Writing Techniques

Literary String Theory Part 3: Empathy Trumps Entropy

Ensuring that your readers understand the actions and feelings of your characters is the only way to endear them to readers’ hearts for the long haul. Empathy for characters also keeps readers more invested in the plot.

It’s pretty easy to have readers empathize with your protagonist(s), especially if you’re working in third person limited. They are the good guys, they have clear positive attributes, and even if they slip up, their good outweighs any temporary bad decisions. Where the empathy tactic takes on difficulty is with villains. However, if you succeed, you will have a more compelling plot conflict and readers who are eager to flip the pages.

So, in this third and final installment of my character development series, I’m going to talk about the types of villains that create empathetic responses in readers and how they are created.

(Missed the previous episodes of Literary String Theory? Read part one on dimensional characters and part two on internal conflict.)

Because I’ll have to discuss villain psyches and motivations in order to demonstrate the concept, consider this your official SPOILER ALERT. I’ll put the title of the book or movie and the character’s name first, then drop down a paragraph before giving anything away. I’ll try to keep the spoilers as minimal and vague as possible, but do be aware. I’ve tried my best to include multiple examples for each category so that you can hopefully pick and choose to read about characters you already know.

The Anti-Villain

This is a villain who has great potential for good, and even does switch sides occasionally. This is arguably the most sympathetic villain because the reader can clearly see potential for redemption almost from the beginning. Of course, one could also argue that these characters aren’t even truly villains in some cases. These characters typically have sad backstories that drive their misdeeds.

Example 1: Sandman, from Spiderman 3

Flint Marko is a professional criminal. He robs banks, and he’s suspected in the death of Spiderman’s uncle. When he accidentally falls into a pit on a government military testing facility, his molecules are fused with sand, and he uses his new powers to attempt larger robberies. This doesn’t sound like a good guy. But why does Flint/Sandman do all of this? His daughter, Penny, is dying of cancer, and a blue-collar job isn’t going to pay for her treatments. I dare you not to get emotional watching a newly transformed Flint try desperately to pick up the locket with his daughter’s picture as his hand crumbles into sand over and over again. Flint isn’t a murderer either, as Peter finds out later. He is a desperate man who has chosen what he feels is his only way to save his daughter, even if it ruins his own life. The viewer feels no malice toward Flint, and thus the audience roots for him to change his ways rather than rooting for his demise.

Example 2: Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter series

Okay, let’s be clear upfront. I don’t think the secret of Snape’s “love” for Lily automatically makes him a hero and a great person. Yes, I sympathized with him far more after learning that, but I don’t think he’s a precious misunderstood angel. He verbally tortured children to such a degree that Neville Longbottom’s boggart turns into him. And his love for Lily was more like obsession and a sense of possession.

However, I sympathize with him because the man never had an example of how to love thanks to an abusive and tumultuous home life. He was also ruthlessly bullied in his school life. Those things shape a person, and readers understand why he became a Death Eater in his youth. And they sympathize even more when he turns back to the good side.

However, even before the 7th book’s revelation of Snape’s history and the explanation that he didn’t actually murder a certain great wizard in book 6, Snape was an anti-hero in books 1-5. He saved Harry from Quirrell’s jinx on his broom. In book 3, he made himself a human shield to protect Harry and his friends against a man he believed was a murderer and later against a werewolf. He was a member of the Order of the Phoenix (and it turns out, a damn brave and important one).

Snape has all the classic elements of an anti-villain, and he’s a prime example of the “is he” or “isn’t he” villain type that deeply enriches a plot line.

Example 3: Loki, from the Marvel Universe

Loki’s an ass; there’s no doubt about it. And he also commits some pretty evil acts, such as trying to enslave humanity with an army of aliens. However, though he is a clear villain, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who truly loathes him. The reason is threefold. First, Loki didn’t have the most loving upbringing. He is Odin’s adopted son, and is always overlooked in favor of Thor. All of his ideas are laughed at. He is the eldest, but he is not the chosen heir for the throne. Odin shows him very little love all around, and Loki’s first acts of violence and mischief are done in the name of earning his father’s favor. Second, and most important, Loki redeems himself with acts of heroism on multiple occasions throughout the course of the Marvel movies, even if he does them for selfish reasons most of the time. And when Thor needs him most, such as when they have to take on their wicked sister, Hela, Loki always shows up. Lastly, Loki is witty and at times hilarious, and it’s hard to hate a guy with a sense of humor. Seems simplistic, but it’s true.

The Created Villain

There are two basic types of created villains (though there are always exceptions and nuances).

The most common is the antagonist who was essentially created by the protagonist, or someone close to the protagonist. This creation either occurs before the events of the story begin and is revealed in a vengeful villain monologue later, or is shown as the inciting incident in the first few scenes.

The second and rarer type is the villain who starts out as a hero and is gradually created throughout the course of the story.

Example 1: The Joker, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman

The Joker, especially in Burton’s version, is a classic example of a hero-created villain. But in this story, there’s an added layer. The Joker, who is at that time a hitman called Jack Napier, actually created Batman when he murdered the Waynes and asked little Bruce if he’d ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. Later, Bruce, as Batman, drops Napier into a vat of chemicals in a shoot out in an Axis warehouse, scrambling his brains, and making an already violent man extremely unbalanced.

Example 2: Carrie White, from Carrie

Carrie remains the protagonist throughout King’s novel, but by the end, she’s morphed into something monstrous and deadly. Carrie did not deserve her fate. She was created by her environment. Carrie is an overweight, unattractive girl with a sweet disposition and a caring heart. However, she is raised by an insane zealot of a mother, who locks her in closets and abuses her verbally and physically, all in the name of Jesus. Somehow, this hasn’t managed to screw Carrie up and twist her into an unkind person, even by the age of sixteen. However, this repression and abuse has caused Carrie to be so sheltered and shy that she is bullied consistently at school. Things begin to escalate when, while at school, Carrie starts her period for the first time, much later than most girls. She is terrified. Her mother has never told her about her cycle, and she thinks she’s dying. Instead of aiding her, the girls in the locker room mock and chant at her, and pelt her with feminine products. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough for a teen, this torture, along with Carrie’s coming of age, awakens her telekinetic powers. Carrie, who has never had control over anything in her life, suddenly has great power. At first, she uses it only for fun and benign things, because that’s who she is. But her bullies and her mother grow more ruthless, and at last, Carrie snaps and becomes a mass murderer.

Example 3: Annabelle Blackthorn, from the Dark Artifices series

Annabelle is a little unique in that the heroes did not really create her—another villain did. Her own family murdered her for loving the warlock, Malcolm Fade, but she does not become murderous herself until Malcolm resurrects her. Her story blends the two types of created villains. Yes, she is unbalanced and commits murder right after her resurrection, but she killed Malcolm because she understood how wicked and dangerous he had become. She is not really villainous. She is initially “created” by the villain, and then she becomes more deadly as others, including the heroes, begin to hunt her down and try to force her into traumatic situations to help them out. At the end of the second book, Annabelle snaps and kills an innocent.

Reprehensible, Yet Understood

These villains created themselves. They chose the wrong path and let their vices get the best of them. However, they aren’t evil for the sake of evil. They also usually have some sort of logic behind their actions, or a single instance or ideal they point to as a motivation for what they do. The reader does not agree with this villain or their choices. The reader desperately wants this villain to be stopped. However, the reader at least understands why the villain is the way he is and does what he does. Empathy is understanding.

If your villain’s motivations are just based on a love of evil, you run the risk of a “Big Bad” feel: a villain who does only evil all the time, and who has no good qualities. Bo-ring. Now, there are some GREAT villains who commit heinous acts based on a sadistic nature or a love of chaos. Take Christopher Nolan’s Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger. What makes the Joker lack that boring “Big Bad” feel? For one, he’s funny. It’s an odd sensation for the audience, laughing at someone so openly cruel and heinous, and yet when the Joker does his pencil disappearing trick, it’s hard not to be startled into laughter. There is an unexpected contrast there, and that, along with the Joker’s extreme intelligence and thought-provoking monologues, makes the Joker feel fresh.

But I’ve run down a rabbit trail. Let’s discuss the villains whose motivations allow some level of understanding from readers.

Example 1: Gollum, from the Lord of the Rings series

Gollum is a disgusting little creature, and he will do anything and slaughter anyone for his Precious. However, the audience still feels some empathy toward him. This is because the half of his brain that once was the hobbit Smeagol is still alive somewhere in that destroyed mind. Smeagol begins to care for Frodo and tries to thwart his evil half, Gollum, a few times, but he is weak and ultimately fails. Readers understand Gollum. They know his actions are driven by insanity and the power of the ring. However, young Smeagol was the captain of his own demise. He murdered his cousin for the ring. We know from watching other characters that though the ring has power, those of moral fortitude can resist it. Smeagol had no such qualms, and it led to the creation of Gollum, so the reader’s empathy only stretches so far.

Example 2: The Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wizard of Oz

Let’s examine the Wicked Witch through only the lens of the original tale, and not get into her origins detailed in Oz The Great and Powerful, because then she would more easily fit in the “created” villains category. In Dorothy’s story, the Wicked Witch is a clear villain. She has an army of scarecrow-ripping flying monkeys, she and her sister attack munchkins, and all that good witchy stuff. She’s even green for goodness sake! How could she not be evil? Well, she may be mean, but is she really evil? Dorothy killed her sister and then inadvertently stole the Wicked Witch of the East’s magic slippers, which should have gone to the Witch of the West. The Witch of the West just wants the shoes. It’s Glenda who tells Dorothy not to give them back, so the witch’s issue should really be with her. There’s no excuse for threatening the life of little Toto or ripping apart the scarecrow, but the audience at least knows where the witch is coming from.