Villains actually do exist and they have reasons for doing the things they do. All villains don’t simply want to “watch the world burn” for no reason, the way Christopher Nolan’s Joker in The Dark Knight did. There is a motive, and it isn’t always pure evil.
The main defining attribute of a villain in a screenplay is whether or not they are the main point of focus. We as writers don’t usually explore the details of the villain’s drive the way we do the hero. It would take away from the luster of the hero in a traditional screenplay if we felt bad for the villain, as evil as they might seem. But presenting the villain as someone who isn’t completely malevolent makes for compelling, gray-area storytelling.
In order to create a villain with whom the audience can feel bad for and maybe even want to see experience some victory, writers have to create them in clear, but nuanced ways. You have to keep them villainous and put them in battle against the hero while conveying their struggle to attain a goal that the audience could see themselves striving for as well. Here are the steps to do so.
To have a sympathetic villain, you have to first establish them as the clear villain/antagonist/opposition to the protagonists, their ethics, and their goals in the screenplay. If it’s unclear who the heroes and villains are, it’ll be difficult to differentiate them when you later attempt to validate the villain’s actions.
I will use Khan, the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness as an example. From early on in the screenplay, he is a villain who commits terrorist attacks against Starfleet. Right from the jump, we know and see Khan as the enemy.
Next you have to make it unclear as to why the villain is doing what they’re doing but know that they have a good reason for doing it. In action movies, the villain is typically a dastardly maniac who has an axe to grind with the hero but is motivated by greed or power. These villains are entertaining, but they’re hard to support. Khan in the most recent Star Trek has a good reason for fighting against Admiral Marcus and Starfleet. There is a mystery surrounding his reasoning and himself. Write your villain so that they’re actively going against the heroes with vigor, but have their goals and reasoning be shrouded in mystery. The payoff will be fantastic when you…
Write a reveal for the villain’s motivation and have it be a good one. The villain cannot get the audience’s sympathy if their “why” doesn’t rationally justify their “what.” Star Trek:Into Darkness has Khan reveal that Admiral Marcus used Khan to start a war and held his crew – which Khan loves like family – captive to force his hand. Khan explains why he did those terrible things and asks Captain Kirk “Is there anything you would not do for your family?” The audience knows how much Kirk loves his crew and sees that he’d sacrifice his life for them, so Khan’s reveal not only shares his motivation that makes the audience sympathize with him, but he also gets the protagonist to feel for him. Sympathetic villain created, mission accomplished.
When the protagonist defeats or wins out over the sympathetic antagonist, have it be a tinged victory. The protagonist gets what they want and the villain doesn’t, but the audience should not be completely OK with it. In the case of Star Trek, Kirk saves everyone, including Khan’s crew. In the end, Khan is frozen alongside his crew. Everyone wins, but Khan is still defeated because he doesn’t destroy Starfleet like he wants to, even though he’d be justified in doing so.
When writing your sympathetic antagonist, make them clear, ruthless, and most importantly, supportable in their deeds and efforts. You’ll have a morally conflicted screenplay that will be tons more intriguing than with a run-of-the-mill baddie.