60 – Making Your Villains Sympathetic

The Mythcreant Podcast

Chris, Oren, and Mike discuss how to craft villains that the audience can relate to. They describe different types of sympathetic villains, weigh the pros and cons of making villains relateable, and dissect examples of from popular media. Then they rejoice as Oren finally admits he just hates penguins.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Frank Underwood

Despicable Me


Dr. Horrible


Mr. Freeze

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Zuko: Avatar the Last Airbender

Penguin from Gotham

Spike and Drusilla


Nero from 2009 Star Trek

Wrath of Khan

Dios from Discworld

Dukat from DS9

Ro Laren from TNG

Admiral Cain

Lex Luther

Red Son

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds

Five Dualities That Can Replace Good and Evil

Bora Horza Gobuchul

Edward Nygma from Gotham

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  1. Noelle

    Hm, I feel as though there are more villain protagonists in literature than movies, but maybe I’m thinking of compelling as opposed to sympathetic villains. Then again, Frank Underwood (or in the original, Francis Urquhart–FU lol) is also an interesting but still evil villain protagonist.

    There’s Richard III (literature but actually meant to be performed), Dostoevsky (especially Crime and Punishment, baby!), and then plenty of thrillers (like You). If they’re the protagonist, can’t the viewpoint be from the villain only?

    I thought a lot of sympathetic villains were tragic because they were mistreated or misguided, but perhaps those are different categories? Like Chris was saying I guess heh. Mad at the world.

    I suppose for me one of the best ways to make a villain compelling is to make them realistic and believable, in certain ways. They can still be larger than life and even erratic. But complexity can come from how they rationalize their actions and move in the world. Like Dukat!

    Wait, how is Penguin in Gotham bad at what he does? Lol. In later seasons he screws up, but he makes countless successful murder attempts and takes huge risks.

    Anyway, I’m only halfway through this episode, but didn’t want to lose my comment, so am posting here. XD You’ll probably answer a number of these questions as I continue.

  2. Noelle

    Ooh, have you seen the British House of Cards? It’s only three seasons, a few episodes per season, and the second two follow FU after he’s gained power. The first season is definitely the best, but the second two are frighteningly prescient…

    You discuss this in another podcast, but I also want to add that I find a lot of stereotypes about sympathetic villains to be harmful. Many contribute to the myth that people who commit horrible crimes just make a “mistake” or are somehow “justified,” which is how we treat a lot of abusive people in the real world. I think the key is to showing how selfish they are (I mean, if they really are the baddie and the protagonist isn’t the misguided one). As I said above, like Gul Dukat. So even if a character knows they’re doing something wrong but they continue to do it anyway, it’s more than emotion that’s driving them, it’s a way of thinking and feeling that has been reestablished over years.

    There’s always so much to say about your podcasts and articles, so I’ll try to leave it at that. Thank you for all of your thoughtful commentary on storytelling!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh boy it’s been so long since we recorded this I barely remember what we said. But yeah, I absolutely agree that in the rush to make sympathetic villains, storytellers often end up excusing harmful behavior.

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