Embrace your villains as a Writer

A common criticism in writing workshops is that a special character isn’t “sympathetic”. I once had a pupil who seemed pleased with this response. “You’re not supposed to like him” she said.

Her character was the stereotypical evil boyfriend (like Ron). Sam cheated on his wife Gumi and to make matters worse, had initiated the affair during the months Gina was recovering from a crippling car accident.

Now at face value, there’s nothing compassionate or remotely likable about this guy. But when readers crave for sympathy, what they’re truly after is connection. After all, we don’t certainly have to like a character. We don’t even have to feel sad for him. We just need to know him.


Compassion is an indispensable quality for writers to cultivate.

But summoning compassion can be a challenge, particularly when writing about people who have hurt us in some way. Even personalities wholly invented can suffer from our own preconceived notions. I’m not recommending you abandon your feelings about your characters. Just don’t be enslaved by them because here’s the thing –

Our beliefs about our characters, however warranted those feelings may be, often get in our way, offering only a limited number of circumstances and characteristics that capture those emotions. If we’re going to create our best work, we need to seek the humanity in our characters, including our oppressors.

To quote my good friend next door, “Embrace your villains”.

  • Start From the Assumption That Most People Are Good: They’re just wrong, often fatally. Even the best of us have imperfections. If observed long enough and from unlimited angles, the most troublesome people have qualities we can identify with, admire, even root for. The truth is, good people do bad things. And bad people do good things. In our most vulnerable moments, all of us are capable of making bad choices.
  • Explore Your Character’s Desire: Desire is the one thing we can experience even when the action taken to capture that desire is beyond our comprehension. We can’t understand a woman killing her baby but we can condole with her desire to save him from a life of captivity, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We can’t disregard a man covering up the sign of a fatal hit and run accident but we can understand a father’s desire to defend his daughter, as in Andre Dubus’ “A Father’s Story.” Readers aren’t just engaged in what characters do. They’re involved in why. Don’t just focus on surface events. Probe what’s underneath.
  • Tap Into Your Impulses:  Many great actors say that when they play a villain’s role — a killer, let’s say — they’re picking some shadow aspect of themselves. The thing is, as extreme as our characters’ actions may be, we often have the very same desires. We’ve just learned to overcome them. And here’s the great thing about our literary counterparts: they have full authority to act out the things we may want to do, the things we may fantasize about doing but would never do.
  • Interview Your Character: If you ask the correct questions, they will have everything to say to you. Some questions you might ask:
  • What are you most scared about?
  • What’s the worst that could happen to you?
  • What do you want right now?
  • What’s stopping you from getting it?
  • What could others’ do to you?
  • What would you do to get what you need?
  • What are you ready to sacrifice?
  • What hurt you so much in your life that you need to punish others for healing?
  • Reveal a Chink in the Armor: If you show the stock villain devoid of human frailty, we’ll have a stock reaction to your story. Said another way, we won’t give a damn.

Back to Gumi:

When she dug deeper, she discovered that there was a lonely husband grieving his girlfriend’s absence underneath Tucker’s infidelity. It wasn’t novelty he was after. It was intimacy. Once this writer tapped into her character’s anxiety, she imbued him with vulnerability to catch him in odd moments when his humanity slid through the cracks. We then had a very different reaction. I can’t say we liked Sam. And we certainly didn’t praise his affair. But we did feel tremendous compassion and understanding.

What about you?

  • How do you find the humanity in your characters?
  • What fictional or non-fictional characters have you sympathized with? 
  • What’s the reason?

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