Maleficent. Elphaba. Regina. There’s a reason these new spins on classic stories are so popular. These stories make for an intriguing new look at something old and familiar—one that forces us to reconsider the villain. We can all take a lesson from this villain-as-hero trend.

When writing villains, how do you create rich, compelling character? The answer is easy: Empathy.

Maleficent: Writing Villains

Photo by Global Panorama

Why Use Empathy When Writing Villains?

Empathy is the action of sharing another person’s feelings. As your characters’ creator, it’s your responsibility to do this for each and every one of them. Even the one who is trying to ruin everything for all the others. Because if you don’t care enough for your characters to do this, how will readers?

Easy answer: They won’t.

Empathy Makes Better Villains

Something interesting happens when you empathize for someone else: you inevitably begin to understand their opposing perspective. And a character we can understand is a better character, whether a villain or a hero.

A Big Bad Wolf may serve fine for a children’s tale, but when you settle into a novel, readers want more. Don’t just give readers reasons to hate your villain—if his favorite pastime is drowning kittens, how did he get that way? The best stories let you understand where every character is coming from.

How Do You Create Empathy?

There are many ways to encourage empathy when writing villains. While you could choose to rewrite their life story like in Wicked, you don’t have to. It can be as simple as giving your villain a redeeming quality.

For example, one would not usually lend your empathy to a freelance assassin hunting down a couple and their newborn. But in the comic book Saga, we see that assassin (the Will) become someone we can empathize for through a few simple acts. For example, readers don’t expect much when the Will makes a stop at a sex house for some down time, but he ends up fighting his way out to save a child held as a captive here. And bam! Suddenly the Will isn’t a heartless villain anymore. He’s an otherwise-alright guy who somehow ended up in the assassin business and is just trying to do his job.

Villains sometimes get the short end of the stick. While the hero basks in the readers’ love, the villain is often left underdeveloped. But all it takes to bring your villain to the next level is a little extra consideration—the kind of consideration you give your hero.

What villains have earned your empathy as a reader? How?

PRACTICE WRITING VILLAINS

Choose a familiar story from your childhood and consider its villain. For fifteen minutes, write about what made that villain turn out that way.

When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Emily Wenstrom
Emily Wenstrom
By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.