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 hard 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 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.
It's 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. It will likely also turn the character into a 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..."
That being said, a writer should be very careful with this trope - if the villain is particularly, abhorrently evil and has already crossed the Moral Event Horizon, the attempt at woobification, and any subsequent attempts at a HeelFace Turn, can end up feeling forced. In fact, if the reason for the villain's popularity was that the audience actively enjoyed hating them, then woobifying them can backfire because it removes what made the villain so beloved in the first place and, in turn, makes them feel like less of a threat. In addition, this trope tends to invoke A Million Is a Statistic for the sympathy accorded to their victims; it can feel frustrating when the author is chastising you for "judging" a character who just got finished nuking a city full of innocent people, gleefully cackling all the while.
Compare Sympathetic Murderer, Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds 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.
- 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 FaceHeel 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.
- 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.
- David Cain is quite possibly one of the most Abusive Parents in all of fiction, but he comes across as almost pitiable in one issue where, after Batman beats the living daylights out of him for what he did to his daughter, he desperately tries to reclaim the recordings of his training sessions with her, as they're the only thing he has left of her. In the end, it's Cassandra herself who catches him, and seeing him beg her to let him keep that last piece of their relationship manages to be heartbreaking despite the awful things he's done.
- Doctor 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 Latveria from the hands of the evil aristocracy. Then Mephisto rises from Hell and drags down all of the denizens of Latveria 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.
- In Hellblazer, the First of the Fallen a.k.a. Satan himself (NOT Lucifer, who is an entirely separate entity) was once the conscience itself of God, who was at first permanently split into a separate entity from God for "holding God back" from fulfilling his creative potential (indulging in the darker side of creation ex. initially preventing him from inventing the concept of 'free will', which caused The Fall when even the angels realized that it would only inevitably lead to suffering for sentient beings) and then later altogether banished forever from Heaven into Hell when he accidentally witnessed just how a by-now unininhibitedly insane God engaged in the act of creation freely drooling while furiously masturbating in crazed trances in secluded corners of Paradise, (when told to a devout priest, the man immediately became suicidally insane). By his own admission, he was at first a noble revolutionary who sincerely had everyone's best interest at heart and tried to save all of creation by overthrowing what he viewed as the totalitarian dictatorship of the original despotic tyrant, as God was the ultimate Mad Scientist \ Mad Artist \ Mad Doctor, but literally eons of failure and frustration eventually and gradually embittered and corrupted him until he inevitably and irredeemably became just as bad and as most would argue, even much worse, than the divine establishment to which over time he had become irrevocably estranged.
- What makes it ironic is that Satan only realized just how far gone he had become, by turning into the monster he had always been made out to be, when John Constantine smirkingly pointed it out to him during one of their innumerable confrontations.
- 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?
- Many of the Bat villains, such as Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Scarecrow, have backstories so sad that readers weep for them even as they hope Batman kicks the crap out of them for whatever evil scheme they just tried.
- 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?
- 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.
- Star Wars: Age of Resistance: The issue focusing on General Hux shows that he was badly treated by his father and other Imperial officers as a child, and was called pathetic, weak and useless for being unable to stand up for himself. He eventually grows up to become an Omnicidal Maniac who destroys planets for amusement, but given the environment of his upbringing, it's hard to see him become anything else. Snoke even says that the abuse he suffered in his childhood is what made him so vicious as an adult.
- Black Moon Chronicles: The Ophidians are presented as villains (because they're snakes), but you kinda feel sorry for them when you consider their position: one day an alien empire led by a mysterious God-Emperor just shows up on your planet and starts colonizing the place. When they try to repel the invaders, Wismerhill destroys their entire army before grabbing the emperor, smashing his palace, and threatening to kill his wife unless he agrees to be the bad guy in Wismerhill's Genghis Gambit. Afterwards the emperor and empress are crying in each other's arms.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- There's a slew of fics that give one-shot villains Gilda (from "Griffon the Brush-Off") and the Great and Powerful Trixie (from "Boast Busters") some sympathy, Character Development, and a shot at redemption, sometimes with a tragic backstory thrown in for good measure. There's also a bit of fanart and fanfic out there that depicts Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon in a sympathetic light, either giving them some Character Development, showing them as Lonely Rich Kids who only have each other as friends, or even having one or both as victims of emotional neglect or abuse. There's even one or two such fics for Prince Blueblood (from "The Best Night Ever"), who most fans regard as completely unsympathetic.
- The major villains of the series aren't immune to this. In fact they might even get this more than the aforementioned characters. Nightmare Moon is often written as a tragic figure, since many writers believe that she's an aspect of Princess Luna's negative emotions. Discord is hit with this by writers who create a tragic motive behind his actions or by those fanfictions that make him see the light. Even Queen Chrysalis, the most evil villain on the show to date, is sometimes painted by writers as a being who only wants what's best for her race and genuinely believes that conquering Equestria and enslaving its inhabitants will benefit her race.
- 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!
- Abraxas (Hrodvitnon): As evil as San's brothers (Ghidorah's right and middle heads, Ichi and Ni) are, Ghidorah's Backstory can create this reaction — pun intended, with Ghidorah being a Satanic Archetype and the implied source of humans' lore about Satan. Ghidorah is already presented by the story as a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds by origin as of Chapter 10, but the further details that the author revealed on her Tumblr about Ghidorah's backstory which were only vaguely relayed to characters in the story, are definitely enough to induce this effect. What's that the Tragic Villain trope page says about the villain being as sympathetic as their victims? It's easy to pity the confused, broken and tortured creatures that Ichi and Ni were in the beginning of Ghidorah's life if not the utterly-malevolent Omnicidal Maniac that they became.
- Aftershocks, a fanfic for Heathers, doesn't gloss over J.D.'s violent past or taste for violence, but by the end, he's so haunted by the war and it's put such a strain on his family, even as he attempts to have a normal life, that you have to feel sorry for him.
- In Alexandra Quick, this is how Alexandra ultimately views Darla.
- In Bad Future Crusaders we have the Wild Card Silver Spoon. She's cruel, has a nasty sense of humor, is fully willing to kill, and probably one of the evilest characters in the storyline (even outdoing a lot of the actual villains), yet what little details you get about her past and the fact that she is Covered in Scars make it very clear she has suffered greatly. Her interactions with Trixie and Clear Rivers imply there still is goodness in her, but even she has given up on ever changing her ways.
- In Codex Equus, the villainous residents of Sunnytown have received this treatment. In the original game, the Sunnytowners had little personality as individuals beyond being fanatical zombies who killed a young filly for gaining a Cutie Mark and nearly did the same to Apple Bloom. Their introduction into the Codexverse massively expanded on the Sunnytowners' backstories and personalities, humanizing them and turning them into otherwise sympathetic individuals who were influenced into doing bad things by an insane stallion. Each of their Codex entries also show how damaging fanaticism can be, depicting those who followed Grey Hoof as traumatized individuals who took a long time to recover from their experiences once they are freed from Sunnytown. Because of this, many readers have expressed sympathy for the Sunnytowners - up to the main author of Codex Equus himself - while at the same time expressing fear and disgust towards Grey Hoof's actions.
- In Equestria: A History Revealed, this occurs many times throughout the fic. In the case of King Sombra, it is hinted that some evil discovery, or just the constant annoyance from the crystal ponies drove him mad. In the case of Luna, it was the national trial and Luna Bill that caused her to believe her sister didn't love her anymore. And it even happens a bit for the Lemony Narrator, who throughout the fic was shown to be clearly insane and hate-filled, and later it is revealed that her tough life and rejection from the Canterlot School for Gifted Unicorns was partly responsible for her turning out this way.
- Emmeraude, from the latter end of marcus00721's Fairy Tail series, was the illegitimate child of the Pergrande King and lived in poverty with her mother. After becoming a top soldier in the Pergrande's army she was exiled after a failed experiment on the King. All she wanted was to create a better world so people like her mother wouldn't have to suffer. Her plans were delayed when Lucy unknowingly took a key part of Emmeraude's plans while investigation disappearances. When she captured Lucy Fairy Tail took on everything Emmeraude threw at them to get their friend back. Eventually they succeed in bringing her down. In the process Emmeraude losses almost everything she cared about. Her subordinates either died during the battle or were taken back to Pergrande to be executed as they were soldiers from said kingdom. The daughter she created sacrificed herself to save everyone. Her dreams are now in ruin. The only good thing she still has going for her is that her mother is alive and well.
- However, you may loose some of that sympathy with how petty she is. When she captured Lucy she abused the poor girl who was already suffering. When she is defeated she blames Lucy for all of her misfortune. And abandons her dreams and joins Zeref if it means Fairy Tail's destruction and that she can get her hands on Lucy. Emmeraude has already came close destroying Lucy's keys and threatened to kill Natsu in front of her just to hurt the girl.
- 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.
- In Harmony Theory there is Charisma, a dreaded Psycho for Hire and The Dragon to one of the Big Bads who ruthlessly and sadistically kills anypony or any other creature in her way. But as the story goes on we find out that Charisma used to be an innocent and happy filly that loved to dance, until the day she got glyph/cutie mark which turned out to be literally the mark of a killer which came with a little voice inside her head that constantly tells her to kill everypony around her and the best ways to do it, which drove her to murder her own brother, which got her disowned from her family as a child, before being taken under the wing of ponies that saw her potential as a living weapon and molded her into the monster she would become.
- 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.
- There's one called Mirrors in Shadows which does this for changelings, but with a twist. Rather than the usual Draco in Leather Pants or Not Evil, Just Misunderstood treatment the fandom usually gives changelings, this one full on acknowledges that they are evil and heartless predators. Somehow, it still manages to drown you in feels.
- Mortal Kombat: Desperation uses this trope on the Big Bad, Raiden. On the surface, he may seem to be a Knight Templar with a bit of the Ax-Crazy, He Who Fights Monsters and Well-Intentioned Extremist tropes, but many of his former allies lament and feel sorry at how the Jinsei's corruption changed him into a self-centered, taunting and rage-fueled madman.
- My Immortal: Satan was rather calm and nice (in fact, much more sane and likable 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.
- 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.
- Sonic X: Dark Chaos uses this trope pretty clearly with Tsali. He seems like an utterly Ax-Crazy monster at first glance, until the story begins to become more clear - not only did he have a Break the Cutie backstory that could put Guts to shame, he's basically ruined the entire galaxy and his own family through his lust for revenge. Episode 74 basically milks this trope for all its worth when Tsali finds out that Maledict had betrayed him from the very beginning - his resulting Villainous Breakdown is hard to take.
- A Bug's Life: Even though Hopper was a cruel villain who had it coming, its hard not to feel bad for him during his death scene considering how utterly horrifying it is. Not helped by him begging for his life while in complete panic.
- Jack and the Beanstalk (1974): Tulip is abused by his mother who plans on disposing of him and Margaret after they wed so she can rule the land. It's made clear that while he is a murderous cannibal, he does genuinely love Margaret and is unaware that his mother plans to dispose of her in the end. While he is ordered by his mother to killJack and Margaret after their plan fails, he soon turns on her and kills her, freeing the land of her evil. After that, he no longer seems interested in hurting people. The characters either don't notice his change in attitude or don't by it, and decide to get rid of him anyway, which leads to Jack deliberately provoking him into trying to kill him again so that he can lure Tulip down the beanstalk and kill him by chopping it down. By the end, you really have to feel sorry for Tulip.
- Tai Lung in Kung Fu Panda. Driven to mass destruction and slaughter because his father's master deems him unworthy of the final piece of martial arts wisdom. Tai Lung is made sympathetic thanks to his detailed backstory, flashbacks to him as a ridiculously adorable innocent youth, his motivating desire for respect from his adopted father, and the fact that he apparently spent twenty years in a Hellhole Prison.
- Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2, who struggles with deep-rooted parental issues and desperately wants to find happiness. Somewhat undercut by the fact that he's also a genocidal warlord.
- The Last Unicorn has King Haggard, a decrepit old Fisher King with a barren Kingdom, who has captured all of the unicorns in the world. His reason? Witnessing one in the wild was the only time he had ever been truly happy, with all other pleasures (such as adopting Prince Lir) proving fleeting ones, and he wanted to capture that feeling forever.
- The hyenas of The Lion King (1994) 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 voice actors. They do get a happy ending though, as they devour Scar for the latter's betrayal, and the film's sequel even reveals they left the Pride Lands afterwards, implying that maybe they're living better lives at this point.
- The witch (Agatha Prenderghast) in ParaNorman. Driven to vengeance because the townspeople killed her for something she can't control. After she comes to her senses thanks to The Hero, she tells him before she Disappears into Light that she just wants her mother.
- 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. It's even worse when you know his backstory from the books. He used to be a hero called Kozmotis Pitchiner, and he is only evil because he is possessed. The entry on Literature has more details.
- Steven Universe: The Movie has Spinel, the Big Bad of the movie that is introduced as an Omnicidal Maniac, who gleefully attacks Earth and The Crystal Gems with intention to destroying them all just to spite Steven, despite him not knowing who she is or why she hates him so, all while singing her Villain Song. But all you have to do is listen to the lyrics of said villain song to get an idea that there's something more to her: "I'm the loser of the game you didn't know you were playing!" Soon afterwards, Spinel is hit with Laser-Guided Amnesia for much of the rest of the movie and we get to see that before she was the monster she was introduced as, she was Fun Personified and wanted nothing more than to be Steven's new best friend. When her memories begin to be restored in the latter half of the film, we learn that Spinel was the loyal playmate of Steven's mother, Pink Diamond/Rose Quartz who lived to make her happy, until Pink finally got her colony on Earth and instead of bringing her, Pink told Spinel that they were going to play a game where she would wait in the garden in one particular spot. And Spinel happily waited. And waited. For six thousand years, never once thinking that her diamond may have outright abandoned her, until she received Steven's announcement to the galaxy on the garden's communicator, informing them of who he was and what became of his mother, when Spinel realized that Pink had long since moved on from her and she stood waiting for her for thousands of years for nothing.
- Lotso in Toy Story 3 gets this reaction from the audience when they learn his backstory. He ends up squandering it completely.
- A Clockwork Orange, both the Kubrick movie and the original book. Alex, a murderer and rapist becomes sympathetic when he is laid low, repeatedly humiliated, and manipulated for political reasons by a corrupt system. It's an ode to bad people everywhere, because if people aren't free to choose evil, they cease to be people in any meaningful sense.
It's taken Up to Eleven in the novel, especially in the scene where Alex has just been released and goes to see his parents, only to find that they've got a new lodger who has become like a son to them. For added dog-kickery, the guy has actually moved into Alex's room. It's hard not to pity the poor bastard.
- Alien: Resurrection: The Newborn was a murderous abomination, but unlike the aliens, shows some emotion, and acts as a naive and childlike creature. And its death was long and agonizing. Ripley 8 showed remorse for it - then again, besides the fact it had imprinted on her as its mother she's kind of its grandmother - and even Call had to look away in dismay during the Newborn's brutal death.
- Blade Runner 2049: Many audience members found themselves feeling unexpectedly sorry for Luv, the ruthless and at times sadistic Replicant enforcer of Wallace, given that she has no actual choice in the matter of her job and is forced to watch her boss murder other Replicants just for kicks and lead his crusade that, if successful, will lead only to her eventually being rendered obsolete.
- Bram Stoker's Dracula: Despite his wanton rape and murder, you can't help but feel bad for Dracula, largely due to his tragic backstory and Gary Oldman's empathetic performance.
- 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.
- 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.
- DC Extended Universe:
- Man of Steel: The brief moment when Zod laments that now he has "no people" (after his crew was sent into the Phantom Zone and the Scout Ship with the genesis chamber got wrecked, leaving no possibility of reviving the Kryptonian race). It's cut short by his Roaring Rampage of Revenge, but still poignant.
- Zack Snyder's Justice League: Despite being an unrepentant conqueror, Steppenwolf does have moments where the audience can sympathize with him. It's mentioned that he had some kind of clash with Darkseid when the latter took the throne, which is left open to interpretation. He decimates worlds because it's the only way Darkseid will forgive him and he has to deal with DeSaad kicking him while he's down, his look of sadness seems shockingly genuine. After being beaten and killed by the Justice League, Darkseid dismisses him as a failure in spite of his near-success, with Desaad getting in one more snipe at Steppenwolf's expense.
- Invoked on Jason's behalf in Freddy vs. Jason. Though both titular characters are serial killers who murder a ton of innocent (if bland and slightly annoying) teenagers, Jason is clearly the more sympathetic of the two, and the one the audience is meant to root for. His traumatic childhood, fraught with relentless bullying and neglect, is emphasized, and Freddy uses the dark memories to cruelly torture him. On the other hand, Freddy is just a sadistic psychopath, child murderer (and it's all but outright stated, molester), and monster without a single redeeming quality to boast of. Unless you count his infamously awful jokes and bad chldhood. It's a case of black and blacker than black morality, really.
- The two MUTO from Godzilla (2014) for their nature as Tragic Monsters. While they indeed do pose a threat to mankind, especially moreso if they ended up reproducing, ultimately the MUTO were not evil, malicious creatures, but merely very big animals who wanted to raise their family in peace. Indeed, they get several endearing Pet the Dog moments, such as when the male and female have an affectionate courtship ritual, to the point when it's genuinely tearjerking to see the female MUTO shrieking in anguish over her destroyed offspring.
- The beginning of Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) is this trope; the viewers are expected to know that the cute little boy is a serial-killer-to-be.
- Long before the remake, both the first film's novelization and several sequels imply that Michael is the superhuman killing machine he is because of an Ancient Evil that latched onto him when he was a child. Halloween 5 even has a fleeting moment where he sheds a Single Tear as the human inside him breaks through. It doesn't make him any less terrifying, but it does cast his murderous actions and robotic demeanour in a slightly different way.
- 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.
- 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 (2003). The Big Bad of the movie, Woo-jin, goes to unbelievable lengths in a deacades-long plan to ruin Dae-su's life as revenge for Dae-su spreading rumors about Woo-jin's sister that later drove her to commit suicide, though it doesn't justify Woo-jin's appalling acts of revenge. After Woo-jin has finally achieved his revenge, he goes into an elevator and has a flashback to the day his sister killed herself where he managed to grab her arm as she tried to jump off a building but she made him let go of her, falling to her death. After reliving it, he promptly blows his brains out.
- 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.
- Ditto for his grandson, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, who killed his father, Han Solo, ordered the massacre of civilians and is indirectly responsible for the deaths of his mother, Leia Organa, and uncle, Luke Skywalker, but is also shown to be deeply conflicted and in emotional agony throughout the trilogy, which made his death by way of sacrificing his life for Rey extremely sad for many viewers.
- 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!"
- 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.
- 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.
- Tremors 5: Bloodlines: Some audience members found themselves feeling sorry for the Graboids when the heroes destroy their nest and use their last egg as bait to kill the final Queen, who was just trying to protect her offspring.
- A Frozen Heart: Hans is depicted in a more sympathetic light despite his actions.
- Paradise Lost is probably the Ur-Example...for the first few books, anyway.
- Similarly, everything Blake or Byron ever wrote.
- Chapter 9: Storm Clouds, from Hell's Children, by Andrew Boland.
- 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 FaceHeel Turn.
- Although it is actually written more to show a character as villainous who, up to this point, seemed more of a Lovable 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 . 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 was 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.
- The Silmarillion shows this may have been intended for Orcs. It is revealed Middle-Earth's equivalent of Satan, Morgoth, captured many of the Elves after they awoke, and with torture used them to create Orcs. Tolkien even writes the Orcs really hate Morgoth and serve him out of fear.
- This happens with a lot of the supposed evil characters. When Sam sees one of the Haradrim, men from the South who are fighting for Sauron, die, he wonders whether he was really evil, what made him leave home and whether he would have preferred to stay there.
- 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 Matriarch grandmother, to eventual adoption by his reluctant mother, whose other children reject and abuse him. After that, the Start of Darkness kicks in, and Ax-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'.
- 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.
David: It's a beautiful world. I'll miss it.
- Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire. He was a young, dashing knight, proud member of the Kingsguard. Then he stabbed Aerys II in the back. In a Sympathetic P.O.V., we find out that he didn't do it to help his family win the war - he did it because Aerys ordered the city to be burned with wildfire. And that was after Jaime had spent about two years being traumatized by having to watch Aerys' increasingly depraved behavior and being duty-bound not to intervene. Almost everyone in the Seven Kingdoms now hates his guts and calls him Kingslayer. 14 years later, after all of the treatment and hatred he has received over the years, he has become the mask and embraced that image. When Brienne of Tarth finds out his secret and asks if he is so cowardly as to let it define him, he starts to shift into one of the more noble characters in the books.
- 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' best friend and was murdered prior to the start of the book, and uses Horus' 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' 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.
- Artemis Entreri is a ruthless assassin that has done his fair share of atrocities over the series progression, but seeing his upbringing in The Sellswords does a great deal in explaining how he came to be how he is. His mother was a prostitute, his supposed father abused him and his uncle molested him as a boy, before his mother sold him to a pedohile merchant. No wonder he grew up to be a cynic.
- Captain Bligh in The Bounty Trilogy. He 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.
- Worm tends to have this effect, partly because of the regular "interlude" chapters that show another character's perspective, often that of one of the antagonists. With a few notable exceptions, the comment sections are much more sympathetic towards characters after their interludes. Particular credit is due to Wildbow for turning Bonesaw/Riley, a Creepy Child Mad Doctor who's one of the most important members of the Slaughterhouse Nine and whose "artwork" on one of the main characters was terrible enough to cause a second trigger, into a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds.
- Ineluki the Storm King from MemorySorrowand Thornis like this. To quote: "He loved his people so much he gave his soul for them". And even our hero says that "No creature in all the cosmos deserved what had happened to the Storm King".
- Perfume: Grenouille ends numerous innocent lives to sate his quest for the ultimate scent, but his whole existence is portrayed as completely miserable and pointless: almost murdered as an infant by his mother, walking around humans like an alien, living in total isolation for years, and when he finally achieves his goal and could basically become a living god, he decides he doesn't want that anyway and kills himself by being Eaten Alive by a mob of peasants.
- The Priory of the Orange Tree
- Niclays Roos, who is almost a Villain Protagonist. He is selfish and resentful, his lies result in the death of Tané's childhood friend, he attempts to blackmail her into injuring her dragon so he can have a new ingredient for his alchemical experiments, he deceives his two honest doctor friends, and he persuades himself into doing all these things because it will spite the queen who exiled him for using her research grant to fund his addictions. But it's hard not to pity him a little over all the awful things he gets put through (even though a lot of them are his own fault) and he dove into his addictions because the love of his life, whom he couldn't marry for status reasons, died unexpectedly at the same time as Niclays was commisioned to make an elixir of life, and being barred from anywhere in Virtudom was an excessive punishment.
- Saint Galian Berethnet, founder of Virtudom. His virtues are brought into question early on with Ead's version of the dragon-slaying story and his myth is pulled further and further apart, including an extended diatribe by a non-believer that portrays Galian as a lust-driven thug who opportunistically used the dragon situation to found a new religion with himself as its godhead and lied about having killed the dragon to justify crowning himself king of all Inys. But the protagonists finally learn the truth of the two impossible-to-reconcile versions of his relationship with Cleolind—Galian truly believed he was married to Cleolind, but it was really his adopted mother, Kalyba, who kept him under a spell of hynosis until she nearly died in childbirth and the enchantment broke. He hanged himself in shame, and it's hard not to feel bad for him over that.
- From Arrow , Malcolm Merlyn 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.
- 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."
- "The Prom" 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."
- "The Prom" 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.
- Cobra Kai: Season 3 shows several flashbacks to John Kreese's experiences in Vietnam. While it is nowhere near enough to justify the callous, manipulative psychopath he became, watching a kind, upstanding young man go through trauma after trauma with no relief whatsoever will make you shed at least one tear, and maybe walk away with a bit more understanding.
- 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.
- Game of Thrones:
- Cersei gets several of these moments and it's a credit to Lena Headey's acting abilities that she can make Cersei both despicable and pitiable.
- In Season 1 she actually has a civil conversation with Robert, confessing that she loved him once and hoped their marriage would work out. When she asks if there was ever a chance for them, he bluntly replies "No". Robert asks how that makes her feel, prompting Cersei to smile sadly and say "It doesn't make me feel anything."
- In Season 2, Cersei breaks down crying in front of Tyrion and confesses that even she is appalled by Joffrey's heinous actions, but she doesn't know how to rein him in. She says she thinks this is a punishment from the gods for her incestuous relationship with Jaime (one of the few things that makes her genuinely happy). Even Tyrion feels bad for Cersei and tries to comfort her, assuring her that her other children are both good people.
- In Season 5, it becomes increasingly difficult to take much pleasure in Cersei's fall from grace, as she is so utterly broken by her imprisonment and torment. She is alone and terrified, begging to be allowed to see her son and resorting to drinking water off the dirty floor. Cersei also rightly points out to the High Sparrow that while she may be an adulteress, her own husband frequently cheated on her, emotionally neglected her and hit her. Her walk of atonement is horribly humiliating and despite her efforts to remain composed, by the end she's sobbing helplessly and can barely walk.
- Cersei finding out Myrcella is dead. For all her flaws, she does genuinely love her daughter and never got to see her alive again after Season 2. In a monotone, she tells Jaime she doesn't know how Myrcella got to be so good and kind. She mentions that she used to think about how their dead mother's corpse looked, before finally bursting into tears and saying she now thinks about their daughter decomposing. It's also hard not to feel for her when she's barred from attending the funeral and has to get details from Tommen; she asks him if they put her body in a gold dress and comments that always looked pretty in that one.
- During her torture of Ellaria and Tyene, Cersei's smugness slips a bit when she's talking about Myrcella. She describes how she tried to be a good mother to her because she herself lost her mother young. She then furiously demands to know why Ellaria took her daughter away from her, before quietly saying it doesn't matter anymore.
- Viserys when he attempts to steal Daenerys' dragon eggs. He rants to Jorah about how since he was five years old, he's had the weight of the Targaryen dynasty on his shoulders and has never received true respect or devotion from anyone. The viewer is reminded that while Viserys is indeed an entitled asshole who brings a lot of his problems on himself, he's also a troubled young man who lost his home and nearly his entire family as a child, was forced to go on the run and care for his little sister alone. He isn't loved or wanted by anyone save for Dany, but his cruel treatment of her has even pushed her away, leaving him with no one.
- Jaime gets a huge moment of this in Season 3, when he tells Brienne exactly why he became the Kingslayer. For nearly two decades, he's been ridiculed and looked upon with disdain by almost everyone for killing the Mad King, even though he was a murderous tyrant and it turns out Jaime did it to save thousands of people from being burned alive, sacrificing his reputation and dreams of being a Knight in Shining Armor in the process. It paints a very different perspective of him, marking the point where Brienne and many audience members came to view him in much more sympathetic light.
- The Lannister army, since several soldiers are seen shaking in fear of a massive Dothraki horde and Daenerys riding Drogon. It's more poignant in the scene where Tyrion watches from a distance in horror as panicked Lannisters are being butchered like animals and slowly burning to death.
- Despite the horrible things he's done, the way Petyr starts collapsing and crying as he begs for his life recalls that he was once just an innocent little boy who wanted to win the hand of the girl he loved, only to be humiliated, nearly killed, and then made a mockery of for years later. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the child he was, if not the man he became.
- Cersei gets several of these moments and it's a credit to Lena Headey's acting abilities that she can make Cersei both despicable and pitiable.
- 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.
- Literally, in the case of Lucifer Morningstar from Lucifer (2016). While he is confident, snarky and well-off economically, it is implied that his carefree, hedonistic lifestyle is a cover for his history of crippling, existential loneliness over the thousands of years of his existence. This can even be blamed on the scorn he receives from his angel kin, silence and abandonment from his omnipotent father and humanity's tendency to blame and demonize him for their own shortcomings.
- Marvel's Netflix universe:
- Daredevil (2015): Wilson Fisk is depicted with a sympathetic backstory - having had an abusive alcoholic father that he killed to defend his mother. He also has a number of people he cares about, in the form of his Number Two James Wesley, and girlfriend Vanessa Marianna, with both of them causing him to have some positive character development. He's portrayed less as a ruthless gang boss and more as a curiously vulnerable and damaged man with a misguided vision and one hell of an anger management issue.
- Jessica Jones (2015): Kilgrave is a complete creep and psychopath. But both Jessica and the audience feel just a little sympathy for him as it's revealed that his powers are the result of his parents subjecting him to extremely painful experiments as a kid to save his life (as he was born with a terminal brain disease). Not only that, but they at one point abandoned him while he was still a child after he started using his newly-manifested powers to punish them when he was upset. From then on he used his powers to compel strangers to feed, clothe, and protect him since his parents were not there to do it for him. Despite it likely being a manipulative bid for sympathy, Kilgrave defends his actions in an argument with Jessica of her having been held captive by him by claiming that the nature of his powers makes it impossible for him to determine if people do things for him because they want to, or because they are compelled to. Jessica herself even dresses down Kilgraves parents, telling them that he may have been a little monster child with a terrifying ability, but he was their son and they failed him by abandoning their responsibilities to teach him to be better.
- Luke Cage (2016): In the episode where Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes is Killed Off for Real, we're treated to a series of flashbacks showing his childhood. It turns out that Cornell was once a gifted pianist who had dreams of going to Juilliard, and only ended up turning to crime because of his family's influence. The real kicker was when he was forced to shoot his uncle "Pistol" Pete Stokes, who cared the most for him out of anyone, and his hand were shaking the entire time he held the pistol.
- Once Upon a Time:
- Rumpelstiltskin became the evil imp he is today because he wanted to protect his young son from being forced to fight in a war. It's later revealed that his wife ran off with another man and he'd even been abandoned by his own father.
- Regina was previously a good-hearted young girl unfortunately raised by a cruel and ambitious mother. When the latter learned of her daughter's relationship with the stable boy, she killed him in front of her. What's worse is that Regina turned to dark magic in attempts to resurrect her lover.
- The Snow Queen was born as Princess Ingrid and, although given powers over ice she feared, she had two sisters that vowed to stick by her. Until one day she accidentally killed one sister, and the other sealed her in an urn as a result. When she's set free, she's now an omnicidal maniac.
- Ursula the sea witch was once a mermaid with a beautiful singing voice. Her mother had been killed by pirates and her father forced her to use her voice to wreck ships in revenge. After being betrayed one too many times by him - and Hook stealing her singing voice, she opted to transform herself into the tentacled monster she's better known as.
- Regina's mother Cora got this treatment too, but to a lesser extent. She began as the poor daughter of a miller and gained a powerful marriage through luck. But she got the marriage at the cost of true love - and even removed her own heart to put the feelings to rest. What's more is that it's later revealed she had an illegitimate daughter that she abandoned to serve her own desires. Word of God says that if Cora had kept her heart within her, love for Regina could have redeemed her.
- 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.
- 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.
- Then from Doctor Who we have "Rusty", from the episode "Into the Dalek". We learn that the Dalek transport is more than just a way of getting around. It has circuitry built into it to actively suppress any thought or memory that would stray from the Dalek "ideal" instilled by Davros. "Rusty"'s transport was damaged, allowing him to view the birth of a star with the natural wonder it would ordinarily convey, prompting a HeelFace Turn against his fellow Daleks. Then the Doctor repairs the transport, causing Rusty to revert to his old ways until companion Clara can reactivate the memory of the star's birth. Daleks don't have to be evil. Locked in their transports, they have little choice.
- The Spanish Princess: In the last episode, Margaret, Lady Mother of the King, discovers her son is dead, is humiliated at every turn, and finally disowned by Henry when he discovers her subterfuge.
- A shape-shifter 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).
- A BIG one when Sam puts Crowley through a trial meant to change Crowley back into a human. It slowly begins to work as Crowley's human heart is being restored which is best shown in a outburst from Crowley:
Crowley: I DESERVE TO BE LOVED! (quietly) I just want to be loved.
- Followed by...
Crowley: I just want to know what you confessed because, given my history, I want to know where I would even begin to find for forgiveness.
- A BIG one when Sam puts Crowley through a trial meant to change Crowley back into a human. It slowly begins to work as Crowley's human heart is being restored which is best shown in a outburst from Crowley:
- 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 FaceHeel Turn is completed in season 5, but going back after this reveals Lorena's true role as The Corrupter, 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.
- Belial from Ultraman Geed is a spiteful and destructive conqueror... who is, deep down, just a bitter old man filled with sorrow and misplaced anger over being banished from his home and losing his family. He's trapped in an endless cycle of being resurrected and defeated over and over again, and he hates every minute of it. Geed comes to understand his feelings and pleads with Belial to just let it all go, but to no avail; Belial is too lost in his hate and resentment to admit his mistakes, and Geed is forced to destroy him permanently.
- The second episode of the first series of The Walking Dead ("Guts") has a brief scene where the characters stop to acknowledge the previous humanity of an otherwise random walker. Rick even finds out his name, Wayne Dunlap, from the contents of his wallet and vows to tell his family about what happened to him if he ever comes across them. This is markedly different to how zombies are treated from then on.
- The X-Files episode "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man".
- Lyrics common to both versions of the song "Behind Blue Eyes" (The Who's original and Limp Bizkit's Cover 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.
- The song "A Demon's Fate" by Within Temptation.
- ANYTHING by mothy. No really, we mean anything! Particularly prominent in the Evillious Chronicles.
- Thin Lizzy "It's Getting Dangerous". It's the usual story - guy gets bullied around, comes to power, swears vengeance.
- Invoked and subverted in the song When You're Evil, where the Card-Carrying Villain singer seems to reveal that deep down he's a lonely and miserable man, only to abruptly reveal that it was just Blatant Lies:
- It gets so lonely being evil, what I'd do to see a smile, even for a little while. And no one loves you when you're evil... (music picks back up) I'm lying through my teeth! Your tears are the only company I need!
- 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.
- Eddie Guerrero, who was actually a face for the majority of his wrestling career, albeit a sinister one. There was probably no one who didn't sympathize with him when he was first challenging for the WWE Championship, prompting then-world champion Kurt Angle (who himself had been a face up to that point) to handcuff him and have him beaten by thugs dressed as policemen, explaining that a former convicted criminal didn't deserve a shot at the championship. But Eddie's "Latino temper", his pathological ego complex, and his penchant for violence and sadistic cruelty all eventually combined to turn him into a monster during the summer of 2005; he stalked, tormented, and outright terrorized Rey Mysterio for months, all because he couldn't beat Mysterio in singles competition. When Mysterio defeated Guerrero in a Ladder Match, and Guerrero's wife Vickie left him (for the second time) and he lost custody forever of his (kayfabe) biological son, Dominic, a borderline-deranged Eddie appeared shortly afterward in a promo delivered in English and partly in Spanish, warning Mysterio that, now that he had "lost everything" and had no more reason to live and thus no motivation for preserving his dignity, he was now more dangerous than ever and Rey and Dominic were not safe from him anywhere. This angle was dropped very quickly when Guerrero abruptly turned face after finally defeating Rey in a Steel Cage match, issuing a blanket apology for everything he'd done and challenging for Batista's World Heavyweight Championship — and although, if not for his death in November of that year, he was to have successfully betrayed Batista for the title, Eddie Guerrero did at least manage to Die As Himself. Rey Mysterio dedicated his Royal Rumble Match victory to him, and within months he was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
- 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 talk for 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 but awesome moment when, in the autumn of 2010, Kane finally defeated his heretofore-omnipotent brother three consecutive times. For the World Heavyweight Championship, too.
- Richard III. If you miss the first 15 minutes of the play, Richard is a Jerkass, 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.
- Webber's The Phantom of the Opera was made to play to this trope. The Phantom spends the entire play killing, manipulating, extorting, and terrorizing people in pursuit of his goals, but the audience is repeatedly reminded that it is the severe isolation brought on by his physical deformity that drives him to behave this way. He even pauses in the middle of his Scarpia Ultimatum to confess to Christine that even his own mother 'loathed' him because of his face. There's rarely a dry eye in the house at this point in the show.
- Fate/stay night uses this for every villain except Gilgamesh, who never gets any excuse at all in the original installment. Even Shinji and Zouken get minor flashbacks, showing us how they ended up that way.
- Rika's DLC of Mystic Messenger serves as this, showing us just how atrociously she was abused by her family and their church growing up (both emotionally and sexually) the roots of her mental illness, and her burgeoning compulsion to help people she felt were "forsaken" like her, which tied into her crippling self-loathing and would eventually lead to her Sanity Slippage shown during the main routes.
- Red vs. Blue:
- The Director of Project Freelancer 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 makes him sound like a lonely old man who has lost everything that ever mattered to him and is now ready for an end to the saga. Once we meet him person at the end of season 10, he truly is tired and sad after every attempt made to bring back his Lost Lenore, only ending in failure almost each time. It's implied that he took his own life after one last meeting and farewell with his "Greatest Creation", his daughter, Agent Carolina.
- To an extent, Agent Maine a.k.a. 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.
- Temple, again, to a certain extent. While he eagerly throws himself into villainy and kills ex-Freelancers in a truly horrible fashion, flashbacks reveal that Project Freelancer was equally horrible to him; he was once a normal Simulation Trooper whose best friend fell victim to Tex and Carolina's rivalry, with Carolina dismissing his grief and desperate attempts to call a medic, while Tex casually made the wound worse to retrieve the flag. It's honestly no wonder he thinks the Freelancers (and the army who basically sold them out to Project Freelancer) need to be wiped out.
- 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 perceived 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.
- Averted in a different way with Belkar. The author states that his backstory will not be revealed in order to avoid making him sympathetic and undercutting his status as the darkly humorous Token Evil Teammate.
- Jack: The arc How to Make a Monster shows how Drip developed from an innocent child to a sadistic rapist and eventually a literal demon of Hell.
- Concession has Joel Calley, who got a Draco in Leather Pants treatment from the fandom, and was later revealed to have been raped by his psychiatrist while he was committed and to be pretty much a slave to the spirit of his dead sister.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent: The comic regularly puts a spotlight on the fact that the Plague Zombie monsters used to be ordinary animals and people who are now trapped in horribly mutated bodies with an instinct to attack the still-healthy over which they have virtually no control. This results in some individual specimens becoming sympathetic, even after they have attacked one of the protagonists.
- Bruno the Bandit: Carlin The Hermit is a Good Shepherd and Anti Anti Christ mixed into one character, being the son of Xubu'x, the settings version of Satan and his high priestess, but grew up to devote himself to Ailix, the mortal incarnation of the Creator Of the Universe, and thus, their version of Jesus Christ. Despite his demonic origin, his faith is genuine to the point that he's easily the most pious character in the comic, and his greatest desire is to bring his father into the light of Ailix, having already converted his mother on her deathbed. It's stated in one strip that if it's at all possible, Carlin is the one who could do it.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! East Academy Sigmund expresses genuine sympathy for Skull Knight when he realises the latter was possessed by the "Hatred-Battle Booster" card and forced to be a monster.
- Though its usually Played for Laughs the Game Grumps sometimes feel bad for the monsters they kill in different video games they play, like in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when they face the Deku Toad: they note that it was just innocently minding its own business until Link barged into its home and provoked it by killing its tadpoles.
Arin: Look, it got all flustered when all its babies die.
- One story in Not Always Legal revolves around a neighborhood bully trying to steal the submitter's bike (the latest in many incidents of him committing vandalism and theft), with the bully's mom calling the police on the submitter for defending herself against said attempted theft. The last few sentences of the story reveal that the bully wasn't stealing on his own initiative- his mother was a drug addict who was forcing him to steal anything potentially valuable so she could sell the items for drug money. Looking back on the situation as an adult, the submitter admits that they feel sorry for the bully and hope that he was able to better himself after the story's end (where he was rehomed with an aunt).
- 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.
- Amphibia: After turning out to be Evil All Along, King Andrias seems for the first half of Season 3 like a fun but irredeemably cruel and evil Chessmaster whose defeat when it comes will be extremely satisfying. But as the details of his background, his relationship with the Core and his true feelings about Marcy and the planned invasion are fleshed out, he becomes an increasingly tragic character — despite the terrible things he's done, when his downfall actually does come amid a Heel Realization in "All In", it's almost impossible to derive any joy from it.
- Arcane: Despite his horrific actions, it's hard not to feel sympathy for Silco during his trauma flashbacks in episode 3. Watching him desperately fend off a brutal murder attempt from the much stronger Vander, the man he trusted like a brother, is gut-wrenching. Its even more gut-wrenching when he dies, as he says he's willing to throw away his dream for a nation of Zaun just so that Jinx doesn't pay for her crimes, stating his undying love for his adopted daughter before passing away.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender:
- Azula. While she spends most of the series as a standard Magnificent Bastard, her spectacular Villainous Breakdown in the finale drives home that she's just as much Ozai's victim as Zuko is, and even when Zuko and Katara defeat her, they can't feel happy about it. The sheer speed with which her life falls apart has left both the creators and the fandom feeling sorry for her.
- 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 HeelFace Turn, so there was no devil to cry for.
- The Legend of Korra has this for the Big Bad Amon. Turns out he was the eldest son of Yakone, a merciless mob boss from Republic City who used his bloodbending to control people. When Aang took Yakone's bending away, Yakone sought revenge by teaching his two sons bloodbending. There was indeed a time when Amon was just a carefree kid, before the training, which turned him into a self-loathing revolutionary and brutal Knight Templar.
- Batman: The Animated Series:
- Done brilliantly in "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 is another example, a woman who has a deformity where she would never grow physically beyond a child, and goes to desperate lengths to try and bring some of the time she was happy back.
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 Batman's 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. Moreau expy (though his creation did), the Sewer King, Firefly, and The Joker.
- Ed, Edd n Eddy have good ol' Eddy whose greed and arrogance is hard to surpass. More often than not, the viewer is shown he's a selfish jerk. In the last five minutes of the movie, we see that Eddy is the way he is as a result of his older brother's abuse. Eddy was just trying to fit in and be cool, but he never figured out how to do it right because his brother constantly mistreated him while mentoring him to be cruel and self-serving.
- 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.
- Generator Rex, episode 8. Poor, poor, Breach.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: By the end, you really have to feel sorry for Cozy Glow. First, she's implied to be an orphan. Second, she is sentenced to spend eternity in Tartarus rather than being sent to a normal prison despite several adult characters having done as bad as her and been given full pardons for their crimes simply because they showed remorse, as if simple remorse should mean the difference between a full pardon and life imprisonment, instead of anything else in between. Finally, she is forcibly broken out of Tartarus only to be railroaded into an even harsher punishment by Discord, who convinces the princesses to turn her into stone, while he gets off with nothing more than a scolding, despite the fact that he enabled all her new actions, none of which were really any worse than her previous ones, and she would have still been in Tartarus if not for him. Making this worse is that she actually showed signs of reforming in the episode "Frenemies" before Chrysalis talked her out of it, and in the end, she and Tirek both stand down after they are defeated, and they may very well have been given one final chance to turn themselves around had Chrysalis not kept running her mouth.
- Primal: The infected Argentinosaurus from "Plague Of Madness". The poor thing wasn't even malicious to begin with; it was just a peaceful herbivore who got bitten by an infected dinosaur and turned into an Ax-Crazy monster as a result. Unlike the viewer, Spear doesn't get to see it living peacefully among its herd, but still comes to the same conclusion nonetheless and looks genuinely saddened by the monster's death. The somber music that plays as it the lava flames char it out of its misery only makes it more pitiable.
- In-story example in She-Ra: Princess of Power: Evil Overlord Hordak has been poisoned, and the magic poison will kill him within a certain time period if he cannot find anyone willing to cry for him. Since She-Ra doesn't want anyone to die, even Hordak, she helps him by taking him to see almost everyone he's ever known, learning about his history along the way. With time almost up, it turns out that there is nobody at all who won't be glad to see Hordak dead. She-Ra herself cries over the realization of just how thoroughly Hordak has wasted his life.
- An episode of Storm Hawks has Master Cyclonis attack the titular characters to steal a crystal from them which she needs to repair a broken crystal of her own. She actually pulls it off, returns to her Supervillain Lair and repairs the crystal... which projects a holographic image of her as a young child with her grandmother. Cyclonis almost starts crying.
- Wakfu: This trope is practically a standard for every Big Bad in the series.
- Every slight hint of Nox's history. 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.
- Although he's widely considered far less sympathetic than Nox, Qilby still does this. He's a remorseless, treacherous, planet-destroying Straw Nihilist who cares entirely about his own benefit and refuses to show regret for his many crimes, but he's become the way he is due to thousands (possibly even billions) of years of being cursed with true immortality and forced to retain his memory of it all, and knowing that it will never end, and furthermore having no-one but his dragon twin Shinonome who understood his burden. It doesn't help that it's implied that the rest of his siblings did in fact neglect Qilby and undervalue the vast intellect his immortality afforded him, regulating him to being a glorified librarian. Qilby arouse pity when his own sister turns against him in order to stop his madness and he's left crippled, crawling and desperately begging for her help. Him being locked again in the Blank White Void where he spent thousands of years in catatonia, all alone and suffering the fate he feared most, is very much an Alas, Poor Villain moment that has a strong impression on the audience.