It takes a skilled author with a deft hand for characterization to create a villain for whom we find ourselves fighting a strange affection. There are villains who are pure evil (we’ll get to those) and there are those who inspire us with feelings of sympathy and compassion, which can be very conflicting when we don’t condone their villainous deeds. Who hasn’t felt a twinge of pity or empathy for the bad guy who had good intentions but let things get out of hand, or the villain who turned to crime in response to a great injustice or abuse? Here are ten tragic villains I love anyway in spite of everything they’ve done.
10. Erik from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux: Ah yes, the Phantom. Since the book was published in 1910 the Phantom has undergone a remarkable transformation in popular culture from being the most frightening, gruesomely deformed human creature imaginable to a suave, smoldering, mysterious lover whose voice has the power to seduce, bewitch, and enchant any female in a five-mile radius. Why? Because Beauty and the Beast, that’s why. There’s a lot of reasons to feel sympathy for Erik—his isolation from society and status as an outcast, his longing for love and companionship, and his mistreatment as a child are all good places to start. There’s definitely something forbidden and alluring about his determination to obtain Christine’s affections by any means necessary. But it’s the moment at the end (SPOILER) when the Phantom saves the life of Christine’s childhood friend, Raoul, and, in an act of selflessness, lets her go free that really softens my heart.
9. Steerforth from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: The charming, handsome Steerforth is one of the most charismatic Dickens characters ever in my opinion, and it’s very difficult to keep reading as his story progresses to its tragic end. It’s hard to not be completely won over by Steerforth as he looks out for David and wins his respect and admiration. His great and unforgivable act of villainy—seducing and running off to Europe with little Em’ly, who leaves behind her faithful fiancé and cousin Ham rather readily—is more disgraceful, reckless, and based on youthful passions than on malevolence. Not a ton is known regarding the circumstances of Steerforth’s desertion of Em’ly and eventual reappearance in the coast of Yarmouth, but David’s childhood love for Steerforth combined with Steerforth’s untimely drowning and the devastation of Rosa Dartle, who deeply loved him, at his demise does leave us with feelings of sorrow, regret, and sympathy for his sad story. As probably 1,000 Dickens characters would say, “It’s a bad business.”
8. Snape from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling: In the beginning of the series, Snape is a cold, sarcastic, antisocial bully, who is hardly subtle about showing his resentment and contempt for others. His motivations and loyalties are constantly being questioned and he’s more than capable of getting rid of you if you happen to be on his bad side. Nevertheless, I hesitate to label him a villain, knowing his ultimate loyalties and his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for love. He is brave, smart, and committed to his principles no matter what comes. He’s pretty much a hero. Huh. Guess it turns out I’m not that conflicted about him after all. Hooray!
7. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Tortured, isolated, and scarred by a difficult past, Heathcliff turns to revenge and to cruelty, lashing out against those whom he believes are to blame for the sabotaging of his life. His despair and agony over his stolen idyllic childhood and romantic youth are deeply moving, and he is an iconic example of a character whose actions we find both riveting and appalling. It’s hard not to sympathize with his quest for justice and vengeance, while at the same time feeling that he is securing his own damnation in taking it too far.
6. Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: While I love the book Ivanhoe, if you’re really looking to see why I am so passionate about Brian de Bois-Guilbert being one of the most conflicted and sympathetic villains ever, you’ve got to see him played by Ciarán Hinds in the 1997 mini-series. While definitely a proud, dangerous, arrogant bad guy who puts himself first and foremost, Bois-Guilbert is a sympathetic villain because he struggles with feelings and instincts of right and wrong that pull him in opposite directions. His deeply established feelings of Norman prowess and anti-Semitism conflict with his genuine feelings of love for Rebecca. His desire to be loved by her leads him to the brink of sacrificing his reputation and status as a Templar Knight; he kidnaps her but doesn’t rape her, offering instead to take her away from England and start a promising new future where she can read and study medicine and he can rebuild his reputation. To see why I most love Bois-Guilbert in the TV mini-series, contrast his sudden, unexpected heart attack/death in the book with his resigned acceptance of his own death as a way to both save Rebecca’s life and redeem himself from his lifelong selfishness.
5. Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1985 TV mini-series): Okay, first of all, calm down. You may not get why Bill Sikes is on this list, particularly if you haven’t seen the TV mini-series from 1985, which is absolutely my favorite version for capturing his character as I read it. I know most people can’t say enough bad things about Sikes—after all, he’s a murdering, child-abusing, thieving, violent drunk, right? The answer is yeeessss, but . . . I still feel his character shows traces of good: for example, when Oliver is shot, Sikes picks him up, shows concern for his bleeding, and carries him as far away as he can. He never actually harms Oliver either, though he threatens to and likely would if provoked (yet the ramifications of such an act on Sikes’s mental and physical well-being are unknown). Of course, what is most stirring about Sikes is the conflict between his feelings of love for Nancy and his primeval instinct for survival. His murder of Nancy is an impulsive, reckless act of self-preservation, lashing out at what he believes is Nancy’s betrayal of their trust. When Sikes murders Nancy, he loses the battle for his humanity by giving in to the wild animal instincts that urge him to take extreme measures to avoid being caught and killed. But this murderous wild animal turns out to be too much for Sikes to handle; his life of thieving, drinking, and the odd incident of domestic violence did not equip him to smoothly transform into a cold-blooded killer. The person who knows Sikes best, Nancy, risks her life on a gamble that he is capable of understanding, growth, and change. Granted—she loses—but it’s significant that his killing her forces a change upon him that ultimately drives him insane and to death. After killing Nancy, Sikes is a shade of a human being; haunted by her spirit, consumed by guilt, and abandoned by reason, his character is doomed to take the only option left with any fragment of redemption left in it, as he does when he dies—possibly even commits suicide—by hanging himself. And that’s definitely a tragic villain story in my book.
4. Norman Bates from Psycho by Robert Bloch: Norman Bates is that weirdly hypnotic character whom you love, hate, pity, and fear all at once. On the one hand, he’s a sexually repressed psychotic murderer with deeply disturbing psychological issues. On the other hand, there is a helpless, weak, innocent side to him that just wants to be a good son but isn’t equipped to deal with having feelings for another woman. He is so pitiful, meek, and lost in his persona as Norman that the revelation of the identity of Mother comes as a real surprise for first-time readers/viewers. Both the book and movie do a great job of showing the incongruity of the ruthless, villainous “Mother” and sweet, shy Norman—though I have to confess a special fondness for the movie Norman, who is such a handsome, adorable charmer that I find myself wanting to trust him every time.
3. Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo: I don’t even like to call Javert a villain. He doesn’t seek to hurt others out of spite or malevolence. He became an officer of the law because he believed it was the only true, safe, solid foundation in life to turn to. His only crime is doing his absolute and utmost best to fulfill an obsessive and misguided search for what he believes to be justice. He may be a pure, devout fanatic, but aren’t we being told all the time to be more like this—to fight and give our all to causes we believe in? Sadly, Javert’s destructive course demonstrates the tragic and inevitable outcome of trying to force a world that is contradictory and vague by nature to be straight, solid, and unchanging. His internal struggle to solve the emotional, moral dilemmas he is presented with eventually breaks him apart and results in a very sad and sobering end that still makes me sad to think about.
2. Shylock from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare: I grew up thinking of Shylock as a horrible human being who hated other people for being happy/rich/in love/Christian, tricked Antonio into signing his own death warrant, refused to show any mercy or sense in taking more than the loaned money (or even more benevolently, forgiving the debt), and sadistically wanted to personally and painfully kill Antonio out of spite and revenge. Even his name sounds sneaky and sly, right? It wasn’t until I studied some of the context and tried looking at the story from Shylock’s perspective that I came to sympathize, ever so slightly, with this wretched guy. He is despised, hated, and rejected by everyone around him, including his daughter; naturally, he harbors deep feelings of anger, resentment, and distrust of strangers. Furthermore, he is shown no mercy at the end: he is stripped of his dignity, his wealth, and his religion in the courtroom as he is forced to convert to Christianity. He’s still a mean, spiteful, unlikable miser, but he’s human, and, as his cry for justice and equality in the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech proclaims, he doesn’t really deserve the level of alienation and abuse heaped upon him for being who he is.
1. Walter White from Breaking Bad: You’ll have to forgive me for breaking protocol and listing a TV character instead of a literary character as my #1. But I don’t apologize, either, because Walter White is absolutely, without a doubt, my top pick for this list. The story of his rise and fall from a high school chemistry teacher with cancer to a master chemist at the top of a drug-dealing network is one of the most tragic, gripping, archetypal tales of transformation and devastation ever created, in my opinion, and has brought me hours of emotional turmoil, shock, and grief. I can’t remember ever feeling so torn with sympathy, awe, and dread at a character’s plight. His struggle to reconcile his love for his family with his desperate and destructive behavior results in numerous moral dilemmas and conflicts which end up poisoning his relationships and tearing apart his world. By the end he has bullied, lied, murdered, and manipulated his way out of every possible sticky situation, only to find himself without the love, family, or humanity that made living worthwhile. And yet somehow he remains sympathetic—perhaps because there, but for the grace of God, go I.