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I'm in the process of defining the characters for a novel. It is a crime fiction, with a really strong focus on the characters. I hope to construct really rich, complex and clearly defined characters.

I know that I should, in principle, create characters the reader can identify with. I've got some conflicts for the good guys, with redemption, self-forgiveness and the usual goodness. But how about my bad guy, who is a ruthless, violent, ambitious and macho killer?

What are the pros and cons of creating bad guys the reader can identify and empathize with?

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3 Answers 3

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How sympathetic to make your villain depends heavily on what your villain's role in the story is. Once you're able to figure out what role he has, what effect you'd like him to have on your audience, I think you'll be able to see quite easily whether that role demands reader identification (and how much).

The villain always causes trouble for the protagonist. But what trouble he causes - what type; for what motive; most of all, why it's powerful, effective, and painful - this is what defines the villain's role. Is the villain threatening because he represents all-consuming evil? Or because he demonstrates just how easily the protagonist could slip over to the dark side? Is he fearsome because he's willing to kill thousands of people with his doomsday device - or because he's able to traumatize a single individual due to their warped, dysfunctional relationship? Is the villain a friend who betrays the hero, a foe who wants vengeance against the hero, a massive power who is callously apathetic to the hero and his friends? Each of these tilts us to strive for a different measure of reader identification and sympathy.

Here's a few guidelines on what the different extremes can be good at. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I think the examples here will help you figure out where your own villain stands.

Low Reader Identification

  • Good vs. Evil: Lots of stories are simply a conflict between A and B; A is good and B is bad. Fantasy and action stories can work really well with this framework - it justifies the plot and moves it forward, and doesn't really need any justification beyond that. The villain's personality is simply not the focus. Examples: Sauron; Darth Vader;
  • Faceless Evil: If the enemy is a vast corporation, a dispassionate machine, or even an uncaring society, then the fact that we can't identify with it is the entire point. Here you actually go to great effort to stress how callous and nonsympathetic the enemy is. Examples: ST:TNG's Borg; the ministries of Brazil and 1984; Batman's cruel, corrupt Gotham City.
  • Alien Mindset: Similarly, sometimes the idea is that something is so alien to us that it is entirely incomprehensible. Here, too, you need to stress the incomprehensibility - make clear that this is not an issue that can be bridged with sufficient effort and understanding. Examples: the Cthulhu mythos, the fae (e.g. as portrayed in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or in Pratchett's Lords and Ladies), Batman's Joker.

A major problem to avoid here is an implausible villain - a bad guy so mindlessly, pointlessly evil it feels exaggerated and false. Another thing to watch out for is character depth dissonance - in other words, if all your good guys are complex, believable characters but your bad guys are simple caricatures, they might feel mismatched. The bad guys feel false simply by comparison.

High Reader Identification

  • Complex Conflict: The opposite of Good vs. Evil, many stories place great importance as portraying the villain as a realistic, understandable character - perhaps an antihero or even full-out heroic in his own right. Such stories try to avoid simplistic or arbitrary divisions into "good guys" and "bad guys," and generally work to stress that such divisions are inherently flawed. Examples: Martin's Song of Ice and Fire; Dexter; Batman's Catwoman.
  • Tragic Conflict: The above point - that your enemies are sympathetic and generally trying to be OK people - can quickly turn to the tragic, particularly if you start killing each other. Evoking sympathy for the villain - even partial sympathy - makes the conflict tragic rather than triumphant. Examples: The Buggers of Ender's Game, Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
  • Misguided Evil: Sometimes a villain represents a particular ideal, worldview or character trait, perhaps taken to an extreme. The story might demonstrate the destructiveness of that element, showing the villain to be misguided. In this case, some identification with the villain is necessary for the reader to understand the villain's case, or to demonstrate how tempting or compelling this viewpoint can be. Examples: Magneto in X-Men, the pigs in Animal Farm, Dukat in ST:DS9.

A major problem to avoid here is to make your villain overly sympathetic - if readers feel that a villain is partially justified, perhaps merely misguided, then they might not condone the protagonist's conflict against him. They might be in favor of opposing him, but "extreme measures" - such as killing the bad guy, or otherwise harming him greatly - may feel cruel. This can make epic climaxes very difficult.


For your particular story, I don't know precisely what to recommend without knowing more about it. You want rich, complex character dynamics, so maybe the villain should be in on that. On the other hand, "Ruthless Macho Killer" sounds more of the stone-cold evil type, and that's extremely appropriate for crime fiction. See where on this spectrum you think your villain belongs; if you're not sure, I hope I've given you ideas for what kind of direction you'd like to take his role. Once you know that, I hope I've given you enough to answer your question.

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+1 for such an excellent answer. –  Craig Sefton Feb 14 '12 at 14:45
    
Standback, that's a fantastic answer, thanks! It prompts me to write a follow-up question. –  Carl Seleborg Feb 18 '12 at 9:17
    
wow, fabulous examples. great answer. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 18 '12 at 13:28

Pro: The bad guy will be convincing!

A character that readers can't connect to in any way will look fake, and the readers will have a hard time believing them. Just like a perfect good-guy (see: Mary Sue) isn't believable, so is the absolute villain.

In real life, villains truly believe that they are good people. I doubt Hitler would wake up in the morning and say to himself, "What evil things can I do today?"

Warning: Don't overdo it.

Yes, the readers need to understand the villain, and see his point of view, but don't sympathize. This is a bad guy, after all! The keyword is empathy.

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Your readers don't necessarily have to be able to identify with your bad guy, but they should at least be able to accept him as a believable character. You don't necessarily need to explain why he is bad or what caused him to become bad, but he should elicit some kind of response from your readers. It is up to you as to whether that response is the kind of shock that accompanied Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) or the empathy that accompanied Boo Radley (To Kill a Mockingbird) (who ultimately turned out to be a good guy). My point is that you can make your readers despise or empathize with your bad guy, but one way or another they should FEEL something!

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