The villain stands poised for victory; he stares out at the ensuing carnage - all is going according to plan. The audience, sure of his intentions and motivations, hates him, loathes him, wants him to die, and knows deep down that they have every right to.
The storytellers cut back to earlier days; a time of would-be happiness for a younger, gentler person: the villain in his youth. In a short time, perhaps a single quip, or a single, unnarrated action, we see it: the event that tainted, jaded, and turned a normal, loving person, perhaps even a hero, into an unforgiving villain. Suddenly, the audience slinks down; some cringe, others start to tear up - for all intents and purposes, a real-life Heel Realization.
The audience begins to see the bigger picture: evil isn't born, it's made. Everybody has a story, as the old saying goes, and a villain's story is often tragic. After a lifetime of rejection, dismissal, cruelty, and hate, who wouldn't become a villain? And when that cruelty comes full-circle back to the originators, why are they the victims? Finally, the biggest question pops into the audience's mind: what if? What if someone, even one person, had shown even an inkling of kindness or love to them? What if someone stood up for them? Love can change, right? Then couldn't it also prevent?
It's easy to hate, but it's nearly impossible to understand or forgive, especially when we're so convinced that we are in the right, until we get hit right in the face with the facts. At this point, one feels what can only be described as anti-schadenfreude, and when one's sympathy or empathy for a villain's position reaches its peak, that's when you Cry For The Devil.
This trope tends to invoke A Million Is a Statistic for the sympathy accorded to his victims.
This goes back at least to the 17th century; characters from all walks of life have been reexamined again and again, and often times, the worst, most evil villains make the greatest sympathetic, although still evil, protagonists. Put simply, humans are fascinated by what could turn someone to The Dark Side, most likely because we realize how easily we ourselves could, as well.
Is often instant-woobification, and, if done incorrectly, can also become instant Badass Decay. It will likely also turn the character into an enormous Draco in Leather Pants for the fandom. Common keywords for pointing out the trope include something along the lines of "It's not really his fault he's evil, but..."
Is supposed to be a possible end-result of a Freudian Excuse done well. Frequently used to build the Tragic Villain. A particularly compelling version of this can even humanize a character, at least in the eyes of some fans.
Alas, Poor Villain is a subtrope where this happens as the villain dies or has some form of downfall.
Compare Satan Is Good, Sympathetic Murderer, Monster Sob Story, and Jerkass Woobie. Not quite the same as Sympathy for the Devil—that's when characters in story sympathize with a villain, not just the audience. See also the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Can overlap with My God, What Have I Done?. See also Unintentionally Sympathetic, when a character wasn't intended to be sympathetic, but is, in the eyes of the audience, anyways. Not to be confused with Devil May Cry, though it provides an example of this trope.
Since many of these examples end in a death - or, at least, a Fate Worse than Death - there are some spoilers ahead.
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Anime and Manga
Diva's backstory in Blood+ is definitely worth the viewer's pity. As a baby, she was separated from her twin sister, Saya, as soon as she was born and locked in a tower without a name and with nothing but the basic necessities to live. Her only companion was a man who was completely obsessed with her and only viewed her as a very interesting, study worthy creature. She spends the first sixty something years of her life like this, after which she escapes with her caretaker. As a result of her seclusion and her ruthless upbringing, she developed an unstable, immature personality and severe attachment issues, being unable to respond to her Chevaliers' undying devotion and affection (which messed up quite a few of them). Despite her deep, desperate craving for a family of her own, she never obtains it, as she dies before her babies emerge from their cocoons.
This also extends in-universe: After she finally succeeds at killing Diva, Saya starts bawling her eyes out.
This was merely the beginning: after meeting Kouta, befriending him, and almost turning their relationship into something more, she discovered that he lied to her…about the gender of the cousin he was going to a festival with. Broken and betrayed, the girl flew once more into an Unstoppable Rage and crossed the Moral Event Horizon by brutally killing everyone around her, including Kouta's family right in front of him. Ultimately, this cemented her decision that all humanity had to simply DIE!!!
Death Note ends, as Light Yagami dies, with a rather moving flashback to the first episode when he was a carefree student. The series also has a Whole Episode Flashback to the childhood of Ax-Crazy Kira-substitute Teru Mikami, who started off as a highly moral and kind student who protected others from bullies.
Rather drastically subverted in the Manga, where Light realizes that, in spite of having built a road to godhood with the bones of innumerable people, criminal and innocent alike, he's terrified at dying himself, and rather pathetically screams for someone, ANYONE, to help him, before begging Ryuk to save him. When Ryuk fulfills his promise from the beginning of the series and writes down Light's name, the former Magnificent Bastard says the not very classy Famous Last Words of: "I don't want to die! I DON'T WANT TO DIE! Oh, shit!", and dies with a demented look on his face.
Well, the anime does the same, but reminds us that he had been better once, and could have become a completely different man if it wasn't for the Note and his ego. In the live action movie version, the scene is sad, but your sympathy is with Light's father, who has survived to this point here, and not Light himself, who, with his last breath, insists that "Kira was real justice." even after all the horrible deeds he did (poor Shiori).
Mazinger Z: Neither the original manga penned by Go Nagai nor the anime series delved in the past and motivations of the villains. It was the manga penned by Gosaku Ota and published simultaneously with the tv show finally revealed which they were. In one of the last chapters, as Dr. Hell is making preparations for the Final Battle, Dr. Hell begins to narrate what his early life was like. We learn during the flashback that he was born in a very poor family. His mother never wanted to have a child, constantly stated his existence was a bother for her and beat him constantly as his father did nothing. No child wanted to play with him because he looked ugly and weird. Looking for a way out of it he turned to the books. He became very intelligent, began to get excellent grades in school... and then his teachers accused him from cheating and several of his classmates bullied him. He grew up without friends until he got in college, when he befriended someone who appreciated his intelligence and he fell in love with an exchange student. Shortly after he found out they were a couple and his frayed mind was already so paranoid he thought they were plotting against him to backstab him. After another unpleasant incident where he got beaten for making a good deed -a little girl slipped in front of him and he caught her, avoiding she hit the ground and got hurt. It was a well-meaning, innocent act. However her parents thought he was molesting her, and her father pummeled him- his mind finally snapped out and he decided Humans Are Bastards and one day he would wipe the world off idiots and everyone would have to kneel before him. You can tell in that right moment, Dr. Hell had been born.
Gaara in Naruto seems like an uncontrollable sociopathic monster during the Chuunin Exams, until we learn his backstory and discover he is the For Want Of A Nakama counterpart of Naruto. He mellows out afterwards.
Even Orochimaru got one of these. He has a flashback of when he was a sad but normal child visiting his parents grave with the third Hokage and finding a snakeskin, which he was told symbolized rebirth. My, now what are all his abilities based around?
Pain was driven by these lengths by three main incidents in his youth which shattered his early idealism and dreams of peace.
Kabuto gets one of these too. Forced to kill the woman who raised and loved him as a son in self defense who didn't even recognized him as she had been brainwashed to not recongnize him by Danzo.
To say nothing of [[spoiler:Obito Uchiha, aka Tobi. Found by the deranged madman known as Madara and forced to watch as the love of his life killed herself by stepping in front of his best friend's jutsu, all to save their village, and then there's the Uchiha Clan's Curse of Hatred... you really can't blame the guy for going insane.
This trope is a major theme in Naruto; except for Hidan (who's a Satanist) and Kakuzu (who's in it forthe money), pretty much every antagonist has had some kind of trauma happen in his past that makes him somewhat sympathetic.
Mantid from Spider Riders has a moment in the final episodes. He reveals that he was once a spider rider and, over time, lost everything that he loved. In fact, it's so sad, even the Oracle cries in sympathy, preventing Hunter from finishing him off and causing him to re-evalute his own views on how to save people.
YuYu Hakusho has Sensui, the Big Bad of the penultimate arc. He used to be the Earth's Spirit Detective, which is now Yusuke's job, before his Face-Heel Turn. Unlike the jaded Yusuke, Sensui had a black-and-white view of moralityand justice. He fought hard to protect the human world from what he saw as absolute evil, the demons. And then, in one moment traumatizing enough for him to qualify as Mind Rape, he discovers that not only are demons not all that bad, but there are humans far worse than most demons.
In Monster, the main story line is about finding out what turned Johan into an unrepentant Manipulative Bastard. We get to see all the horrible places he was sent to as a child. However, there's a Spoileriffic detail...: half of it didn't happen to him and the other half didn't change him in the slightest.
Played straight in the finale (Or is it?) when Johan reveals that his mother was forced to make a horrible Sadistic Choice in regards to him and his twin sister, Anna, causing Johan to question his own sense of worth.
The straightest example is Johan's suicidal tendencies and his attitude to other evil people. Throughout the story, the impression is that he is tired with his own evil nature, something everyone else makes a big deal of, but which, for him, is so plain, ordinary, and banal. He remarks that he is searching for the darkest place or person in the world, but fails to find it, presumably in a search for somewhere he can belong, which won't happen as he is thought process is simply so alien from ordinary people that he can never fit in. Hence, he encourages people to try and kill him, and doesn't particularly care for all the grand plans his "followers" expect from him and he presumably fulfills them only because he's bored and he views it as a way to pass the time. Or he may just be The Antichrist, but that's probably just Rule of Symbolism. Probably.
Ginias Sahalin of 08th MS Team can qualify for this. What can be seen as uncontrollable rage and hatred in the last episode can also be seen as psychological agony, considering that he REALLY starts going off after Aina brings up their mother and his past. And realizing that Aina essentially did the same thing to him as she did, his fanatical dedication to his Wave Motion Gun and the carnage he inflicts goes from mere selfish jerk-assery to an act of psychological desperation by a man with some pretty deep-rooted trauma and pain.
In Hajime No Ippo, Mashiba Ryo is a quiet and sociopathic boxer who's nicknamed "The Executioner" for his horribly violent boxing style. Then, we see his backstory as an orphan who had to raise himself and his little sister, after losing his parents in an accident. By the time we learn what happened to him, Mashiba had lost faith in others and come to hate everyone but his current boss and Kumi...
In Fushigi Yuugi, the Big Bad Nakago gets this treatment via a flashback presented in the final episode, while Tamahome has his fist through him and gets to watch.
Broly from the Dragon Ball Z movie: Broly - The Legendary Super Saiyan. About 35 minutes in, when Paragus is explaining his motivations to the near-catatonic Vegeta. Paragus begs for his new son's life to an unrelenting King Vegeta, then the shadows cast on the wall from baby Broly being lifted out of his cradle and stabbed
Vegeta's own backstory. It's not just the story, but the fact that he tells it with his dying breath and sheds tears over it.
An in-story example happens in Code Geass, with Nunnally crying for a dying Lelouch during Zero Requiem. Sort of a subversion, since Nunnally is crying after what Lelouch has actually done what he planned to do all along.
It also does it insanely well with Mao in episode 15. He's introduced as a completely diabolical Smug Snake who tries to kill our hero, Lelouch, and chase down C.C. and seems unstoppable with his mind-reading skills. Then C.C. confronts him and invokes...pictures of Mao together with her as a (cute, huggable) little boy as she promises to stay with him forever...! And once he's taken care of for the episode, C.C. relates that she found him as a six-year-old orphan and gave him telepathy that he lost the ability to control and which ultimately caused him to go insane...By the time he finally dies, it isn't a Karmic Deathat all...and shouldn't very well be, since it wasn't even his fault he was insane!
The Fullmetal Alchemist manga does this for Wrath/King Bradley. He was part of an experiment to create the leader of Amestris which involved a Training from Hell beginning in childhood, and then being put through a painful transformation into a homunculus. What makes the character somewhat sympathetic is that, because he had no real identity prior to the transformation, any human that did exist was killed, and you can see Bradley's Pet the Dog moments as the vestige of humanity in him. Nevertheless, he's still an extremely cruel Fantasy Counterpart CultureAdolf Hitler.
When Gretel tells Rock about her and her brother Hansel's lives as orphans, snuff film "stars", and hit-children, making Rock break down in tears before Karma catches up with her, just like it did with her brother.
Anime only, showing Balalaika before, during, and after the Soviet War in Afghanistan.
Midway though RahXephon, the series throws us a flashback episode about the childhoods of Itsuki, Makoto, and Helena. Seeing Makoto treated as a defective piece of equipment by the closest thing he has to a family, Bahbem and his other clones, and seeing the one thing he loved in life fall apart is pretty heart-wrenching. It doesn't excuse his Jerk AssSmug Snake behavior, but it does explain it and cast it in a new light.
Miyoko Tanishi, aka Miyo Takano, from Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. She never knew her mother, her father got in a car crash, and immediately after her father told her, with his last words, that she should go to live with a Mr. Hifumi, she's told that that's "not how it works" and shipped off to an Orphanage of Fear, where she was brutally abused and saw most of her friends die horrifically. After she was rescued by Hifumi about a year (?) later, she saw his (mostly correct) theories scoffed at and the man himself laughed out of the scientific community.Ouch. After that, it's almost impossible not to feel a little sorry for her.
We're told how crappy the life Lucia, from Rave Master, lived before we even get to see any of the horrible things he does as a result. But for good measure, when he's entering the final phase of his plan to destroy the world, we get to see a page or so from back when he was six. If the horrified look on his face after having his mother shot down in cold blood by the government isn't enough for you, then seeing his reaction to being locked up had better be.
AloisTrancy from Black Butler season 2. Spent the first episodes abusing his maid and generally acting like a complete Jerk Ass. Then episode eight reveals in a flashback that Alois lost his brother, the only person he cared about, and was later sold as a sex slave to the earl. After telling his Battle Butler Claude, while bleeding to death from a stab wound he got in the previous episode, that he is the only one he's got left in the world, Claude simply kills Alois and takes his soul. Even Alois's greatest detractors found the scene quiteheartbreaking. Having this song playing in the background did not help matters.
The Millenium World arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! has a flashback to the Thief King Bakura watching the massacre of his village, Kul Elna, from a hiding place.
Marik may count as well. He had an abusive father, and was forced to carry a tradition that he did not want or care for that required an isolated and lonely existence. This not only turned him bad, but spawned his Super-Powered Evil Side, the embodiment of his resentment and rage.
Yomi from Ga-Rei Zero- fits this trope to a T. The whole descriptive passage above aptly describes her without modification whatsoever.
In Soul Eater, we discover how Crona's mother treated him/her. She locked him/her in a dark room (and s/he was terrified of the dark) with Ragnarok, who repeatedly beat him/her, as punishment for his/her refusal to kill another living creature. She kept doing it again and again until s/he finally gave in, and it's implied that s/he never had any friends or received any compassion until Maka reached for him/her.
The Big Bad of Speed Grapher receives this near the end of the series. Suitengu Choji is cruel, manipulative, and merciless to those who owe him money or stand in his way, and uses a helpless teenage girl to further his plans. Then, in a flashback episode, the audience sees that Suitengu and his little sister were sold off to pay some of the debt his parents incurred. He was forced into the military to fight for whoever bought him, while his prepubescent sister was sold into prostitution. Years later, he finally tracks her down, only to find that she's so broken that she doesn't recognize him, and he euthanizes her before weeping, distraught, over her body. Everything that he did since was a part of an elaborate plan for revenge against the people directly responsible for his ruined life and the society that allowed it to happen.
Trigun loves this trope. Just about every major bad guy is given a sympathetic reason for his behavior, at least in the manga.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica plays with this trope, when we discover that Homura Akemi has very valid reasons for wanting Kyubey dead. I mean, after watching your best friend die time after time by the mind games of that little furball, you'd be out for blood too. But to top it all off, killing Kyubey is just a means to an end.
The Rebellion movie cranks it up with Homura becoming the Devil herself by hijacking Madokami's powers and becoming a God of Evil. This was, however, after the Incubators attempted to forcibly prevent Homura from meeting Madoka again by trapping her in her own Soul Gem, turning her into a Witch that wasn't supposed to exist in the Madokami world. Also, Demon Homura is just trying to make a world where Madoka is happy.
Attack on Titan plays with this, without actually revealing more than a few precious glimpses of their history. Instead, the focus shifts to our villains so the audience can see that they really aren't so different from the heroes. Turns out that The Colossal Titan, Armored Titan, and the Female Titan aren't at all what was expected. All three are simply Child Soldiers, serving on the opposite side of a conflict linked to an Ancient Conspiracy.
Annie has an entire chapter devoted to this, showing how much she admires "special" people like Eren that have the courage to follow their ideals. We also get glimpses of her childhood, and the complex nature of her relationship with her father. He put her through Training from Hell, but finally broke down and begged for her forgiveness while admitting to being wrong. Even so, he told her to consider the entire world her enemy and made her promise to come home someday. Her father crying is the last thing she recalls, prior to encasing herself in a Crystal Prison.
Several chapters are devoted to showing just how deeply traumatized and remorseful Reiner and Bertolt are about their actions. Reiner's guilt caused him to suffer from bouts of Trauma-Induced Amnesia, while the formerly stoic Bertolt breaks down and admits their time with the 104th was the only time they were happy. Even so, both acknowledge their actions are impossible to forgive and resolve that they've come too far, with no choice left but to finish their mission or die trying. Their Last-Second Chance is rejected with a tearful reply that they can't. They even get a bonus epilogue in Volume 12, filled with Pet the Dog moments. Ymir, one of the few characters with knowledge of the Ancient Conspiracy, views them sympathetically and resolves to sacrifice herself to save them.
Helbram from Nanatsu No Taizai is presented as a villain who without so much as a shred of empathy, casually and often deliberately hurts humans regardless if they are his subordinates or innocent civilians caught in the fray. His backstory however shows what he was before he was like this. He was once an innocent fairy who was deeply and genuinely fascinated with human culture and trinkets, something fairies don't have. However his curiosity allowed him and a few of his friends to get tricked and captured by greedy humans who wanted to rip their wings off for medicine. The experience drove him mad and made him into the Ax-CrazyFaux Affably Evil that he is in the story.
In Berserk, behelits are only activated when their holder crosses the Despair Event Horizon, which means the series does this quite a bit. The Count, who eats people alive? He was a noble crusader, warring against pagan cults... and then he came home one day to find his wife holding a pagan orgy in his house. When she mocked him for not realizing sooner, his world collapsed and the behelit triggered. Rosine, abductor of children? Grew up in an abusive home, and when she ran away, she found that even leaving it wouldn't save her. The beating she got when she came home set off the behelit. Emperor freaking Ganesha? The behelit was the only thing that saved him when his own mother poisoned him in favor of his brother taking the throne.No Apostle comes to that state without suffering.
In The Killing Joke, there is one frame during The Joker's "One bad day" speech, which no one but the reader can see, in which he looks like a lost little boy, and though he's shot and crippled Barbara Gordon, then kidnapped and brutalized her father in an attempt to break his sanity, we can't help but sympathize. However, the Joker is the king of liars and oft-aware of the fourth wall - who's to say he isn't trying to manipulate the reader as he is everyone else?
Herr Starr from Preacher spends the entire series stomping on puppies. But he was once just a quiet little boy who had the bad luck of attracting the attention of bullies. They held him down and put out his eye with a shard of glass and there's no coming back from something like that.
Captain Marvel (from DC Comics) always treated his arch-nemesis Black Adam with hostility - even after Black Adam became a world leader and they had to team up with the Justice League to save the world. But on a trip back in time, he met Black Adam as he was before his Face-Heel Turn and felt severe guilt. But when he got back to the present, Black Adam - who had spent thousands of years angsting - was not in any mood to receive an apology.
Dr. Doom's backstory has his homeland of Latveria being ruled by a cruel tyrant, prompting his mother to make a deal with Mephisto for the power to overthrow him. She does, but then dies afterwards, allowing Mephisto to claim her soul. Much of Doom's descent into villainy is related to his relentless attempts to free her soul through science and sorcery. Then he finally succeeded in freeing her soul at the cost of losing his mother's love for him. To save his mother from damnation, he had to make her hate his guts. When Doctor Strange, who witnessed it all, attempts to offer help, Doom quickly brushes him off and stands proudly alone, which is heartbreaking.
An alternate Doctor Doom actually heeds Reed Richards' warning and prevents his own Start of Darkness. He adjusts his machine and saves his mother's soul, crafts himself golden armour, and liberates his native land of Latvaria from the hands of the evil aristocracy. Then Mephisto rises from Hell and drags down all of the denizens of Latvaria into Limbo unless Doctor Doom makes Sophie's Choice; either he willingly sacrifices the love of his life's soul, or the entire kingdom suffers for it. Doom gives Mephisto her life, and he eventually still becomes a villain.
Spending your childhood in a Nazi concentration camp would have a dark effect on anybody. Is there any surprise that Magneto sees all men as the kind who would exterminate a people based on a minor ethnic difference, and, as such, would certainly act quicker against mutants?
In Dark Avengers #179, we get a brief glimpse inside the mind of Ragnarok - who up until now has been shown as Thor's murderous, insane clone - and discover that he has most of Thor's memories, too... along with memories of learning he wasn't the real Thor.
There is an Iron Man: Armored Adventures fanfic that does this for Gene Khan. In the order they occurred, he's seen his father shot in front of him, had his house burned down, his now dirt poor and homeless mother married a man who later killed her, spent the majority of his childhood being beaten and verbally abused by said man, and then his step father casually admitted to raping and killing Gene's mother just to hurt Gene even more. To quote the author, 'he never had a chance at being normal'.
My Immortal, arguably. Satan was rather calm and nice (in fact, much more sane and likeable than the protagonist herself) and never did anything directly bad. Dumbledore even demonizes the goths and punks at the school, but Satan seems to ride this off. And he becomes Voldemort, who harasses the main characters constantly.
Used so often by Naruto fanfics that it's become something of a Dead Horse Trope in that field. A large number of fanfics try to make the Kyuubi into a likable character using this strategy. Apparently, the savagely murderous and vile Kyuubi was just angry because somebody was picking on it or its family; the resulting murderous rampage that killed hundreds and orphaned just as many was a mistake it's very sorry for. Oh, and it's a girl.
This backstory has been in use for several years now and has changed little since then, even ignoring key revelations in the manga that would negate it. The funny thing is, Kyuubi really isn't all that bad when you get to know him!
A Period Of Silence does this for its main villain, Allucinere. Once an orphan known only as Maya Tromper, she watched her family burn to death when she was very young. Despite spending her youth in an orphanage, she managed to find joy in the form of Esme, a kind, outgoing, somewhat impulsive brunette who formed a perfect contrast to her more reserved nature. They eventually fell in love, but on the night of their high school graduation, Maya and Esme run into a man named Lazario, who arranged for the death of Maya's parents. He shoots Esme right in front of her, which causes her to snap. It wasn't what drove her over the edge, but it does give a certain context to her actions that inspires more of a tragic "what could have been" reaction from the audience rather than simple hatred.
The Puella Magi Madoka Magica fanfic A History Of Magic did this for the girl who would become Walpurgisnacht. At a young age she had been brainwashed by the Nazi party to be loyal only to them and use her wish for their benefit, and then the witch/Angel Pandora showed her images of other Puella Magi who suffered, causing her to snap even more, calling Hitler out, and becoming a witch almost immediately after making her wish.
In the Rise of the Guardians fic Guardian of Light, Pitch finds out that the main character, Helen, is his daughter whom he lost at the end of the Golden Age. He tries to get her back, but when he gets her and tells her, she refuses to believe him. Then the Guardians storm in, and take her back. And then when he gets her back again, she fights against him. While her reactions towards him are understandable, it's really hard not to feel sorry for the guy, since he's only trying to get his daughter back.
Judge Claude Frollo, Big Bad of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has the best Villain Song in the entire Disney Animated Canon because of this trope. Behind closed doors, he prays to the Virgin Mary for protection from Esmeralda's "witchcraft", which he wholeheartedly believes is driving him to sin through lustful, burning desire. He begs Mary to either burn Esmeralda in Hell or deliver her to him as his love to free him from his sin. He may be a vicious Knight Templar, but he truly wants to be a good man, struggling with powerful inner demons he cannot control.
Frollo: God have mercy on her...God have mercy on me...
The way he whimpers the "God have mercy on me..." line...for a brief moment, Frollo has the audience's pity. Though like the aforementioned Lotso, it doesn't last after he crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
In Rise of the Guardians, Pitch Black gives Jack Frost the old We Can Rule Together speech. Cliché, isn't it? Except for the fact that when Jack rejects the offer, the brief despairing look on Pitch's face reveals just how sincere the offer really was.
The hyenas of The Lion King get a lot of sympathy from viewers since their only real motivation is hunger and jealousy that they are forbidden from entering the Pride Lands to hunt where animal life is plentiful. Of course, they also gained a lot of fans thanks to their voiceactors.
Dr. Seuss' The Grinch. We all know the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!; we know how the cold-hearted, hate-filled Grinch tried to ruin the merriment of the good, honest Whos of Whoville, the wretch. But then, we're given a completely different look at things: we're still given the HOW, but now we're shown the WHY as well - and frankly, who could blame him?
In the scene where the mayor is giving an annual prize about holiday cheer or somesuch, Cindy Lou Who refers to the page quote and nominates the Grinch, saying that he's the one who needs it most. The fact that the Grinch is played hilariously by Jim Carrey helps.
Khan from Star Trek is one mean, manipulative, arrogant bastard, but the movie Wrath of Khan shows that maybe had his planet not turned into a Crapsack World, and a bunch of worms not killed off a third of his people including his wife, he may have been at least "a little" nicer.
Especially if you take into account the book To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh, where he really tries to become better and live a peaceful life with his people. He only becomes a villain again because that plan is destroyed by an ecological disaster. (All of which is hinted at in the movie.) That makes it really sad when he says in the film:
"This is Ceti Alpha V!"
The film of Bridge to Terabithia has a lot of this. The bully girl has a drunken abusive father, the cold emotionless teacher hasn't gotten over her husband's death, etc.
Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty is shown to be a complete bastard, cruel and vindictive towards his underlings. After the mutiny, he is shown in the lifeboat, taking care of the men who joined him. He prays for their safety and gives the bird they killed to the weakest man in the boat. He proves himself a masterful sailor. He and most of the crew survive and reach shore where Bligh regains command of another ship. He then becomes cruel and vindictive again, but the scenes showing him in the lifeboat gave another side that added the slightest respectability to the character.
Truth in Television. Bligh was no worse or better than most captains of his day, and he did, in fact, manage to sail that small open boat thousands of miles to safety, saving the lives of his crew who went with him. Meanwhile, back on Pitcairn, things were... less than rosy between Fletcher Christian, his fellow mutineers, and their Tahitian companions.
Star Wars: Darth Vader killed younglings, caused the destruction of the Republic by foolishly believing in a Sith Lord, and later participated in several massacres, but when he sees what he's become and how his son's been hurt, there is plenty of crying for him once he sacrifices himself.
The end of Cruel Intentions. Rich Bitch Kathryn Merteuil has spent the entire movie plotting to ruin the lives of people she considers social inferiors, using her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont as the tool for said ruination. She almost gets away with it...but she didn't reckon on two of her former victims deciding to get the goods on her and her schemes. While she's delivering a eulogy for her dead stepbrother in a church, the mourners begin to file out and her Smug Snake facade yields quickly to a "how dare you filthy peasants" sort of rant. She storms out angrily - and finds everyone reading copies of Sebastian's recently published diary, distributed by the two aforementioned victims. Kathryn's entire social circle now knows that she is a mean-spirited schemer and a cocaine addict, and to top it off, she finally gets to read the diary herself and see just how strongly Sebastian felt toward her. And she just stands there and silently cries, humiliated and shamed. Even Word of God in the DVD commentary finds it hard not to feel bad for her now, even considering all the villainy she's committed prior to this.
The story this film was based on has the character of Merteuil get it even worse. At least Kathryn will now likely be subjected to psychological help and rehab for her cocaine problem and get better from this phase of her life (IT'S HIGH SCHOOL!). The original Merteuil, on the other hand, loses everything when her reputation crumbles, and to add injury to insult, she contracts smallpox and her face ends up permanently disfigured. She was a manipulative bitch, but damn.
The beginning of Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) is this trope; the viewers are expected to know that the cute little boy is serial-killer-to-be.
Loki in Thor. On the one hand, he's a conniving, power-hungry liar, willing to betray his brother and doom him to permanent banishment while he usurped the throne. On the other hand, he's a deeply damaged young man who's convinced he's The Unfavorite, especially after finding out he was not only adopted, but from an enemy race, and is desperate for his father's approval and affection.
Made even sadder because he already had his father's approval and affection but convinced himself otherwise. And also because he's obviously going down a darker path, being the Big Bad in The Avengers movie.
In Alien: Resurrection, for all the murderous havoc the Newborn and it's entire race caused for Ripley, she's visibly sorrowful about having to kill it (and in an indirectly torturous manner at that).
In Star Trek Into Darkness Harrison is unquestionably evil, but the impassioned speech he gives in the Enterprise's brig about how he failed to protect his crew and believed they were dead, complete with teary eyes and comparing them to his family, makes it hard not to feel a bit bad for him. That, and that his people's supposed murder was his motivation to strafe Starfleet's top officers.
Rico from Judge Dredd, despite being a murderous psychopath, seems to sincerely love Judge Dredd like a brother and tries several times to sway Dredd to his side. At one point, he is this close to crying while yelling at Dredd for judging him.
Rico: (On the brink of tears) I'm the only family you ever had!
A notorious example exists in the Korean version of Oldboy. Not only does Evergreen go to unbelievable lengths to ruin Oh Dae-Su's life over and over, it turns out he has a decent excuse.Dae-Su accidentally started a (true) rumor that later drove Evergreen's sister to suicide, though it doesn't justify Evergreen's appalling acts of revenge. Cue Evergreen exiting by elevator, he's shown reliving the moment his sister killed herself; catching her before she could fall to her death, she begs to die and he soon loses his grip — and after reliving it, he promptly blows his brains out.
Paradise Lost is probably the Ur-Example...for the first few books, anyway.
Wuthering Heights begins by showing the audience Heathcliff as an adult, nasty and abusive to everyone he's around (even sending his hunting dogs after his guest) and then quickly shows his childhood, when he had potential to be a better person. One line that stands out is when, at one point in the story, Nelly, the main narrator, consoles a crying Heathcliff by telling him that he may be a lost Asian prince out of a fairy tale, leading him to imagine regaining such status and taking revenge on everyone who has wronged him in a way that foreshadows his later Face-Heel Turn.
Although it is actually written more to show a character as villainous who, up to this point, seemed more of a Loveable Rogue, Gogol's novel Dead Souls ends this way. Up to this point, the reader knows that the protagonist Chichikov is some kind of Honest John or con artist who has a mysterious plan to buy the records of recently deceased serfs, and he is presented as more sinned against than sinning. Then, the Lemony Narrator discusses how he came from an upwardly mobile family and, at a young age, had all of his creativity beaten out of him by his father and schoolmasters, leading him to become a Stepford Smiler and Smug Snake and manipulate and betray people in order to rise through the bureaucracy. Periodically, he is caught engaged in corrupt action and has to bribe his even more corrupt colleagues to escape complete disgrace. Thus, by the start of the novel, Chichikov has become something of an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain.
The Harry Potter series really loves to play around with this one. Snape is a complete bastard, but is hinted to be a good guy throughout the series. In the end, the reader can't be certain of what side he's on until Harry gets to see his memories and Snape is explained to be a good guy. Voldemort is explained to have had a bad childhood throughout the series, but Rowling says he's the only really bad person in the books note A bold claim.. Thus, he was bad from the start and his experiences in life are no excuse for who he is. On the completely opposite side of that is Harry, who had a bad childhood too, and yet is a very surprisingly selfless person.
When Harry does feel a twinge of pity for Voldemort after hearing his backstory, Dumbledore tells him to ignore it and to save that pity for Voldemort's many victims. Even after that, in their final confrontation, Harry tries to convince Voldemort to feel some remorse for his deeds to help him restore his soul. Harry knows that Voldemort is doomed to suffer a horrific afterlife otherwise, and it is not a fate he would wish on anyone, not even Voldemort.
The last section of Frankenstein shows very sharply that the creature was formed by his surroundings, not created evil.
All of Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel - if the viewpoint character was anyone else, it'd be a lurid psycho-killer story, and Cave has the skill to make that obvious without breaking first person. There's one utterly heartbreaking scene where Euchrid, isolated and spiraling into paranoid schizophrenia, stumbles into a group of migrant workers and sidesteps a bottle of beer thrown to him with a cry of "catch it!", assuming from experience he's being called catshit and the men mean to beat and rape him.
Several characters in American Gods, including the serial child murderer of a small god who is revealed to have started life as a child raised in darkness and isolation for five years, then sacrificed...
In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Sméagol/Gollum is a slimy little git—but he wasn't always that bad...the Ring drove him to insanity. Frodo hates Gollum at first, but eventually pities and tries to help him—in fact, we can see some of Gollum in Frodo himself.
Frodo: But do you remember Gandalf's words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.
Thomas Harris' Red Dragon provides a horrendous backstory for the "Tooth Fairy" Francis Dolarhyde, from his mother rejecting him at birth (illegitimate and with facial deformations), to a rough life in an orphanage, to adoption by his Evil Matriarchgrandmother, to eventual adoption by his reluctant mother, whose other children reject and abuse him. After that, the Start of Darkness kicks in, and Axe Crazy as he ends up, he still, at one point, tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to fight his evil Split Personality, even in the middle of being played for an Unwitting Pawn by Hannibal Lecter.
In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the point of the Christmas Past sections is to show how Scrooge became an old meanie. It shows how he came to believe that 'if you like anybody or let yourself feel any emotion, you'll get hurt'.
That was the truth behind this terrible, burning thing. No creature in all the cosmos deserved what had happened to the Storm King.
In I, Lucifer, the reader may feel a little swell of tears depending on how sympathetically they see old Luce's story, but an in story example has Raphael shed tears over Lucifer himself, when fighting a losing battle to convince him to redeem himself rather than face eternity in the void.
Stephen King does this so much that the trope could almost be named after him. Try to name one villain he's written that hasn't had a flashback to their shitty childhoods (cosmic horrors don't count). King definitely believes that evil people are made, not born.
In the novels, yes. In the Different Seasons novellas, Ace, the Sisters and Dussander have no bad-childhood-made-me-do-it backstories, and Todd freely chooses to follow in their footsteps.
David of Animorphs in his last appearance. After realizing he's been betrayed by Crayak, he accepts his death with dignity and begs Rachel to end his misery.
This is the point of Wicked; it does have Elphaba do morally ambiguous things (unlike the musical, where usually she tried to do good but it blew up in her face, book-Elphaba does some things that can't even be argued to have good intentions), but it explains where her opposition to the Wizard and her distaste for Ozian society in general come from.
Michael Henchard from Hardy's The Mayor Of Casterbridge does some very reprehensible things, including selling his wife and child for the price of a pint (more or less), manipulating his 'daughter' and telling her real father (it's complicated) that she has died because he wants to keep her to himself, and also ruining the life and reputation of another young woman. Yet by the end of the novel, when he dies alone and unloved it is possible to feel immense sympathy for him.
In the Codex Alera series, we see the Vord Queen in this light in the last book, as the individual tries to understand such things as love and family. Being the Big Bad, the individual gets it very, very wrong.
How exactly did Kozmotis Pitchiner, esteemed war hero of the Golden Age, end up as the Pitch Black Nightmare King we now know? If you have to guard Pandora's Prison Cell of Eldritch Abominations and listen to their incessant wailing to be freed for years in your daughter's voice, you'd be compelled to throw the gates open and get violently possessed and corrupted, too. It doesn't get better when it becomes apparent that his memory and love for his daughter still has the potential to turn him back into a human, proven when Katherine showed him the locket with a picture of his daughter and it ended up de-monsterfying his right arm.
In the Horus Heresy all of the Traitor Primarchs, except Alpharius Omegon, have this to one degree or another.
Horus Lupecal. The Warmaster. The Arch-Traitor. And in Horus Rising we see the man before he was corrupted by Chaos; a Primarch who truly loved his sons and enjoyed spending time with them in the Warrior Lodge of which he wasn't even in charge, he just liked to attend and be around his sons in a place where rank was unimportant, and a warrior who was willing to negotiate with other civilisations rather than conquer them outright and in his dealings with the Interex actually seemed desperate to, for once, make peace with someone rather than just crush them. And then on Davin he is wounded by the Athame and tricked by the Chaos Gods into accepting darkness into his heart. And by Erebus who takes the form of Hastur Sejanus, who was essentially Horus's best friend and was murdered prior to the start of the book, and uses Horus's love of Sejanus to nudge him into accepting the Gods offer. Horus became a monster, but before that it's easy to see why he was among the greatest of the Primarchs.
Angron. The Red Angel. One of the most insane of the Primarchs and one damaged from the start, obsessed with killing and slaughter and barely even functional at the best of times. But he was once a little boy whose first contact with humanity was to be enslaved and forced to be a slave-gladiator for arrogant and cruel nobles. They cracked open his head and gave him the Butcher's Nails, an antique technology that causes him constant cripping agony and puts him into uncontrollable rages. And after years of degradation Angron finally leads a rebellion that is doomed to fail, and at the moment of his final battle the Emperor arrives and offers to take him to birthright. Angron says no, wishing to die with his brothers and sisters. So does the Emperor help him or respect his wishes? He abducts him and Angron watches everyone he knew and cared about be slaughtered.
Mortarion. The Death Lord. Raised on a poisonous world ruled by Eldritch Abominations known only as the Warlords, taken in by the most powerful of them and raised as a weapon rather than a son, he eventually escapes and leads his people to freedom. But his final moment of triumph is stolen by the Emperor who cuts down his foster father in front of him, and it's implied that Mortarion had conflicted feelings about him, and he must bend his knee in servitude. He joins Horus for selfish reasons but comes to the attention of Nurgle, and when his Legion is decimated by plague and he must make a choice between horrific deaths and pain or serving Nurgle, he chooses to serve Nurgle from fear of dying. And why did he have to make that choice? Because his treacherous First Captain Calas Typhon put them in that situation so that it would happen.
Fulgrim. The Phoenician. Fulgrim's very first contact with his Legion was learning that they had been decimated by gene-seed problems and that only 200 lived, whereas most Legions had 100,000 marines and more. Not daunted he gave such a Rousing Speech that the Emperor himself was impressed and gave them the right to bear his personal symbol, the Aquila. But that was clearly the start of Fulgrim's obsession with perfection, living up to his father's pride and proving that there was nothing wrong with his Legion. Eventually he finds the Blade of Laer and it slowly begins corrupting him, twisting his love of art and culture into something depraved, turning him against the sons who truly love him and his closest brother Ferrus Manus, and eventually pushes him into murdering Manus. Fulgrim immediately sees the horror of what he has become and begs for oblivion, which the Daemon inside the blade grants him by possessing him. Fulgrim does eventually break free but had to sell his soul to achieve it. Like Horus Fulgrim became a monster, perhaps the worst of them all, but he was one of the friendliest and nicest Primarchs before that.
Magnus the Red. The Cyclops. The most knowledgeable about the Primarchs, who made a faustian bargain with the Warp to save his sons from mutation. He builds a great civilisation of psykers and then is forced to watch as his brothers call him an unclean warlock and madman for dabbling with what he does not understand, and the Emperor demands that his Legion cease their psyker practices and pursuits into sorcery. Magnus is truly hurt but still tries to warn the Emperor of Horus's treachery, but picked the worst way and time to do it. Cue the Burning of Prospero where the Space Wolves raze Prospero, butcher its people and cut down the Thousand Sons as they fight to defend their home. Magnus is so despondent over everything that he can't even muster the will to fight, until he sees Leman Russ murdering his sons, whereupon he joins the fight and is forced to pledge his soul to Tzeentch to save what remains of his Legion. If the Emperor had just levelled with Magnus about Chaos, perhaps Magnus could have had a much different future...
Lorgar Aurelian. The Golden. Lorgar was the most corrupt of all the Primarchs and the most tragic. Before becoming the Arch-Priest of Chaos he was perhaps the Primarch most interested in improving humanity's lot and genuinely cared about people; he wanted to please the Emperor and his brother Primarchs, and preached a religion based on love of your fellow man and standing together in unity. The Emperor is not pleased and after destroying a city on one of Lorgar's worlds to make his point, point-blank tells Lorgar and the Word Bearers that they are the only ones that have truly disappointed and failed him, that Lorgar's childhood conquering his homeworld in the Emperor's name was a waste of time and life, and that everything they have achieved is worthless. Even Guilliman and Malcador, who were there at the time, feel bad for Lorgar and Malcador even claims that if he could have saved any of the Traitor Primarchs it would have been Lorgar, even though Lorgar nearly crippled him at said incident. Lorgar just wanted to give humanity faith, he really believed that it would make humanity happier and better for it. And when he finally does find the Gods he always believed in, they aren't quite what he expected...
Konrad Curze. The Night Haunter. One of the most pitiable of the Primarchs. Raised on a world where the most common cause of death was suicide, he was not taken in by a family or a mentor, he raised himself and brought his world to compliance through fear. Cursed all his life with seeing the future he knew from an early age how he would die, and when the Emperor did come for him Curze took the Emperor's compliments on Nostramo as proof that his methods were correct. Eventually he could not be tolerated any more and the Emperor chastised him, and then Curze saw what was to come. A vision of the Heresy, and as the only Primarch who he considered a friend Fulgrim was the first person he told, and Fulgrim's first act was to tell the others. Rogal Dorn called Curze out for his slander and in a fit of madness Curze nearly beat him to death, and was condemned for it. Escaping he returns home and finds that Nostramo has reverted to what it once was, and he decides that only destruction will end the cycle of sin. Eventually he allows himself to be assassinated to end his miserable life and to prove that the Emperor is little different from him.
Perturabo. The Iron Lord. Perturabo is one of the most tragic of the Primarchs, for his treachery was entirely preventable if only somebody had taken an interest in him as a human being. Raised by a cold and tyrannical ruler who thought of Perturabo more as an heir than a son, eventually Perturabo met the Emperor and had a chance to really come into his own. It was not to be. He legion was saddled with garrison and siege duties all across the galaxy in small numbers guarding massive populations in hellhole conditions once the Emperor realised how talented he and the Iron Warriors were at such styles of warfare, and his only dream of creating wondrous and beautiful buildings, cities and works of architecture solely for the joy of it, and not for glory or rulership, was never realised as nobody ever cared enough to ask him what his dreams were. His dedication was put to the test when he had to reign in his own rebelling homeworld. He and his legion massacred the rebeling population and realized there was no possibility of atonement. He sided with Horus for that, and for one reason, Horus was the only one who had never lied to him or betrayed him.
Live Action TV
The X-Files episode "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man".
Two similar examples from two TV Sci-Fi shows take a lone member of the Big Bad guys, capture him, and make you feel sorry for him. "I, Borg", from Star Trek, and "Dalek", from Doctor Who.
"I, Borg" and the later character 7 of 9 highlight the fact that every one of those unstoppable terrifying Borg drones is really another victim of the Collective with their freewill ripped away from them.
And speaking of Doctor Who, who can forget the Master? Tortured for centuries by an incessant drumbeat that no one else could hear, until The End of Time, when it's revealed it was put there by the Time Lords when he was eight so they had a chance to escape the Time War.
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, even Sisko - who knows what the casualty figures of the Cardassian occupation were, and has repeatedly seen the man at his worst - feels sorry for Dukat when his daughter Ziyal is killed, causing his sanity to snap like a guitar string and reduce him to a traumatised wreck.
Glory from Buffy the Vampire Slayer got a moment like this, when she described what being in human form and going crazy was like for her (okay, technically, she wasn't talking about her, but the tone and body language made it kind of impossible not to figure out).
It's like you're in a crowded little dark room, all naked and ashamed... And there are things in the dark that want to hurt you because you're bad... Little pinching things, that go in your ears, and crawl on the inside of your skull... And you know that if the noise and the crawling would stop, then, you could remember the way out... But you never, ever will.
An earlier episode features someone who has summoned a bunch of demons to attack the high school senior prom. Buffy, determined to allow her friends one unspoiled moment in high school, corners the culprit and angrily demands to know why someone would want to destroy "the happiest night of the year". The culprit sneers that he has his reasons — and we're treated to a brief flashback of him shyly and politely asking a girl to go to the prom with him, only for the girl to cruelly reject him. This is played entirely for laughs.
The above scene can easily be read as a parody of many scenes earlier in the series that were legitimately this trope (like the poor kid in "Lie to Me") - we're set up to expect some deeply scarring, tragic scene, and what we get is fifteen seconds of, "Hey, want to go to the prom with me?" "Nope."
By the end of Robin Hood, the Gisborne siblings, Guy and Isabella, are all but embracing death as an escape from their miserable lives. Before destroying each other, they share a moment in a jail cell in which Isabella sadly tells her brother: "You loved me once..." and he gives her a vial of poison to quicken her passing. Though she uses it to kill him instead, there is a moment toward the end of the episode in which she looks over his dead body with what looks like regret, and one recalls that, at the end of everything, they were still siblings and did, in fact, love each other long ago.
In the first season of Desperate Housewives, Miss Huber was nothing short of a blackmailing antagonist who everyone seemed to dislike. But as she is dying, her final thoughts were revealed to the audience as her life flashes before her eyes. A life of hoping for excitement, and romance, and adventure, and realizing she is about to die after having done nothing with her life.
The sixth season episode "Epiphany" does this for the Fairview Strangler, effectively turning them into a Tragic Villain by the end.
Benjamin Linus from LOST. It starts with "The Man Behind the Curtain", but it isn't until "The Shape of Things to Come" that it really starts to look like he may not be as much of a villain as everybody thought.
A shape-shifting demon from the Supernatural episode "Monster Movie" gets this when he reveals how he was abused by his father and villagers, but he found refuge from the violence in old monster flicks that he re-enacted to a very serious degree (which involved killing people and kidnapping women).
Regina and Rumpelstiltskin both have episodes that delve into their backstories, showing them before they were evil and what lead to them becoming the way they are. Rumpelstiltskin merely wanted to protect his son, and the power he got to do so corrupted him. Regina's true love was murdered by her mother, she was condemned to a loveless marriage, and finally sacrificed everything for revenge. Both of them, especially Regina, are also aware that Being Evil Sucks.
Regina even says a number of times "Evil isn't born, its made."
Go back and watch the flashbacks of Bill's last moments as a human and first weeks as a vampire in seasons 1 and 3 of True Blood. This trope doesn't come into full effect till the characters Face-Heel Turn is completed in season 5, but going back after this reveals Lorena's true role as The Corruptor, as well as the character's sort of-dreary mindset/nature from the start.
Debbie Pelt is shown as a young, sweet impressionable teenager during some flashbacks in season 5. Really makes Alcide's grief over her violent death harder to swallow.
From Arrow , The Well Dressed Man's recalling the night his wife died, and how he could do nothing but listen to her die on his voicemail, over and over.
Babylon 5 has Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds Londo Mollari, the Centauri ambassador; collaborator with the Shadows, and personally responsible for millions of deaths all because he wanted the Centauri Republic to stand tall and proud again. He loses so much along the way including anyone he could have called friend and the love of his life, that it's impossible not to feel sorry for him.
Lyrics common to both versions of the song Behind Blue Eyes (The Who's version and Limp Bizkit's version) seem to imply that the character it's sung from the point of view of is a villain, but both versions are still clearly intended to make the listeners feel sorry for the character.
Relatively rare in pro wrestling, since either Black and White Morality or Black and Gray Morality is the norm and the promotions want the audience to intensely hate the heels (as do the heels themselves). Even so, there have been some examples in recent years.
Definitely Edge, even though he turned face for the final year of his career. His Jerkass Woobie backstory helped: he was a lifelong fan of WWE hero Hulk Hogan and perhaps the ultimate Ascended Fanboy, and did spend some time as a fan favorite before the disappointment of not being able to win a WWE title after being in the company for over half a decade finally got to him. Also, especially compared to the more detestable heels, he was funny and charming even when behaving his worst, and almost always smiling (even if it was often a Slasher Smile), so you felt you could forgive just about anything he did. There's also the fact that he rarely actually cheated to win his matches, tending to rely instead on Combat Pragmatist and Loophole Abuse. Edge was perhaps seen at his most sympathetic-as-a-heel in 2008, when he was engaged to marry then-SmackDown General Manager Vickie Guerrero (whom he truly loved, albeit a little ickily so); when Edge was caught kissing the wedding planner on the day of their wedding, he was truly sorry, tearfully begging forgiveness of an unmerciful Vickie, who punished him by putting him in a literally life-threatening Hell in a Cell Match with The Undertaker, whom she had reinstated after having fired him (a wee hypocritical, since Edge and Vickie had conspired to antagonize Undertaker, and in fact 'Taker turned his wrath on Vickie once he was done with Edge). It was easy to think of Edge as a desperate-to-reform Mr. Vice Guy, and Undertaker's act of literally sending him to Hell at the end of their match (though Edge of course managed to escape a few months later) certainly seemed extreme.
Over the years, Kane has tended to fill this role on those occasions when he's been a heel. Sure, he is by nature a violent, misanthropic "monster"...but considering all the injustices that have been committed against him since he was a boy, it's hard to blame him. He was badly burned in a fire started by his half-brother, The Undertaker, when they were kids, being left so traumatized that he wasn't able to talkfor years. He was betrayed by two of his girlfriends (one of whom was actually his wife at the time) and unjustly accused of murdering and violating the corpse of a third. He was bullied by Evolution into removing his mask on national television, finally revealing his burned face to the world and (semi-)permanently going insane as a result. He was tricked into killing his own father (by Edge, who was a face at the time). And, to top it off, he never seemed to be able to beat Undertaker, the man who was responsible for his Start of Darkness in the first place...which made it a sort of perverse Crowning Moment Of Awesome when, in the autumn of 2010, Kane finally defeated his heretofore-omnipotent brotherthree consecutive times. For the World Heavyweight Championship, too.
Richard III. If you miss the first 15 minutes of the play, Richard is a Jerk Ass, unrepentant in what he's done, and deserving of all the hatred and scorn he receives. If you DO see the first bit, however, and pay close attention, something stays with you for the entirety of the play:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
And then, in the very next scene, William Shakespeare lets us see Richard successfully woo Anne, suggesting that Richard's deformity wasn't his reason for villainy, just his excuse.
Shakespeare was pretty good at these: the Thane of Cawdor is an utter bastard, but still a sympathetic character, and King Claudius has that one scene where you can almost feel bad for him.
The Bond/Sondheim portrayal of Sweeney Todd, to the extent where you're pretty much a cold, heartless jerk if you don't sympathise with him. Several songs in the musical are this trope.
This is probably one of the biggest themes in Wicked: The Musical. Not only does it get the audience to see from the 'villain's' point of view, but in turn points the finger at society for being such a bitch to one poor, different person.
Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice, has (partly as a result of changing mores) been depicted even more sympathetically than he was during the play's time, and he was already portrayed somewhat sympathetically at the time. It's at least implied at the end that, though Shylock has been humiliated, his soul will find redemption - even if that point is made in a pretty blunt and cruel way.
In Aquaria, you spend the entire game witnessing the effects of the Creator's mad fury, and putting the remains of his creations out of their misery. Once you defeat him, you find out that he was a little boy whose entire family was killed, and "I should have died with them". He's spent hundreds of years trying to create someone who would love him like his mother did. Yeah, you're gonna cry.
In Dragon Age: Origins, you spend most of the game chasing after Loghain to make him pay for his crimes. When you beat him, you get the chance to execute him. Not only is he suddenly very honourable about it, but picking this choice will make his daughter, Queen Anora, object. Then Loghain kindly hushes her and tells her it's over. When she tells him she's not a child anymore, Loghain says: "Daughters never grow up, Anora. They remain six year olds with pigtails and skinned knees forever." Suddenly, he's transformed from Big Bad to loving father. If you use him for the DLC content after the main quest he has tons of these, especially in Return to Ostagar where he can present a decent argument for why he retreated.
Killing Jamie in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, due to his loyalty and genuine friendship with Sam. After your cover is blown, while you're sneaking up on him you'll hear him insisting that Sam isn't a traitor and pleading to B.J. to give him another chance. If you grab him and interrogate him, he'll insist that he knows Sam too well for him to be a traitor, and Sam coldly replies that he didn't know him at all. Sam kills him without a second thought, but to the audience it's a serious Tear Jerker.
Jamie (Before being fatally stabbed): See? I knew you wouldn't do it... I knew you were on our side.
The ending to Resident Evil 4 plays peaceful music and shows slides of the residents of Pueblo living happy lives, working the fields, and playing guitar, reminding you that the ganados were once normal people who fell victim to Los Plagas. Then the music abruptly turns ominous and cuts to scenes of the cult arriving, the villagers being experimented on and becoming ganados, and even a woman killing her own child. It's remembered as the most terrifying part of the game, and that's saying a lot.
In Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, Richter wants to kill Marta, yet Emil still sympathizes with him. It turns out that Richter wasn't always a "bad guy", but is against Ratatosk because of the murder of his friend Aster.
In Fable II, we meet completely unrepentant bastard Reaver, whose unthinking and casually selfish evil surpasses Lord Lucian's Well Intentioned Extremism. After the game, you have the option of finding out his backstory: his Moral Event Horizon of sacrificing the entire village of Oakvale was an accident, the unknown cost of a bargain to protect his life and youth. All of his Jerkass behavior and rampant human sacrifice afterward takes on a new light with the knowledge that his despair collapsed in on itself hundreds of years ago.
Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII is not terribly sympathetic in the original game, even after learning a bit of his backstory. In the prequel, Crisis Core, however, the character's origins as a heroic member of SOLDIER are explored. He still comes off as aloof, but has a more human side, and maintains real friendships with Genesis and Angeal. The revelations about his true nature are detailed in more depth than in the original game, and though it doesn't excuse his later actions, it's hard not to feel sorry for him in those moments.
Ultimecia in Final Fantasy VIII is another one, though most english-speaking fans only know it if they played the original Dissidia. In that game, she has numerous lines that heavily imply she longs for the innocent and happy days of her childhood, and moreso, that this longing is the actual driving force behind everything she does (this is even the point of her final speech to Squall, and the final text speech you get if you don't beat her as Squall in Shade Impulse). This motivation was apparently present originally in FFVIII, but was removed in the english port. For some reason, the writers for Dissidia Duodecim thought this was an excellent idea, as the rewrites for the 13th cycle in that game remove absolutely every trace of this aspect of her character, leaving a single line to Terra as the only hint of this part of her personality.
The bitter, nihilistic warlord Lans Tartare - it's revealed in the prequel/Gaiden GameThe Knight of Lodis, where he is the main character Alphonse Loeher, that the entire reason he's that way is because of the death of his best friend and girlfriend in the canon ending.
Seiken Densetsu 3 does this with the wizard Koren, though it depends on whether you pick Angela or Duran as your main character. As the second to final boss, you defeat Koren, who then laments doing so much damage, claiming that, in his desperation to gain magic power, he sold his soul to the Dragon Emperor. If Duran is your lead character, he feels sorry for Koren and it makes the player do so as well as Koren takes his own life. However, if Angela, who hates Koren, is your main character, you get a much different scene. Koren claims it wasn't his fault; but Angela refuses to forgive him as he brainwashed Valda, her mother, into neglecting her and then tried to make Valda kill Angela. Angela calls him a coward and while Koren still takes his own life, it is made to seem as if Angela wanted to deal the killing blow instead.
Many players of InFAMOUS felt this way about Kessler once they discovered he was Cole from an alternate future, doing everything in his power to ensure that, this time around, Cole will be able to fight "The Beast", the being that destroyed his world and life. Cole himself, however, is unmoved — he refuses to forgive Kessler for his heinous actions, even knowing why he acted the way he did and that he might even be justified in the long run.
The Beast himself! It's arguable if he even qualifies as evil when we learn who and what he actually is. He's just stuck in a situation where it's the Muggles or the Conduits, and he's a Conduit.
God of War: Kratos spends the course of three games murdering everything in Greek mythology on a quest for vengeance. He is presented as a violent, sadistic monster (though still not as bad as a lot of the more traditional Greek heroes), but he wasn't always this way. His desire for conquest led to him making a pact with the god Ares, offering his life in exchange for power. He and his army slaughtered thousands of innocents, and he grew more monstrous every day. But when Ares tricked him into murdering his own wife and child, Kratos realized the horror of what he had done, and tried to become The Atoner by serving the Gods of Olympus. The twist in all this is that Kratos is the player character. The experience of playing as him and seeing things from his point of view is the only thing that inspires sympathy from the audience; in any other situation, he'd be the villain.
Gehn doesn't get much back-story in Riven (aside from a journal entry mourning his dead wife), but read ''The Book of Ti'ana and you learn he lost his home world and almost his whole family - save only his mother, who was partly (albeit unintentionally) responsible for it. Then, at eighteen, he loses his young wife in childbirth. Everything he does is to try and restore his lost childhood. Not that it justifies his actions...
Saavedro from Exile, though played straighter. He might be insane, but he has good reason to be.
In Pokémon Platinum, you, at one point meet, an old man, who bemoans not intervening in his grandson's shattering, pressured life when he saw that the boy was falling apart from trying to live up to what his parents wanted. He doesn't mention the boy's name, but there's more than enough clues to point straight to who he's talking about: Cyrus. Made even more tragic by the fact that, by this point in the plot, Cyrus has already exiled himself to a parallel dimension and there's no way to tell his grandfather this or take him there or anything.
And therein lies the greater tragedy. For all the academic success, a great number of people can see the potential for good in Cyrus. The one person who needed to see this the most was the one conditioned into never seeing it at all. One of the brightest minds in Sinnoh instead dedicated himself to its unmaking...Cyrus' faith was in his parents seeing him as a point of pride, and the more you place your faith in one cause, the farther it has to fall.
Vergil from Devil May Cry, particularly in the third game, Dante's Awakening, after Vergil falls into Hell:
Moric and Qualna in MARDEK chapters two and three, respectively. Qualna turns out to only want to peacefully resolve the conflict between Rohoph and the Governance Di Magi. Rohoph goes ahead and seals his soul anyway. And Moric...Ohboy.
There is also the Stray Dog, aka Gregory Wilson, a deluded serial killer who snapped after the death of his son, and keeps then abducting children, mistaking them for the dead boy, and killing them in a fit of rage when he realizes his mistake. He's a completely broken individual, and is at his sanest while contemplating suicide.
In Portal 2, Gla DOS, after she gets her "face" ripped off and her systems shoved into a potato.
On that note, listen to the sad way way Potat OS says "Goodbye, sir..." after hearing the last recorded message from Cave Johnson, knowing that he died shortly after.
Nier: The Shades. Arguable, given how they aren't even really villains to begin with...
Grasshopper's ending in Twisted Metal II gives this treatment to Calypso. Turns out Krista Sparks is his daughter who had died, and has since been rebuilt as a living mechanical bomb. Even though he knows she's seconds away from exploding AND that she's not technically even his daughter, he still holds and comforts her as she explodes since she's afraid it will hurt. He might be an evil son of a bitch, but it's hard not to cry for anyone who loved his daughter that much.
Tekken could be said to have this with Kazuya. When you realize his cursed heritage and his backstory of how he came to have the Devil Gene in the first place Tossed off a cliff by his father Heihachi for being too kind hearted, when he was only 5, and being reborn by the Devil to extract revenge, you no longer see him as simply an evil man, but rather ruthless because of what fate thrust upon him. And depending on how you may or may not view it, his relationship with Jun, or even his respect for his grandfather, could point to a more sympathetic villain.
Kazuya's son Jin counts for this in Tekken 6 too. Considering the whole ordeal he has gone through, which is much more than Kazuya Grew up in a broken home, lost his mother when he was 15, trained vigorously for the next 4 years for revenge, sabotaged his life, was betrayed by Heihachi, became consumed with rage and anger, had several identity crises, and then once defeating Jinpachi was granted access to so much power and recognition he had been denied for his whole life of feeling powerless to stop everything he endured), it's honestly no surprise he became how he did.
Azala from Chrono Trigger, after his last stand, drags himself forward as sad music plays and he asks that the humans never forget that he and his kind fought bravely to the bitter end. He then refuses to be rescued, as it is their fate to die there. Then, his final words seal it as a Tear Jerker:
Benezia: Goodnight, Little Wing... I will see you with the dawn. (pause) No... light... they always said... there would be...
This continues on in Mass Effect 3 where Liara will remark that her favourite colour was yellow, and would always wear clothes in that colour. In the same conversation she will reminisce about how Benezia caught her digging for Prothean ruins in a local park, which resulted in Liara's first history book.
Fate/stay night uses this for every villain except Gilgamesh, who never gets any excuse at all. Even Shinji and Zouken get minor flashbacks, showing us how they ended up that way.
The Director of Project Freelancer in Red vs. Blue qualifies to an extent. His narrated letters to the Chairman in Reconstruction make the Director sound like a bitter, unfeeling monster who rampantly mistreats artificial intelligences and doesn't care who he has to hurt to get the job done. Then, his final letter at the very end of the season/series makes him sound like a lonely old man who has lost everything that ever mattered to him and is now being hounded by holier-than-thou bureaucratic twits who will never understand what he's been through or what it takes to survive. (It is debatable whether or not this makes viewers sympathize with him, but at least it adds new dimensions to his character.)
To an extent, Agent Maine aka The Meta. While he's quite clearly a broken and wild lunatic nowadays, we see his backstory in the prequels and discover that while he was wild, he still cared for his teammates, then lost the ability to speak and ended up being given Sigma who warped his mind to the point he essentially died mentally.
Gunnerkrigg Court: despite his nickname, Ysengrin is not a nice wood wolf. We first see him trying to instigate a war and attempt to skewer a 12-year-old girl for a percieved slight. Then you find out the incredible toll his powers have taken on him...
And that Coyote has been eating his memories. It's hard to learn from your mistakes when you don't remember the mistake occurring.
The Order of the Stick: in the prequel book Start of Darkness, we learn why Redcloak turned evil: he's doing what he thinks is the only thing he can to save the goblin race from being slaughtered without provocation like his entire tribe was.
Averted with Xykon. The author states outright in the foreword that Xykon is not only evil, but a jerk as well. The backstory was designed so that the audience would have no sympathy for him. (Beyond the first panel, at least.)
Bizarrely, the scene where Xykon realizes he can no longer taste the terrible coffee at the evil diner is still rather affecting, just because his love of coffee was his one and only humanizing trait. Not even a particularly good or noble trait, but a human one, and it's both sad and terrifying when that is gone.
Avatar: The Last Airbender Azula. With her Villainous Breakdown in the series finale exposing her repressed inner problems, particularly regarding her mother, many expressed pity for the sociopathic princess, including Zuko and Katara (who had just defeated her), much of the fanbase, and Mike and Bryan themselves.
A little bit earlier, Katara discovers an old drawing of a smiling, happy, innocent-looking baby. Zuko then points out that it was a drawing of Fire Lord Ozai himself, which does more to put a face and a history on him than three seasons of characterization previously, as well as remind everyone that Ozai is human too.
Early, early in Season 1, we were getting this for Zuko - his back-story certainly seemed to explain many of his evil tendencies. But then he went through a long character arc, eventually ending in a Heel-Face Turn, so there was no devil to cry for.
The Ice King from Adventure Time at first just seems an ineffectual, lonely, and mildly creepy princess kidnapper. Then we learn his tragic backstory and find out he Was Once a Man and has been slowly driven to madness by an Artifact of Doom, and his fiance left him, and Finn and Jake feel bad for him.
Done brilliantly in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Heart Of Ice" which focuses on Mr Freeze and turns him into a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. Mr Freeze is almost completely unemotional, coldhearted and willing to kill anyone who stops him from getting revenge. But his backstory shows that he was trying to save his wife Nora when a heartless exec (who's lauded as a philanthropist) destroyed the lab for wasting money, permanently altering Freeze and nearly killing his wife. The show treats him with an enormous amount of sympathy (His famous "Never again" monologue) and the target of his vendetta, while not dying, gets his long overdue Justice. The episode is always rated as being one of if not the best episodes of the series and benchmark for animated television - there's a reason it won an Emmy.
Baby Doll: (looking at a reflection of herself fully-grown) Look! That's me in there. The real me! There I am! ...But it's not really real, is it? Just made up and pretend, like my family, and my life, and everything else. Why couldn't you just let me make-believe! (Shoots at Batmans reflections before facing her adult-form mirror... and firing) I didn't mean to...
"His Silicon Soul" introduces the Duplicant!Batman, an Iron Woobie who you can't help but feel sorry for after his Tomato in the Mirror moment. Especially when he thinks he's killed Bruce. Realizing what Hardac built him to do will kill more innocent people, he sacrifices himself to foil it. Bruce wonders if this meant the duplicate had a soul of his own.
Bruce: It seems it was more than wires and microchips after all. Could it be it had a soul, Alfred? A soul of silicon, but a soul nonetheless?
About the only villains in this series that don't elicit sympathy are a Dr. Moreauexpy (though his creation did), Firefly, and The Joker.
Every slight hint of Nox's history in Wakfu. The first glimpse of his history is a dream of a loving wife and children on a beautiful summer day. Given that he's now a cackling maniacal villain looking to turn back time or break the very fabric of reality in the attempt because nothing else matters to him anymore, it's safe to say things didn't go well for his family. The bonus episode "Noximilien" is entirely made of this and Start of Darkness.
In the end, he finally achieves his goal and rewinds time, hoping to save his family and undo all the horrible things he's done over the last two hundred years... and it only goes back twenty minutes. All the atrocities he's forced himself to commit, all the struggle he's caused, all the pain everyone's suffered, rendered completely pointless. He's so broken by this he goes to the graves of his family and kills himself. And because the world never knew about his motives, he'll go down in history as a Generic Doomsday Villain. Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds doesn't even begin to cover it.
Gargoyles has a tendency to do this with a number of its villains. In particular, the flashbacks in the multi-parter City of Stone are basically this for Demona and Macbeth writ large (also their mutual Start of Darkness), but even Xanatos can ilicit this reaction when trying desperately to save his newborn son from Oberon.
Ed, Edd n Eddy have good ol' Eddy who's greed and narcissism is hard to surpass and more often than not the viewer is shown he's a selfish brat. then, in a matter of five minutes in the movie, we see everything that's wrong with Eddy is due to horrendous sibling abuse at the hands of his much older brother, and that Eddy is just trying to fit in and be cool, but doesn't get how since he was always insulted and abused as a much younger child by his brother, who clearly has not changed one bit since he abused Eddy a long time ago.