While cruising around Facebook earlier, I stumbled upon a discussion about sympathetic villains focusing on Mind Flayers. One party believed the newest writings on them found within The Monster Manual, and expanded further in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, presented them as beings we should feel sorry for, tragic heroes, thus compromising their villainous nature. The argument on the opposite side was that sympathy for the creatures is necessary as it deepens the narrative. And, as I often do, my hat was thrown into the ring. Here’s the thing: while having sympathy for a villain can be an important narrative tool, it’s not required to have a deep and meaningful, character driven narrative.
The balance between good and evil is an actual thing, not a social construct and it’s reflected in the values held in our stories. There is some moral wiggle room as to what’s considered good and evil, granted, but not as much as what seems to be the popularly accepted norm. Just because someone wants to do something and feels justified in the behavior, that doesn’t make those actions right or good. This theme is wonderfully explored in Crime and Punishment. Additionally, evil is never justifiable, regardless of the human experience that produced the perpetrator of it. This can be applied to any real life of fictional character. No matter the upbringing of Hitler, Stalin, Nero, Kylo Ren, Vader, Shredder, Vecna, etc. they chose to do evil.
That being said, exploring why villains fall is certainly an interesting and well explored circumstance in its own right (see the Picture of Dorian Grey or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). However, it doesn’t necessarily, as in it’s not a logical truth, mean that a story is deeper upon exploring those motivations. One can have a fulfilling character story without sympathetic villains. In fact, focusing too much on the villain can be distracting for players. Is the game about the how the real life players interact with the collaboratively created world, not the villains.
Let’s explore a few terms to better understand what a sympathetic villain is.
Let’s address tragedy first — because it’s usually what marks the turning point in a villain’s story: it’s defined as regrettably serious or unpleasant; also, marked by extreme misfortune. In the case of the Mind Flayers, their history is rife with absolute tragedy. They had everything, but through their despotic mien lost it all. Now, they’re trying to regain their lost power while hunted by their former slaves. This concept doesn’t guarantee we have feelings of sorrow for the individual (or species) experiencing the terrible event, mind you. Nevertheless, many people gain a deeper understanding of the actions of a villain when encountering their history.
This is understanding is sympathy: An inclination to think and feel alike. Which means you can understand how another person feels. While not feeling the keen pain of their tragic event, you can understand why they might follow that path. The great abuses as a slave, the loss of his mother, the fear of losing his beloved wife mixed with the constant heightened stress of war and the sudden “betrayal” of his friends and mentors made Anakin’s fall to Vader fairly understandable. But some of those things might have been a little too far gone for the audience to emotionally connect with. We can understand Vader’s fall, but might struggle having empathy for Anakin.
There is a pretty big difference between sympathy and it’s more encompassing cousin. Empathy: (from Webster’s Dictionary) “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” This means that you’re feeling WITH the other individual. You may not know why, even, but you feel their joy and pain with them.
Within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, author J.K. Rowling gives us a wonderful distinction between these two concepts. She wanted us to feel sympathy for Lord Voldemort. We were shown his twisted and abusive family, his lonely life as an orphan, his fear of dying...she wanted us to understand why he chose to do evil. Then there’s Snape, the tragic hero of the tale. His narrative is all about empathy. He was universally despised before the closing chapters of the final book, when everything changed and he became a legend. We felt his pain at the loss of Lilly’s love and his torture at the hands of James Potter. In some degree or other, we’ve all had our heart broken and been bullied. Rowling wanted us to know how hard it was for Snape to maintain his espionage when he was so torn up inside and how Harry’s presence haunted him.
Sympathy is understanding why a person is crying, empathy is why you cry with them.
Understanding this difference is vital because empathy for a villain, whether in real life or a story, is tenuous ground that can lead to a very disturbed individual, in real life or as a player character — depending on the history of the object in question to whom empathy is given. Roleplaying a character that empathizes with Mind Flayers, on the other hand, now that would be interesting. Telling an empathetic story about the brain munchers, while definitely interesting, means you — as an individual or player of the game — feel their pain. It’s more than just understanding their motivations. If you could, you’d be right near them stroking the roiling tentacles expressing your deeply felt condolences for the loss of their empire and slaves, even unto tears. If that moves you, you’re perfectly free to feel that way. However, you might want to seek professional attention.
People legitimately connecting to a horror enacted upon others, real or imagined, is cause for concern. Understanding why a villain chooses to be evil can definitely make a wonderful story; however, an unsympathetic villain can be just as fun and interesting to face. For the Illithids, it’s not necessary (as in a logical truth) that knowing why they’re evil (being sympathetic) deepens the story. Having them be a complete mystery is terrifying. Their appearance is already nightmare fuel, but when you don’t know what the entities want, that unknown is completely demoralizing.
Understanding your opponent’s motivations is well and fine, but there’s something to be said for facing an entirely unknown enemy with foreign motivations. The Pulp era authors rarely gave villains stated motivations. H.P. Lovecraft spoke little of what motivated his Old Ones, because their thoughts were so alien they couldn’t be understood. They were frightening because they were a mystery. We don’t need to know what motivates Cthulhu or a shoggoth in the story to see the deep reaction of the characters involved. Robert E. Howard, who penned Conan the Barbarian, certainly didn’t explore the motivations behind the many enemies his titular hero defeated at the gleaming edge of his blade.
The Lord of the Rings also follows after this pattern with Sauron and the Nazgul. Before the Appendices were released in Return of the King, Sauron’s origins were shrouded in the mists of obscurity and we still know virtually nothing about the Ringwraiths. We don’t even have all of their names. But they were still a terrifying malevolent force that continually undulated forth from the shadows of the narrative. We don’t need to know. We’re not supposed to feel bad for them or understand why they are: they are. And they are evil. They’re not the heroes of the story.