How to Write a Sympathetic Villain

Silhouette of a mysterious man © Sergign/Shutterstock.

Editor's Note:

Karen Rose is the award-winning, #1 international bestselling author of some twenty novels, including the bestselling Baltimore and Cincinnati series. She has been translated into twenty-three languages and her books have placed on the New York Times, the Sunday Times (UK), and Germany’s der Spiegel bestseller lists.


I’ve always thought of the villain as the most important character in any suspense/thriller. If he (or she) isn’t doing villainy things, the other characters — especially those the author has created to defeat him — may never cross paths with one another. So the villain has to be a strong, well-defined character whose motivation is believable enough to carry him through the book. That said, every villain is not created equal. Goals and motivations will differ. They must, or the villain becomes “cookie-cutter” and won’t be authentic to readers.

A real villain is a terrifying villain because in life, we’re surrounded by real people who may have secrets or fantasies or even concrete plans to harm us. Evil often hides behind a pretty face — otherwise, we’d all be smart enough to run away! The idea that our neighbor or friend or grocer or beat cop could be a villain is terrifying because it means that we’ve lost the forewarning necessary to protect ourselves.

So how does one create a real villain? One way is to make them “sympathetic.” Make their motivation one to which readers can relate. I like to make them behave in ways that make readers think, “If I were in their shoes, that’s exactly what I’d do.” (By the way, this makes my mother very worried about me!)

A sympathetic villain might be motivated by revenge for another. I set out to create a sympathetic villain in my third book, I’m Watching You. The villain kills those who’ve hurt others, especially through sexual assault. He’s triggered by the suicide of someone he loved, someone who had been victimized multiple times by villains who had slipped through the criminal justice system to walk the streets and prey on the innocent all over again. He draws the names of his targets from a fishbowl. This random choice separates him from having to “choose” whom he kills. It’s fate. He’s simply the “messenger.”

This villain eventually begins to justify those he’s killed accidentally while aiming for the “bad guys.” A bodyguard standing next to his target — a sleazy defense attorney — is shot when the villain’s aim is off. The villain tells himself that the guard got what he deserved. If he hadn’t been protecting a slimeball, he wouldn’t have been in the bullet’s path.

The sympathetic vigilante slowly becomes the monster he’s been hunting, but he doesn’t admit this to himself until he finds himself about to step over a line he knows he should not cross. For example, if a child witnesses him killing a target, for a split second, the villain sees no choice but to silence the child permanently.

But a villain cannot do this. The child is a true innocent, and even the idea of killing the innocent shakes the villain to his moral core. It’s the motivation behind his crimes and the moral core that makes him a very sympathetic villain.

Another way to make a villain sympathetic is to show the reader the “how” and the “why” of the murderer’s end goal.

The villain of my sixth book, Count to Ten, is set on punishing everyone in the foster system who has betrayed him and his little brother — finally resulting in his brother’s death in a fire. He maims or kills his targets and then sets a fire and leaves them to burn.

He’s been horribly abused and this makes him sympathetic to a point. One could understand how his mistreatment as a child might spawn such a sociopathic adult. But what he’s done is still wrong. It’s evil, especially as he finds he’s made mistakes, killing those who had nothing to do with his fate. He doesn’t care. He is single-minded in his goal.

However, he has a vulnerability. He loves animals. He always sets the pets outside before torching a house. That vulnerability makes him more relatable. His trauma makes him sympathetic, but it never changes that he’s evil and wreaking havoc on those who turn out to be innocent of his charges. His vulnerability ultimately becomes the means by which he’s found and defeated.

My upcoming book, Say You’re Sorry, features another sympathetic villain. He has also been abused. He turns his ire on women displaying a specific characteristic. (Sorry, no spoilers!) However, he has his vulnerabilities, too. There are moral lines he cannot cross which makes him sympathetic.

Now, readers won’t like him. They won’t root for him to win. They will, however, relate to how he got to be the way he is. But at the end of the day, he’s a coldblooded killer. He kills for his own personal benefit. He kills innocent victims who may have no idea that they’ve angered him.

Sympathetic villains will pluck at readers’ heartstrings. Many will wish that the villain could be somehow rehabilitated or redeemed, and may be saddened and regretful when this doesn’t occur.

However, we’ll be satisfied — both reader and author. I think one reason that people read suspense is they wish to see justice done because it rarely happens in the real world. This thinking applies to sympathetic villains, merciless villains, and all the villains in between. We want evil punished, but feeling regret for the circumstances that created the “sympathetic” villain who sought to avenge another, or whose moral compass was wrecked through abuse, is what makes us not villains.