Throughout Aimée Carter’s Goddess Test series (which includes four titles and a novella), Kate Winters has struggled against one bad guy after another: a jealous ex, someone out to destroy the world, the impossible-to-live-up-to memory of her sister. What makes these antagonists all the more powerful? They’re immortal gods. (You can start reading the conclusion, The Goddess Inheritance, right here on Figment.)
While we root for Kate to succeed and get her happy ending, we can’t help but feel for these villains. Aimée is careful to make sure her villains aren’t pure evil—they just want a different outcome to the story than the protagonist.
Aimée stopped by Figment to talk about how to write a sympathetic villain. Check out her thoughts below and then enter our writing challenge. Our four favorite entries will be featured on the Figment homepage!
I’ve never really liked the word villain. To me, it means evil, irredeemable, someone created solely to destroy the hero. I much prefer antagonist. An antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad person; they just happen to be in the way of what the protagonist wants.
One of the keys to writing a great story is to have fully fleshed-out characters with motivations that stem from more than “I’m a hero!” or “I’m a villain!” It means creating characters who believe they’re the heroes of their own story, and it means giving each of them solid motivations—including the antagonist.
The antagonist can’t just want to get in the way of your protagonist for the sake of being difficult. They should have a desire that directly contradicts what your protagonist wants, one they fully believe is the right thing to do. Give them something the reader will relate to, even if they don’t like it, and that will make them much more sympathetic.
For instance, in the Goddess Test series, my protagonist, Kate, accepts a deal with Henry (a modern-day version of Hades) to take a test to see if she’s goddess material. If she is, she’ll become Queen of the Underworld and marry Henry. In return, he’ll keep her dying mother alive. However, what Kate doesn’t know is that someone—the antagonist—has killed every other girl who’s tried to take the test, and she’s next.
But the antagonist isn’t killing girls off just for the fun of it. The antagonist is a goddess who has been in love with Henry for thousands of years, but he doesn’t feel the same way. Who can’t relate to that in some way? The (very misguided) antagonist thinks if she gets rid of her competition, Henry will finally fall in love with her. That’s her version of happily ever after, while Kate’s version is surviving, passing the test, and getting to see her mother again.
See how they directly contradict one another? Kate can’t have her happily ever after if the antagonist wins; and the antagonist can’t have her happily ever after if Kate wins. In the first book, you may not sympathize with the antagonist much. But in The Goddess Legacy, you get to see her story. You get to see how someone she loved hurt her so badly that she felt she had no choice but to do what she does to Kate. She isn’t a villain in her own head—she’s the hero. She’s doing the right thing, and Kate is the one in her way.
The best stories are the ones where, if you rewrite it from the antagonist’s point of view, that person would become the protagonist, and it would still be a compelling story. Every character has their own reasons for what they do, and the more in-depth and relatable those reasons are, the more sympathetic your villain will be—and the more compelling your story will be as well.
Inspired by the sympathetic antagonists in Aimée Carter’s Goddess Test series, we’ve got a writing challenge for you. Choose a classic villain (the evil queen in Snow White, Lex Luthor in Superman, the Master in Doctor Who, or someone similar) and write a scene from their point of view.
Entries should be no more than 200 words. Tag you scene SympatheticVillain. You have until Monday, March 18 at 11:59 p.m. ET to enter the challenge. Figment editors will be reading all the entries. We’ll choose four winners to be featured on the Figment homepage.