I have a story I'm writing which has a villain that, in order to make him more human/developed, I gave him a relatable, tragic and/or disturbing life story, gave him plenty of reasons to be who he is and do what he does (understandable or almost), and made him the hero of his own story.

For story reasons, he needs to be killed, and also kind of deserves this because of his deeds. "Kind of" because his reasons and story makes very blurred the line between evil and simple cause and effect, so it's not that simple to just say that he did what he did "because he is evil". However, I don't have the intention of making his death an emotional moment, because he is supposed to be seen as unlikable, an unlikable character that has a point, a victim that becomes a perpetrator. The hero, although having more positives than negatives, isn't a saint either, having at least a bit of the blame (or at least in the villain's vision).

And here comes the problem. This story is the first of a trilogy where this hero is the protagonist. I think that the hero needs to be likable the most possible to make the reader urge to read more about him. Previously, I asked questions regarding problems with this same hero's likability. I was having these problems because I was incorrectly characterizing/developing this character. Now that it seems that I got it right, and now that the villain is also well developed, now the villain is making the hero seem unlikable for killing him. If this was a one-shot fiction, such ambiguity of who is the real hero would be great, it would be amazing, but the problem is that there's still two sequels with this protagonist to go, and I can't simply discard them just because of some mere details in the first title.

So how can I make the villain sympathetic without affecting the hero's likability for killing him?


Edit:
I think I forgot to include in my question a very important detail of my problem, and I need to clarify what I meant in my question. By "hero of his own story" I really mean "hero of his own story", as the villain is a narcissist. He's not doing any good to other people, the only one benefited with his actions is his ego. So it's not a case of "doing the right thing to other people the wrong way", but instead it's "doing the wrong thing the wrong way towards other people, having as final intended effect the satisfaction of his own ego". The villain sees no reason why he doesn't have the complete right to do what he wants, and the story shows that he indeed is not totally wrong, but the means he used are too extreme for "solving" his problem.
Edit 2:
After reading the answers and thinking about this matter, it downed on me that actually the villain isn't as sympathetic and the hero isn't as "monstrous" as I was thinking. I think I got so much in the villain's head that I started to think just like him, seeing the villain as a hero or someone worthy of sympathy, and seeing the hero as a villain or someone unlikeable. I think that's why I was having this problem. Now I don't see the villain as positively as when I asked this question, especially because what he does is wrong no matter his reasons or what caused him to be that way, so it makes no sense to see the hero as unlikable for him simply doing what is necessary.
Also, Dan J.'s and Seserous' answers were spot-on on this matter, because even though the hero just does what needs to be done, he did that coldly and with wrath, that's another reason why it was leaving a negative impression on him for killing the villain.

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    I'm reminded of a favorite author who did exactly this -- set up a villain in their first novel, killed him, and then slowly revealed his motivation over the rest of the trilogy. I won't name the author in public (to avoid any spoilers), but the general strategy holds -- consider setting up the villain to begin with, then slowly revealing their motivation (killing them where appropriate). It builds suspense -- always a plus -- while allowing you to humanize the villain in a controlled fashion. See also Darth Vader's saga. – tonysdg May 22 at 23:37
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    OP, a common solution to this problem is to have your villain doing evil things for a noble reason (eg, reducing overpopulation or environmental disaster by enslaving whole nations; eradicating a dangerous illness via genocide) - something which is ultimately worthwhile and may even save the planet, but done by unethical or distasteful means. It's "doing the wrong thing, for the right reasons". By the same token, your hero and be more morally grey and do the right things, but perhaps for the wrong (selfish or misguided) reasons. Internally and externally conflicted about motivations. – flith May 23 at 5:57
  • Make the villian's reasoning logic based. Make the hero's reasoning emotion based. – Chad Horton May 23 at 21:37
  • There's actually no contradiction between total determinism and moral responsibility. In fact there is a contradiction if you try to deny moral responsibility on the basis of total determinism: (the fates conspired to make you evil) => (you are not evil) => (the fates failed to conspire to make you evil). – Nacht May 24 at 23:42

11 Answers 11

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You seem to be contradicting yourself a little bit. " I ... made him the hero of his own story." "I don't have the intention of making his death an emotional moment, because he is supposed to be seen as unlikable..." If you want him to be seen as unlikable, don't show him to the reader as the hero of his own story. You can make a character, regardless of his role in the story, likable without being sympathetic or sympathetic without being likable. Thomas Covenant is sympathetic but he's not very likable. Locke Lamora is likable but not overly sympathetic. I suspect that you want your villain to be sympathetic but not likable. You do that, in part, by showing him suffering and relating his objectionable actions back to that suffering. The reader can understand his motivation - they understand why he does the horrible things he does. But don't show him to the reader as a heroic or likable figure. Don't show him taking actions that signal to the reader that they should like him. Show his step father beat him bloody, but then have him kick his dog when the beating is done. We understand WHY he kicked the dog - it's an understandable reaction to the pain and frustration of a child being abused by an adult. But we aren't going to LIKE someone who kicks puppies.

How we feel about the hero killing the villain will largely be determined by how the hero feels about the action. You need to convince the reader that they would have taken the same actions if they were in the hero's position (and perhaps had the hero's qualities.) A hero can take joy in killing his rival if the villain is truly evil with no redeeming qualities. If that isn't the case, then the hero should feel regret, for the necessity if not for the deed itself. In other words, you make the killing of the villain a justifiable act.

Just because you can understand how the villain got that way doesn't mean you have to agree with the villain's actions.

Most people can understand how Black Panther's Erik Killmonger turned out the way he did. (More of that discussion in my answer to this question.) That doesn't mean that the viewer has to agree that his solution is the right one. We can accept that Erik has a point without endorsing his plan as the only correct response.

Also, if your villain has a point, but your hero has to kill the villain anyway, I think that's good moral shading which you should carry into the next books. That's something your hero should wrestle with. "Was I right? Did Villain have a point? Did Villain really deserve to die?"

Your villain can be evil and understandable. His death can be both necessary and a tragedy.

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    Killmonger was my first thought too. Thanos as well. There have to be good non-Marvel examples... – T.E.D. May 22 at 23:34
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    The Jackal from Forsyth's Day of the Jackal is another very good example. He's a hired killer, trying to assassinate De Gaulle, and at the end, he fails and is himself killed. However the death is in no way what I'd call a monstrous act on the part of the hero (Claude Lebel), it's a very rational and effective ending to the story. Even though the main character fails, I didn't feel in any way disappointed with the ending. – dgnuff May 23 at 0:58
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    Your villain can be evil and understandable. His death can be both necessary and a tragedy. This screams Walter White to me. Those constellations can make the best stories! Especially +1 because I too don't see why a necessary death can't be emotional/tragic. – Petey Pete May 23 at 7:50
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    @T.E.D. my first thought was Jessica Jones, both series in fact... oh wait, that's Marvel too... – Baldrickk May 23 at 9:50
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    @LaurenIpsum - ... which is exactly what the questioner was looking to achieve. – T.E.D. May 23 at 15:35

Self-Defense, or Suicide.

One way to do this is to make the hero killing the villain a matter of self-defense. Trap the villain, the hero would do the moral thing and take him alive, put him in a prison, try to get him treatment for his crazy: But the villain is so obsessed or dead set on doing what he does, that even when he is trapped, he tries to kill the hero to escape, and the hero has no choice but to shoot back, push back, whatever, and this kills the villain.

A similar alternative is inadvertent suicide: The hero, trying to be moral, traps the villain, and intends to imprison him. The only way out of the trap is a 90% chance of suicide. The villain, obsessed with his mission will risk anything, and does -- and dies. He can't jump the gap, he misses the rope, he throws a parachute from the plane and dives after it: He catches it --- then loses it in the wind, and falls to his death.

A villian should have a reasonable motive

That is the most difficult part of a story. Many authors are tending to miss that part, because the villian 'would lost his evilness', if the reader can follow his path. But I would say it is otherwise. Everyone can become evil, if the right buttons are pushed. So why not a villian with reasonable motives? If there are reasonable motives and they are explained very good, maybe with a bit backstory, then a villian is relatable.

Even if the villian is killed by the hero, it can be in very different ways. A last act of rebellion after being manipulated by a relative. A last wave of rage, to break free from the own shackles that hold him. There are so many ways and examples in the media, where you feel sorry for the villian, even after the hero kills him, just because you could feel with him and relate to his decisions.

(a) I think this is the right way to write a villain. I really dislike villains who are totally irrational. Like the Hollywood villain who laughs maniacally and says "and now we will destroy all that is good and right and true! ha ha ha!" Real life villains usually make some sort of sense. Many of the worst crimes in history have been justified with statements like, "We are trying to create a more just and fair society and these people are standing in the way! We have no choice but to eliminate them for the good of the country." I don't doubt that many of the people involved really believed that. Even, "She tricked me into thinking she loved me, and then she humiliated me in front of all my friends. She deserves what's coming to her" is comprehensible. We've probably all had times that we thought that someone who hurt our feelings or cost us money deserved some sort of revenge. The difference between you and me and a lunatic is that our idea of revenge is "receive a severe scolding" or maybe "embarrassed in front of her friends", while the lunatics idea of just revenge is "kidnapped and tortured to death". (I'm assuming here that you are not a homicidal maniac.)

(b) That said, to make the killing of the villain sound justified to the reader, I think you just have to make him dangerous enough. Suppose in real life that someone has delusions, and he really, honestly thinks that the people around him are terrorists or invading Martians or whatever, and he starts killing people. The police have no way to stop him except to shoot him. I think most people would say, "It's very sad that they had to kill that poor mentally ill person." But few would say, "Because he was mentally ill and had no evil intent, the police shouldn't have shot him. They should have just let him go on killing people." Or similarly, suppose someone had a very valid and serious complaint. Like, say, the insurance company refused to pay off when his house burned down because the insurance agent is racist, something like that. But instead of fighting it legally, he goes to the insurance company office and starts shooting people. Again, I'd be sympathetic to his problem and I'm sure many others would be too. But we wouldn't see that as justifying mass murder, and we'd support the police shooting him.

I think the criterion is: the danger must be great, and killing him must be the only practical solution. If the villain's crime is that he is writing really nasty letters to people, the reader is unlikely to accept killing him. Death must be proportionate to his crimes. To justify killing him, he has to either be killing people or some other truly serious offense.

And, it has to be impractical for the hero to stop him any other way. He can't just arrest him and throw him in jail or some such.

I suppose my intuitive sense of when killing someone is justified is not necessarily the same as everyone else's. That's why I think you want to avoid borderline cases. What's just barely justified to you may be unjustified to someone else.

You can also flip your question around. Instead of worrying about how to make the villain likeable without making the hero dislikeable, think about how you can make killing a likeable person acceptable.

One of the most common answers used in fiction (and in real life court cases) is "it was the only way to stop them". If your hero has to stop the villain and killing them is the only way to do it, then most folks will accept the hero's actions, even if they liked the villain.

  • A lot of those fiction cases include cases where the hero gives the villain an out. They try to let the villain save themselves, but the villain still chooses the "wrong" choice, sometimes even while knowing the outcome. I've been watching Dr. Who a lot lately and he does that a lot. – DoubleDouble May 23 at 14:15

I'd say the way to make the villain sympathetic is to make him human. Someone who errs, someone who regrets things he's done, someone who isn't always up to his own standards. Look for example at King Claudius's monologue in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2:

O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murderer. Pray can I not.
[..]
- but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder -
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th'offence?

Claudius is sympathetic because we all do things we then regret, and yet do not dare to own up to. Our wrongdoings are different in magnitude, that's it. At the same time, Claudius's struggles can hardly make Hamlet less likeable for feeling he must avenge his father. Our sympathy for Claudius doesn't negate what he has done.


Then, you have how the protagonist feels about killing the villain. Does he struggle with it? Does he regret having to kill him? Does he try to find an alternative? Or is he gang-ho about it?

In Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles (the first pentalogy), the antagonist has almost been successful several times in murdering the protagonist and several members of his family, he's betrayed their kingdom and is actively trying to destroy the world. He's too powerful to be stopped in any other way than killing him. He's condescending, deceitful and self-absorbed. He's also an artist, a poet, and the protagonist's brother. And so, we get the following gem:

I wish... I wish that some time, long ago, something had not been said that was said, or something done that was not done. Something, had we known, which might have let him grow differently, something which would have seen him become another man than the bitter, bent thing I saw up there. It is best now if he is dead. But it is a waste of something that might have been. (The Hand of Oberon, chapter 13)

It's not on the antagonist to make the protagonist likeable. The protagonist has to do something we are not comfortable with. Very well - how does he treat it?

In the Dean Koontz novel Watchers the Outsider is a genetically engineered lifeform designed to cause terror and to kill. It carries out several gruesome murders throughout the story, whilst hunting down the hero and his friends. However, clues to the internal feelings of the Outsider are given; its love for Mickey Mouse, its realisation that everyone fears it and thinks it ugly, and its knowledge that its nature can never change. In the final confrontation between the hero and the Outsider, the hero kills the Outsider, almost as an act of mercy, after the Outsider manages to speak calling itself ugly and bad. http://www.deankoontz.com/watchers/

Another option, one taken by Harry Potter, for example, is to not have your hero strike the killing blow.

Christine Frazier deals with this option very well on her blog "The Better Novel Project" and explains who and why this works.

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/novel-ending/

The Jist of it is:

TKO: Total Knock-Out

The hero goes all in but is knocked unconscious. rather than killing the villain - they wake up later to find the final blow was struck while they were 'dying'.

The hero can put everything into the fight and totally commit, and due to a helping hand at the critical moment still come out both alive and free of being a murderer. this also has other framing and narrative benefits regarding wrapping up the novel in summary.

  • In the ending of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire slayer they did something like this. Buffy defeated the bad guy who reverted to her human persona. Then Buffy went off to save her sister and another character deliberately killed the human form so he could never change back. – NomadMaker May 23 at 19:18
  • Huh. I've read lots of stories where the hero and the villain fight and the hero accidentally pushes the villain off a cliff or something of that sort. I've always thought that a very obvious ploy to avoid having the hero actually kill someone, and so I found it kind of a cop out. If the hero is justified in killing this person, than do it. If not, then don't dance around it. – Jay May 23 at 21:39
  • There are also quite a few where the hero ends up trying to save the villain (to bring them to justice) and then fails and the villain dies. In the BBC's TV version of Sherlock Holmes Moriarty actually goes as far as killing himself, which is an interesting way around the issue ;) – Kaine May 24 at 7:55

YOU DONT!

You make the Villain as relatable and human as possible and then you make the hero kill him mercilessly and then make the hero and the reader question their own morals and maybe discover that there is no such thing as villain and hero in this words, we just fight for different things and make them question every single decision they have made until this point!!!

Then you make even more money by selling happiness and mindfulness books to your now troubled audience.

You're Welcome

I think it depends more on the hero than the villain since the act in question is the hero's act of murder (or whichever word circumstances best describes the act of ending the villain's life). Part of that is in how the hero reacts to having to do this act. If the hero brushes it off completely you reduce the emotional impact of the act while making the hero seem cold and potentially unlikable. If the hero feels guilt for doing something that was necessary the reader sees more of the hero's weakness--humanity--and now the hero is even more sympathetic.

That said, Oliver Queen as portrayed in the currently running Arrow tv show starts off as a cold blooded murderer. It is his signature in the beginning of the series and that was what hooked me to the show. Here is a character that doesn't let anything stand in the way of his goals which are, ultimately, for the betterment of his city. It didn't matter when he murdered (I use that word intentionally given Queen's overall character arc) some villain that was sympathetic. It was Queen's actions and not his targets that affected his likability from episode to episode.

So watch the hero's circumstances, the hero's motives for killing rather than doing some other conclusion to the villain and you can maintain the hero's likability despite (or perhaps because of) his actions. Give us a solid reason for why the hero had to go this far, show the personal consequences to the hero, keep the hero's humanity. Some people may be sad at the villain's death, but they will understand and still like the hero even if the hero takes a small hit at the time.

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