictional SWAT team while they try to diffuse various hostage situations.

As part of their job, the team must try to identify with and make connections with the “bad guy.” This gives them a very interesting perspective, and wonderfully deep and haunting villains.

Let's look at a couple of examples:

Villain #1: A young man holds up a restaurant he believes is a front for a terrorist cell. We find out later that he has paranoid schizophrenia and is actually being set up by his counselor, who wants revenge for the death of his wife. The tension builds because viewers feel this young man’s conflict and confusion. He truly thinks he’s saving lives with his actions; he thinks he’s honoring his counselor. Yet, we also see that he knows just how wrong it is that he’s pointing a gun at innocent people.

One of the most powerful moments happens when the SWAT team calls the man’s father to let him know of the situation. The father, a nice elderly chap, clutches the phone to his chest and says in strained weary voice: “Oh no, what’s he done? Is-is he alive?”

He knows his son is not well, he and his wife have spent their lives trying to get their son the best treatment. The viewer knows this man is devastated, that he feels responsible for his son’s actions, and that he’s truly worried for his “little boy.” At the end of the conversation, he pauses and says, “We-we still love him, you know. Even after this. Please get him out alive.”

That simple human interaction — the fact that our villain has family or friends who love him — makes it all the more real.

Villain #2: A drug-addicted mother is forced to put her toddler-age daughters in foster care while she serves her prison sentence. The judge tells her she’ll be reunited with them if they’re still in foster care after her 10-year sentence is done. The girls’ foster parents fall in love with them and decide to officially adopt them.

No one thinks to inform Mom.

When she’s finally released from prison, she’s turned her life around. She uses her small savings to buy a little apartment and fix up a room for the daughters she thinks she’s getting back. It’s clear she’s put a lot of time, love and care into decorating the room. Then, her parole office drops the bomb…her kids have been adopted…she’s not getting them back.

So, she decides to kidnap them instead.

Evil move, sure, but by this point, the viewer can almost understand where she’s coming from. Those kids have been her sole motivation for making it through a decade of prison. It would be a horrific situation to find out that your kids are no longer yours, especially when you’ve been told differently all along.

After she kidnaps them, she takes them to their childhood home and gives them their old toys that she’s treasured all these years. While she’s clearly unstable and erratic, we also feel heartbroken for her as she’s sobbing that all she wants is to hold her children. Her moment of redemption comes when she realizes that in order to really love her daughters, she has to do what’s best for them (not her) and let them go.

Yes, she’s the bad guy, but I think we can each see a little of ourselves in her.

Besides its great characterization of villains, the thing I like best about Flashpoint is that it makes me ask: “What if it was me?” or “What if it was someone I know?” How would my sympathies shift?

Let's ask ourselves that next time we’re writing about our bad guy.


  1. If you're not already familiar with it you should look up the Stanford Prison Experiment. A lot of people don't "approve" (that maybe be the wrong word for it) of it, but it forces us to look at ourselves from a different perspective. We can ask ourselves what we'll do in a situation, but until we're in it we can't know what we'll do. I think the point is that it doesn't make you ask what you'll do, but make you wonder what you'll do.

  2. You're right - as much fun as it is to write an outright "baddie", they're better characters when they're human too.

    My favourite villains are the ones you hate but feel bad for at the same time. Arvin Sloane in Alias is my favourite example of this.

  3. M.E. - Good points. I think writing from a different perspective is very important to keep a story compelling.

    Miss Cole - Kudos on the Alias reference. :)

  4. My husband is a gaurd at a prison, and he mainly works with people with mental disorders. It really is sad. These are NOT good guys, but some of them are so screwed up, you really can't help but feel bad for them, too.

  5. Aloha Nicole,

    I haven't written too many bad guy roles yet, (I'm co-writing a memoir) but once WIP becomes "Done" I'm sooo looking forward to putting the flesh on some evil peeps :)

    Thanks for a great post, and I'm going to save it for future reference.

  6. Rachel - Bet he has lots of interesting insights. My old roommate worked in a similar situation as a therapist.

    Mark - Glad your memoir doesn't have bad guys. :) Good luck when you do start writing them!

  7. I have given you an award on my blog. Stop by to claim it.

  8. Thanks Krista - I'll check it out!

  9. love the examples...I think that convincing villains are difficult to write - but oh so good to read when written well. I've just written an Anti-Hero, and he was one of my favourite characters to 'bring to life'.