10 Villains I Felt Sorry For
I love villains. A good story has to have a good villain, because a villain creates the conflict and the challenges that the heroes have to overcome. Villains are often the most memorable part of a show or movie. They can be interesting foils for the heroes. For example, Scar is the opposite of Mufasa in The Lion King. These contrasts highlight the differences between two characters to show their important qualities.
Villains exist to pose a challenge or test to the main character, and it's good if the questions they pose are compelling. For example, Ariel in The Little Mermaid is challenged by the villain Ursula, who points out that Ariel expects magic and miracles to happen without having to give up anything in return. Didn't you watch Fullmetal Alchemist, Ariel? Stories are good when the main characters are challenged and really tested to overcome the obstacles posed by the villain. Even if the villain is morally bad, it's better if you can get in the villain's head and understand their motivation.
That's why I like sympathetic villains, so this is my top ten lists of villains I felt sympathy for. Of course, all of them take morally reprehensible actions, but many of them are also victims themselves, or dealing with interesting psychological conflicts that explain their actions. Sometimes, circumstances beyond their control explain how they ended up. I like to think that no one is a complete monster, and that everyone has some good in them too.
Note: Unmarked spoilers below. Important information about a villain often gets revealed at the end of the work of fiction. So please skip over any you see that you don't want spoiled.
1. Medusa - Greek Mythology
Probably the most sympathetic on this list. Medusa was originally a human woman. As a priestess devoted to Athena, she was supposed to be chaste, but she was pursued for her beauty and raped in Athena's temple by the sea god Poseidon. For giving up her chastity, which was greatly offensive to Athena, Medusa was transformed into a hideous monster, with snakes for hair. Athena even ensured that no one would be able to find her beautiful again, for her gaze turned people to stone.
Though it was considered justified at the time for Medusa to have been so gravely punished, we now see her as a victim, not as someone guilty of the sin of defiling a temple or forsaking religious vows. They thought the act of having sex made her guilty, but now we see it as not sinful or disobedient, because she did not make a conscious choice. This shows how much morality can change over time. Medusa's story was probably a cautionary tale for young, attractive priestesses of Athena, that they should never do anything to invite male attention, lest they bring the wrath of their goddess upon them.
Medusa was a terrifying monster, but also a tragic victim of circumstance.
2. King Haggard - The Last Unicorn
In The Last Unicorn, King Haggard is a sad character. Even though he was a king, nothing made him happy, not court, balls, feasts, jesters, or entertainment of any kind. One day, however, he found the one thing that did make him happy, a unicorn. Captivated by the animal's grace, he decided he gotta catch 'em all, and he drove all the unicorns into the sea. There, they remained his captives, frightened by a fearsome beast he controlled called the Red Bull, until rescued by the titular last unicorn, the only one who remained uncaught.
While he is very creepy, it's easy to feel sorry for King Haggard. He knows, from the moment she walks up to his castle, that "Lady Amalthea" is a unicorn in human form, come to try to steal the others from him. He knows this, but does nothing about it. Deep down, it's like he has no hope that he can retain that which makes him happy. Or perhaps, the good side of him knows that the unicorns were never his to own in the first place. But, rather than having a good side, he just seems so depressed and apathetic that while he doesn't necessarily want her to succeed, he's too caught up in his own despair to care about anything that happens. No one knows why he's so unhappy, but it's easy to feel more pity for Haggard than hate.
3. Younger Toguro - YuYu Hakusho
Younger Toguro is, besides Sensui, possibly the most heartbreaking villain in YuYu Hakusho. Although Team Toguro is pretty evil, it seemed to me that Younger Toguro was not as evil, because he wanted an honest and honorable fight from Yusuke, one in which he could use his full power. He had a kind of sportsmanlike honor. Fighting with all of one's strength is a sign of a noble spirit, and it is respected even in an enemy, as a traditional Japanese ideal.
Younger Toguro once loved Yusuke's master Genkai. But he chose to become a demon, and she did not. When he died, he hated himself so much out of regret for the things he'd done that he demanded time in hell as a punishment, even when spirit world told him he didn't deserve it. He's also a sad figure because he was a victim of manipulation by his more purely evil and insane brother and others, such as Sakyo, the chessmaster behind the Dark Tournament. Plus, it's hard to see him as a true villain because it turns out, all he was really seeking was an honorable death, on his terms. It was Sakyo who was seeking power by manipulating others.
4. Queen Beryl - Sailor Moon
Back in the Days of Olde in the Sailor Moon universe, Beryl was a rival for Prince Endymion's affections against Princess Serenity of the Moon Kingdom. Snubbed by Endymion, she was driven by jealousy and manipulated by Queen Metalia, who wanted to take control of Earth and destroy the Moon Kingdom. Beryl got the people of Earth to rebel against Endymion's rule, and she killed him. Beryl was was killed by Sailor Venus' sword, but not before Princess Serenity had killed herself upon hearing of the death of Endymion.
In the present, everyone is reborn in new bodies. The Sailor Scouts develop their power and find each other (conveniently all going to the same high school and/or living close to each other), while Beryl, reborn alone somewhere, figures out how to revive her own power and that of Queen Metalia.
If she were the protagonist, Beryl has a lot of admirable qualities. She is intelligent, cunning, brave, and a firm leader. She's tougher than the Sailor Scouts, because she had to do much more on her own, while they all use friendship as a kind of emotional crutch. She's also a tragic figure, blinded by jealousy, a "woman scorned". Furthermore, you could argue that she never would have been truly evil without the corrupting influence of Queen Metalia, that she got involved in Metalia's plots but never wanted power for its own sake.
5. Frollo - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Probably the most complex villain in the Disney animated canon, Frollo is largely a victim of his own strict religious beliefs. He thinks society needs to be purified by any means necessary. As the introductory song says, "Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin, but he saw corruption everywhere, except within."
Hunchback does not necessarily have an anti-Christian message, it's saying, don't be a hypocrite.
I don't think Frollo ever intended to become a hypocrite, but it's hard for him to live up to the responsibility he thinks he is burdened with. He thinks it is his God-given responsibility to uphold the moral purity of all of Paris. To this end, he conflicts with the Gypsies, because they "live outside the normal order", and he's afraid that they will corrupt the peasants. It's easy to sympathize with this point of view, because they do live a radically different way of life, a way of life that could be seen as sinful, at least from a medieval Catholic perspective. Frollo proves that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
6. Prince Charming - Shrek 2 and 3
Charming's problem is that he is Wrong Genre Savvy, thinking that he is literally the "prince charming" hero in a story, destined to marry a beautiful princess, become a king, and live Happily Ever After. His mother, the Fairy Godmother, encourages this delusional way of thinking. But to Godmother and Charming's credit, they just have life expectations based on the fairy tales whose characters they resemble. It may not be easy being green, but it's also not easy being the handsome prince in a subversive genre parody where the monster is the one who gets the girl.
7. Lord Shishio - Rurouni Kenshin
Shishio deals with the changing role of samurai in the Meiji era, and he was burned alive by his political enemies. If that doesn't make someone a little bitter, I don't know what does.
Shishio is also always looking out for misfits who have fallen out of favor with the new order of society. Many of his followers have tragic back stories, making Shishio seem like a saint for taking them in when no one else would. The Meiji era was a time of great upheaval, a sudden break from Japanese tradition, so a lot of people struggled to adapt. It's interesting that he pairs with Yumi, a former oiran, or courtesan. In the process of transition from ancient to modern Japan, Yumi was one such person who had difficulty adapting. Yumi clings to Shishio as the hope that she can still have a good life. Both of them are bitter about the political changes taking place, and they have some reason to be. Creepy and evil yes, but still interestingly complex and sympathetic.
8. Gaston - Beauty and the Beast
I never really liked him as a kid, when I first watched Beauty and the Beast. But now, when I gave it another watch, I thought, Gaston's problem is very similar to that of Prince Charming from the Shrek sequels. He sees himself as a heroic figure, but ends up in the wrong story, a story that is designed to subvert the usual tropes. He has reasons to think he deserves Belle, because everyone in town is always sucking up to him. He thinks being bold and forward is the right approach, because many women do respond positively to that. Other than Belle, no one challenges him, and I think that's part of why he's attracted to her. He thinks if he slays the 'evil' beast and rescues the girl, he will win her. He has reasons to expect this, since in most stories where a woman is taken captive by a monster, it's a hero's job to kill the monster, and then his reward is to marry the girl he rescued. Like Charming, he was just in the wrong story.
9. Zira - The Lion King 2
A lot of people feel sympathy for Scar, but the lioness who becomes the villain of Lion King 2 is even more tragic. Zira was the leader of the lionesses loyal to Scar. Her son Kovu, while not being Scar's son, was hand-chosen by Scar to succeed him one day. It's not easy being on the losing side of lion history though, as she gets exiled from the pride lands, along with the other lionesses who supported Scar. She's a mother of three forced to live in a barren, desolate desert, where there is very little food and water. Simba is not exactly sympathetic to their plight. Even though Zira is crazy, and filled with hate and anger, in many ways, she's right. The exile of "outsiders" to that desert is beyond unfair, and arguably justifies some of that anger. Simba realizes at the end of the movie that those lionesses are lion-beings too, but it takes Kiara standing up to him to get him to realize that.
10. Rasputin - Anastasia
While he's not exactly a cuddly guy, I did feel more pity for him than anything else. First, Nicholas comes across as arrogant, and the flashback Alexandra gives in the beginning of the story really doesn't have enough detail to show that Rasputin is necessarily 100% wrong. Second, there's a big problem with the way the movie avoids mentioning the c-word: communism. Alexandra says "the spark of unhappiness in this country was fanned into a flame that would soon destroy our lives forever" when she mentions the Bolshevik revolution. I find it hard to sympathize with a royal woman who seems so clearly out of touch with the plight of the workers who rebelled against the czar. I half expected her to say "let them eat cake". She seemed to have no idea why the rebels were attacking the palace, and if that's a realistic portrayal of the Russian royal family, they deserved what they got. I don't have much sympathy for people who live in luxury while the majority of the people in their country are starving, even though I do not support communism or violent revolutions. You and your family lit the "spark of unhappiness" lady. You made your bed, you lie in it. The "Romanov curse" stuff seems like bullshit made up by a silly aristocrat so she won't have to understand or feel guilty for the idiocy of the state supporting extravagances for the few. Princess movies are popular in fiction, but I personally hate the concept of hereditary monarchy. And the movie makes some rather strange excuses and justifications for it, acting as if the royal family were all perfectly innocent.
Anyway, as for Rasputin himself, he suffers inside from being a walking corpse, unable to die even though he's in a lot of pain (just because you do a Disney-esque bouncy tune to explain it, doesn't make the idea less tragic). He is compelled to act by supernatural forces beyond his control, because he made a deal with the devil to get his revenge on Nicholas and his family. It's bad to make a deal with the devil (don't try this at home, kids), but I also have a feeling that the reason for his vendetta was a resentment that built up over many years of conflict, which is left out of grandma's little story.
There are many villains in stories that you feel sorry for in addition to being afraid of or simply hating. I prefer stories with these kinds of villains because it makes the character seem more real and human than like a totally inhuman monster. To me, the best villains are scary, but also enough like us that we could see becoming them if we let anger and resentment make us bitter and filled with hate. Many villains do this, but the above 10 are my personal favorites.
Thanks for reading!