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 Heel–Face 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, Alas, Poor Scrappy, 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 Face–Heel Turn and felt severe guilt. But when he got back to the present, Black Adam - who had spent thousands of years angsting — was not in any mood to receive an apology.
- 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.
- A Bug's Life: Even though Hopper was a cruel villain who had it coming, it’s 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. Even Flik and Atta look away right before it happens.
- 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 end up feeling sorry for Tulip.
- Kung Fu Panda series:
- 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. 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.
- Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid. Serving as the Co-Dragons to the infamous sea witch Ursula, they aided in her infamous plot to overthrow King Triton by using his daughter Ariel as a pawn and exploiting her desire to explore about humankind. Upon succeeding her goal, Ursula gets the eels to grab Eric when the latter attacks her with a harpoon. And when Ursula tries to zap Eric with the trident, Ariel causes Ursula to lose her aim by pulling on her hair, causing the trident to zap both Flotsam and Jetsam by accident, which shocks Ursula. As much as slimy as both Flotsam and Jetsam are, Ursula treated them both with special care as if they were children; she even shows extreme remorse for their deaths before turning her rage towards Ariel and Eric.
- 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.
- The Princess and the Frog: Doctor Facilier spent nearly the entire film trying to kill Big Daddy and enslave the souls of the entire city of New Orleans as a goodwill payment to his "friends", and mode-locked Naveen into a frog, but the manner of his demise is rather horrifying. He is, rather graphically, Dragged Off to Hell by his shadow, begging for more time (and his life) the entire time. It is so bad that Tiana, whom he just put in a Lotus-Eater Machine and is the indirect cause of his death, can only watch in abject horror.
- 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 his backstory is revealed, namely that he was accidentally lost and replaced with an identical Lotso by his original owner. He ends up squandering it completely.
- Up: Muntz is a murderous bastard and Fallen Hero with how Carl realizes immediately that telling him how to lure Kevin with chocolate is a bad idea, seeing his Psychotic Smirk. As we see in the opening, Muntz was once a respected scientist and explorer, who invented revolutionary technology. He then loses it all when scientists declare his bird skeleton a fraud and they strip him of his medals. Muntz vows to come back with a live bird, only for the task to take decades rather than a few months, with only talking dogs for company. That leads to Go Mad from the Isolation where he kills anyone that comes, accusing them of wanting his bird. Carl tells Muntz sincerely that he and Ellie were the explorer's biggest fans, and he inspired them to come to Paradise Falls. Even as Muntz is hunting them down, Carl feels sorry for him because he knows the man was once a hero.
- 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.
- 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, Dominik, 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. And 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."
- Richard is a Magnificent Bastard throughout the play, competent and charismatic, compared to the dull, flat heroes of the play. That makes it easier to feel sorry for him.
- It's also easier to sympathize with Richard if you have seen/read the prequel Henry VI in which Richard, even in his Start of Darkness state, often comes off as the Only Sane Man in the middle of a bloody dynastic war. This becomes amplified if you have any knowledge of the real man and the fact that he was a pretty good king, even if he did some ruthless things to get there.
- 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. Shylock has one of the best speeches in all of Shakespeare, even though he comes off as a cartoon villain in the rest of The Merchant of Venice.
- The Bond/Sondheim portrayal of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to the extent where you're pretty much a cold, heartless jerk if you don't sympathize with him. Unlike his penny dreadful origins, here, Todd gets a very sad backstory that explains his hatred of humanity and bloodlust. He was Happily Married with a small daughter, before getting convicted of a crime he didn't commit and transported to Australia. Why? Because the Hanging Judge wanted his wife all to himself. Even then, when Todd manages to get back to London sixteen years later, he just wants to reunite with his family... which isn't possible because the judge raped his wife, leading to her swallowing arsenic, and took custody of his daughter. And is planning to forcibly marry her so he can have her, too. Only then does Todd get on the murder train, and he gradually grows more and more insane until he decides to slaughter everyone he can until he finally gets to kill the judge, because the way he sees it, humanity is so terrible that everyone either deserves to die, or is so miserable that killing them would be a mercy.
- 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:
- The game 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.
- Gilgamesh's sympathetic backstory is a mix of All There in the Manual and offhanded lines spoken in Fate/Zero, the prequel novels.
- 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 self-loathing, and her burgeoning compulsion to help people she felt were "forsaken" like her, which would eventually lead to her Sanity Slippage shown during the main routes.
- Beatrice Frega from Tyrion Cuthbert: Attorney of the Arcane has had a rough life. She always saw her father as an "unstoppable, tyrannical force", who always belittled her for everything she did despite her best efforts. She was one of the most powerful mages in the kingdom, but that wasn't enough for him. He would never let a woman inherit his house. When Beatrice became blind due to an accident, he used this opportunity to control her even more and trap her in the manor. Angry and desperate for freedom, she abandoned her home five years before case 4. Beatrice turns out to be the culprit of this case: she murdered her father in order to claim the Frega estate. Tyrion thinks she's no different from the other power-hungry, egotistical nobles he's had to face before, but she shoots down the idea. She says that she would've used her power to purge the corruption from the nobility system. But because she was convicted, she failed to claim the inheritance, and she lost her soul to the Empress of Discord due to a Deal with the Devil (which allowed her to see through the eyes of her new demonic familiar in exchange for claiming the Frega estate). Tyrion offers to help nullify this contract, but failure to render it null would drag him down to hell alongside her, so she rejects his help. Later in the game, Beatrice is used by the Big Bad to commit a massacre against her will, and when she's outlived her usefulness she falls into a coma. She ends up waking up, according to the credits... but her life from now on is going to be in prison, waiting for the Empress of Discord to claim her soul again at any moment.
- 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).