writing, TV

Sympathy for the Villain

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that I’m not a fan of villains. I don’t pull for the bad guys until/unless they truly turn themselves around in a way that shows they know where they went wrong and sincerely feel bad about what they’ve done. I don’t care how sad their backstory is or how sexy and misunderstood they are. I’ll still be on Team Good Guys. And I resent stories that try to make me feel bad for the villains because they grew up poor and were mistreated, or anything like that. In the real world, the real villains on a big scale tend to be those who grew up with privilege and feel entitled.

But the series Andor is doing some interesting things about building (and removing) sympathy for villain characters, and not by doing the usual “sad childhood” things. I’m going to try to keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but I recommend watching this series. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this isn’t really “Star Warsy.” It’s more of a spy thriller in a science fiction setting. There are no Jedi, there’s no mention of the Force. It’s a look at life under the rule of the Empire for people at all levels of society.

One thing they do to make you look at the villain characters in a different way is to put the various storylines in silos. There’s a storyline about the Imperial Security Bureau that’s tracking down and eliminating threats to the Empire. There’s no doubt that these are the bad guys, but because everyone in the storyline would be considered villains, the protagonist of this storyline is a villain but is sort of the “good guy” for this story, as long as it’s not intersecting with any of the actual good guys. They do all the sorts of things you do to set up a protagonist. This woman is clearly smart and capable, and yet she’s an underdog because she can’t get people to listen to her. She’s figuring out what’s going on with the rebel movement, but she gets in trouble for crossing jurisdictional boundaries instead of praised for spotting a potential threat. I think just about anyone who’s worked in a business setting can relate to feeling like the smartest person in the room but not being able to get anyone to listen because they’re all stuck in petty bureaucratic fiefdoms. When she finally got recognized for her work, I caught myself cheering for her — and then I remembered that this is a bad thing. We don’t want the Empire figuring out what’s going on with the rebels. It was an interesting way to make us sympathize with her and see her as a human being without playing the “poor, sad backstory” card. It won’t make me hate her less when she comes into actual direct conflict with any of the good guy characters, but it does make me see the threat they face. This incredibly competent person who’s had to struggle to be recognized is scarier than your typical mustache-twirling one-dimensional villain.

There’s another character that’s giving me emotional whiplash. In a way, he’s similar to this woman in not being able to get his superiors to listen to him, but what we see first about him is that he’s focused on appearances. The very first thing we learn is that he’s had his uniform tailored and enhanced to have extra decorative piping. It’s such a silly little detail, but it tells us so much about him and sets up what he ends up doing. I hated this guy more than any of the Star Wars villains because he reminded me of people I’ve had to deal with. I referred to him as the Hall Monitor from Hell. When he got consequences I felt bad for him because his consequences were bad, and we also got a glimpse of where he came from, but then when it was clear that he’d learned nothing, I hated him again. Either way, I care, whether it’s wanting to see him get taken down a peg or four or hoping he learns something and gets better.

I’ve struggled with writing villains and tend to keep them offstage, but I’m going to study this and see if I can use any of it in my work. Can I show things from the villain’s perspective and make readers care, even if what they care about is the villain falling into a volcano?

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