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Tragic Villain

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"He's the most dangerous man alive. Not so much because he believes in his actions, but because he believes his actions are all which life allows him."

A particular Deconstruction of the villain, a Tragic Villain is completely aware of their evil but takes little to no pleasure from it; in fact, they could very well resent the evil they are committing. Rather, they were driven to villainy due to circumstances beyond their control. In many circumstances they are the Tragic Monster, perhaps an innocent person transformed into a mindless monster, or simply created to be a monster; either way they have no choice in the evil acts they commit and are as sympathetic as their victims.

Or maybe a hero was forced to commit a necessary evil, and occasionally any kind of villainy against their will, and never forgave themselves, deciding they were now a villain beyond hope/not deserving of salvation or redemption, possibly becoming a Death Seeker in the process.

The Knight Templar is quite frequently portrayed as this; given that many of them are meant to mirror real-life figures. One who stops attacking potential rebels may realize how his orders are doing more wrong than right, but the side of good will never take him... there's no turning back from where he is standing. Of course that wouldn't stop a Knight Templar from coming to regret their actions.

Highly sympathetic ones may be Anti-Villains and prime candidates for redemption, but also everything associated. Compare to Well-Intentioned Extremist, who commits evil actions in hopes of producing good results.

Compare Byronic Hero, who is a similarly sympathetic but flawed and morally conflicted character. Overlaps with Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds when their destruction is a result of the extreme mistreatment they have endured: alternately, Love Makes You Evil, where a character acts in a villainous way because they lost someone or something they loved, or simply never had anyone love them to start with.

Contrast Complete Monster, a villain who is pure evil and devoid of humanizing qualities. (A Tragic Villain could become such if they lose their sympathetic traits or take actions that overwhelm said traits.) Not to be confused with the Fallen Hero (although Fallen Heroes tend to make Tragic Villains, as discussed above) or the Tragic Hero, where the emphasis is on the character's tragedy rather than their good/evil alignment.

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Other examples:

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  • Three Days Grace's song "Animal I Have Become" could be interpreted as being about one of these.
  • Other songs that seem to portray this trope seem to be especially prevalent in the metal and punk genres, such as:
    • "My Own Hell" by Five Finger Death Punch.
    • "Monster" and "Falling Inside The Black" by Skillet.
    • "It's the Fear" by Within Temptation.
    • "The Way I Was" by Makeshift Romeo, is a song about a guy being shaped into becoming ruthless, and not knowing why they're doing it, and being desperate to become who he was earlier in his life, yet wondering if it's too late.
    • Many songs of Slip Knot is about this, due to them being about the band themselves being misanthropes filled with hatred, angst and depression. Good examples are "Left Behind", "(Sic)", and "Dead Memories".
    Contagion, i'm sitting at the side of Satan. What do you want from me? They never told me about the failure i was meant to be"
    —Taken from Slipknot's "(Sic)"
  • Proto Man in The Megas' History Repeating (Red) is driven by a deep well of resentment and rage about how Dr Light failed and abandoned him. Combined with his loss of purpose as Mega Man has taken his role, he embraces fatalism, concludes he is Just a Machine, and sets out for payback. Mega Man eventually convinces him to let go of his anger.
    Proto Man: They lost me/Forgot me/Made you from parts of me/If you're the one/My father's son/Then what am I supposed to be? ("I'm Not the Breakman")
    Proto Man: My heart is gone, there's only fire/I've met my maker and the man's a liar. (also "I'm Not the Breakman")
    Mega Man: And now you want to know/What you're supposed to be/Stop pretending you don't have a choice/Only that can set you free. ("I Refuse (To Believe)")

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 has its share, both in the Horus Heresy and the 41st millennium.
    • Horus was the most favored of the Primarchs until the Chaos Gods tricked him into becoming their champion as he lay dying from treachery. The war he waged turned the Imperium into a dystopian nightmare of cosmic proportions, and it was exactly the future he wanted to avert.
    • Lorgar, the first Primarch to fall to Chaos, was once one of the most loyal of the Emperor's sons, to the point he worshiped the ground he walked on, built countless cities in his name, wrote numerous books arguing his divinity, and conquered dozens of planets through nothing but the strength of his faith and his ability to convince others of the Emperor's supposed godhood. The Emperor denouncing that faith, destroying the greatest city built to his name, and forcing Lorgar and his Legion to bow before the very destroyers of said city while chastising him for his need to devote himself to a higher power practically broke him. Erebus and Kor Phaeron then came to him in his darkest hour and told him of gods who would accept his worship and reward him, and thus Lorgar helped engineer the destruction of the Imperium he fought for. All because the Emperor believed religion would give the Chaos Gods more power.
    • Chaos tricked half the Dark Angels into turning against the other and the battle they waged destroyed their home planet. While some of the Fallen continue their war against the Imperium, some have realised their mistake and are now on the run.
    • Fulgrim was slowly corrupted by a Slaaneshi daemon (about which he knew nothing, as the Emperor didn't warn his sons about Chaos enough) residing in a sword, who took over his body after making Fulgrim and his Legion fall into depraved hedonism. Rather than deal with his mistake, he embraced Slaanesh so he will be given unlimited pleasure that will numb his soul.
    • Magnus the Red's carelessness with warp magic got his legion marked for destruction after he used his powers to warn the Emperor about Horus's treachery, which destroyed the Emperor's Webway project and unleashed a horrible tide of daemons into it. Unwilling to let them die, Magnus struck a Deal with the Devil to allow his legion asylum in the Warp. The price was eternal servitude to Tzeentch and the endless mutations that took a horrible rite to counter. It didn't do them much good.
    • Conrad Curze was plagued by dark visions of the future... which all were true. He grew up on a crapsack planet called Nostramo, which was so bad that Gotham City was a paradise compared to it. Driven by his sense of justice, he butchered his way to the top through criminals, using fear and destruction as his tools. After joining the Emperor, he continued his work, slowly became a monster, destroyed Nostramo after it became a hellhole since he left, and joined his lot with Horus. After he realised what he had become, he let an Imperial assassin kill him.
    • Angron was turned into a raging berserker in his childhood by the implantation of neural augmetics that would cause him extreme pain and rage until he killed something. When he finally led a slave revolt to go down in battle with the people he considered his own, the Emperor chose this moment to come in and teleport Angron out, denying him his chance to finally make the pain stop (and making everyone think Angron was a coward who ran off instead of facing his enemies). No wonder he was one of the first Primarchs to rebel against his "father".
    • Ahzek Ahriman of the Thousand Sons is revealed to be sorry for the spell that locked his comrades' souls into their armor and wishes to serve the Emperor but continues to commit vile acts to find the knowledge to cure them.
  • The undead Sixth Kingdom in Spears of the Dawn is a whole race of tragic villains. While they are too evil and insane to make peace with at this point, they only made the Deal with the Devil that turned them into the Eternal in the first place because the Nyalans had driven them out into the desert and they had no other way to survive. Add to that the fact that they can't die, but can be crippled, and thus their enemies' usual way of dealing with them is breaking their physical forms so badly that they can't move or speak ever again and then calling it a day, and... well, you can't help but feel sorry for them.
  • While most Sentinels of the Multiverse bad guys are generally not nice people, a couple are sad figures to a degree:
    • Infinitor's actions are driven by his OblivAeon-inflicted madness, rather than his own will, making him one of the few genuinely sympathetic antagonists - especially since Infinitor is Fighting from the Inside throughout both his boss fights, and ultimately makes a Heroic Sacrifice to save his brother.
    • Deadline feels his monstrous actions are grimly necessary to save the planet Earth, at a cost of billions of lives. After he's defeated and learns that his plan wouldn't have worked anyway, he pulls a Heel–Face Turn and returns to fight alongside his former enemies as Lifeline.
  • Deadlands: The final fate of "Bloody Bill" Quantrill. The atrocities he committed drew the attention of forces from the beyond, who, upon his death, raised him as a Harrowed. The demon that was now time-sharing his body promptly took over, raised an army of undead and went on a murder spree. Quantrill is too weak to fight down the demon for more than an hour or so at a time, and even when lucid he has no idea what has happened. In his lucid moments, he flees from the undead follwing him, fully convinced that he is dead, and they are chasing him to drag him to hell.

  • Sweeney Todd is a classic example. Having been exiled by a corrupt judge who then took his wife and fostered his daughter, he returns for revenge and to save his family. When his vengeance is denied, he teams up with Ms. Lovett, who makes the worst meat pies in London. Her meat pies become much better when Sweeney Todd starts murdering every man who comes to his barber shop and giving the bodies to her to use. Yet despite being a mass murderer who helps dupe people into eating human flesh, Sweeney is still usually portrayed as a Woobie and Villain Protagonist in the musical. His original incarnation in penny dreadfuls was a lot less sympathetic.
  • Elphaba of WICKED, in a perspective flip of the original plot of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West started out as a solitary young woman frequently derided as hideous just because she has green skin. Everything good she tries to do backfires spectacularly—in no particular order, she loses the only teacher who cared about her, is forced to leave her best and only friend G(a)linda (The Good Witch of the South), loses her little sister Nessarose (The Wicked Witch of the East), and her lover Fiyero who she unknowingly turned into the Scarecrow in an attempt to save his life. By the end of the play, she's suffered so many failures that she completely loses it and her death is devastating to the audience and Glinda. And Glinda is the only one who DOESN'T know Elphaba faked her death.
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who comes across as pitiful even as he does a multitude of horrible things, all of which he seems to have been driven to do because of the mistreatment he received due to his disfigurement.
  • Nathan did commit a series of crimes in Thrill Me, but he also had a peer group of one, and that one was a rather poor influence.
  • Macbeth, if one interprets the play in one particular perspective. He likely became an unwilling tyrant due to the twisted fate that befell him.
  • Meg from Love Never Dies was taught that only The Phantom's approval matters so she can become a star, but he never pays her attention because she isn't Christine. This leads to her Villainous Breakdown and accidentally killing Christine.

    Theme Parks 
  • Julian Browning AKA the Usher from Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. He was originally just a normal movie theatre usher whose worst crime was being strict about the rules about the theatre. During a scuffle with a rowdy patron the latter threw Julian's flashlight through the theatre screen. When he went to retrieve it, he was so angry that he failed to notice the numerous ropes around him until he accidentally got himself tangled up and strangled. He is now a vengeful spirit who murders people who break the rules of his beloved theatre (and, unlike his fellow Icons, only them), which he still feels some level of guilt for even at his worst.

  • Makuta Krika from BIONICLE. He didn't agree with Teridax's Evil Plan, nor with him overthrowing the Brotherhood of Makuta's former leader and turning the organization evil, but had he rebelled, Teridax's supporters would have killed him. After realizing what the plan entailed, he became resigned to his fate: if it succeeds, they would become the rulers of a world he wouldn't want anymore, and if it failed, they would face the wrath of a Physical God. Too late did he find out that Teridax wanted to rule alone. Upon trying to warn his brethren, they believed him to be a traitor, and killed him.

    Web Animation 
  • Glitchtale: Despite being portrayed as a complete and utter Hate Sink of the highest degree in the series proper, Bête Noire is revealed to be a truly horrific victim of this trope in supplementary material. She was created with the soul of Agate Lightvale, the one who performed the spell to shape Bête into existence, and therefore has her creator's memories and intentions, and possibly even her spirit inside of her. In addition, the type of being that she is was created specifically to not have emotions such as love or empathy, meaning she had no choice but to be evil from the very beginning of her existence, making her quite possibly the biggest victim in the whole series. In the end, nobody learns this about her and she dies horrifically without an ounce of sympathy from anyone (even Word of God) other than Papyrus, who admits that he didn't want to hurt her at all, although he wishes he had that desire or perhaps he could have saved his family from further harm.
  • Red vs. Blue gives us the Meta/Agent Maine. He starts out as a relatively ruthless solider, but he is still loyal and protective of his teammates. After losing his voice defending one of his teammates, he is given the A.I. Sigma, who slowly corrupts Maine until his former personality is completely destroyed, leaving only the Meta. By the time season 6 comes, he has been reduced to little more than a feral beast. Even without Sigma controlling him, he is still compelled to fulfill Sigma's ambitions simply because that is all he knows.
  • Arby 'n' the Chief: Some see Eugene Black from Season 7 this way, due to his sister's condition and his father's abuse.
  • Miles Prower in Where Was My Hero...? was bullied and tormented by everyone he knew and having never met Sonic in this timeline never had anyone showing him any kind of love. One day he finds an injured bird and taking pity upon it nurses it back to health, growing fond of it, and turning it into his Living Emotional Crutch. Just when it looked like his luck was turning around, his two main bullies show up to destroy yet another of his creations and accidentally kill his bird. The poor boy, having crossed both the Despair Event Horizon AND the Rage-Breaking Point at practically the same time, reacts violently, very violently. Even after that, he still tried to be a hero instead of a force of evil, but when Sonic disapproves of his "methods", he gives up on being the good guy. By the end, as he lays dying, he starts reminiscing about Fond Memories That Could Have Been, made all the more tragic by the fact that these memories do occur in the canon timeline.
  • RWBY:
    • Salem was originally locked away by her cruel father until rescued by a hero named Ozma. They fall in love, but Ozma dies young from disease. For trying to manipulate the divine Brothers into bring him back, they curse Salem with Complete Immortality until she learns "the value of life and death"; for retaliating by raising an army against the Brothers, the God of Darkness destroys humanity and spares her. Trapped on an empty planet, she throws herself into the Grimm-creating Pools of Annihilation hoping for death, but is instead transformed into a being of pure destruction. When the God of Light reincarnates Ozma to redeem the returned humanity, the pair reunite until Salem's interpretation of "uniting humanity" becomes so dangerous that Ozma rejects her to protect humanity and their children. After their children die in the crossfire, they become trapped in a tragic, immortal cycle of pain that has put the fate of humanity on the line.
    • One of the main antagonists of Volume 9 is ultimately revealed to be one. The Curious Cat was originally a sweet, inquisitive and kind being who was all too happy to perform their purpose helping lost and solemn fellow Afterans find their way again. However, the Cat was created with two critical design flaws: they have to constantly learn new things lest they go mad, and there's no way for their own heart to be mended when they are the one who's lost and weary. After the the Cat's makers abandoned them in the Ever After to create Remnant without the Cat ever knowing why they did so, the Cat's heart, idealism and sanity was slowly eroded by a lack of answers and eons' worth of hardship piling up; which culminated in the Cat snapping when one of the first humans they met (Alyx) broke her promise to help the Cat travel to Remnant for answers. Now the Cat is a bitter, insane, selfish and sadistic and wreck of a being, unable to think of anything except their obsessive need to reach Remnant at all costs and their bitter hatred of humans. The real kicker is that the Cat heavily implies in their final moments while ranting at the heroes — before they're horrifically killed by Jabberwalker clones — that they know how broken they are, but they're helpless to do anything to fix theirself.
  • Kayaba Akihiko in Sword Art Online Abridged is a walking lesson about the dangers of crunch time in the video game industry — after being strongarmed into rushing the titular game in order to meet the deadline placed by his publishers, he accidentally creates a Game-Breaking Bug that kills players when their avatars die. By the time he discovers this, he was running on three weeks — or about 500 hours straight — of uninterrupted consciousness, leading to a stupor that had him believing the government was run by mole men, the night janitor was the face of God, and the game would be better received on Metacritic if the player-killing bug was an intentional design choice of some sort of grand plot, as opposed to the programming oversight that it was in reality. By the time he actually caught up on his sleep and started thinking straight, he was trapped in a Snowball Lie that had already killed thousands of people, and is left the most wanted man on the planet and the only reason he kept up with this is because he needed to think of a way to keep the authorities off his back long enough to figure a way to spin this in his favor; though after two years he never had that plan. Asuna just asks him why he didn't just pit the blame on an anonymous Hacker Group within the game who was pretending to be him since he had no actual motive for all this and would have made much more sense.
    Kayaba Akihiko: See Asuna, the problem with that... is that it's an EXCELLENT idea that I wish I had thought of two years ago.
  • In Episode 30 of Animator vs. Animation's Animation vs. Minecraft videos, it is revealed that King was once a loving father to his only son, Dark Yellow, always playing with him, doting on him, and taking him places. One of those was a festival that hosted a walk-in simulation of Minecraft, which Dark Yellow was eager to try out. However, a severe Holodeck Malfunction trapped Dark Yellow inside, killing him as he tried to escape, which devastated King. Ever since then, King determined to forge a superweapon capable of destroying the whole of the Minecraft universe as retaliation for his son's death, with no way out planned for himself.

  • Syphile Val'Sarghress is the first antagonist of the Drowtales series, and a marker for how the story would treat such characters. Initially, a pure antagonist to her younger sister Ariel, it's quickly revealed that their mother Quain'tana treats Syphile exactly as the older girl treats Ariel. She's an awful person, but she was a product of the systems that created her, and in her death spends her last moments saying that Quain had alienated everyone she had ever loved and would die alone just like her.
  • "Florida Man" is the final antagonist of the first half of Ennui GO! and he slowly but surely is revealed to be one. Beneath the hedonism, corrupting influence, and chaos for the sake of chaos, he's a suicidal shell of a man who's far more bothered by his ambiguous past than he lets on, and he ends his time in the series refusing Izzy's attempts to help him, as he believes he's not worth saving, and walking off into the night to (possibly) bleed out unceremoniously.
  • Fructose Rioflavin of The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! is a dangerous, borderline psychopathic Galactic Emperor wannabe that seeks to overthrow the Nemesite Empire and enjoy the destruction and death that he causes. However, it's also revealed that he comes from a poor background, and when his father (a street bandit) attempted to rob the Fat Bastard Emperor at the time, he got killed in front of Rioflavin. Not only that, after Emperor also mocks his death in Fructose's face, he swore revenge upon the Nemesite Empire, but after 1900 years, Fructose has made no progress in his plan to overthrown the empire and is now a old, lonely wrench that has wasted his life for a meaningless cause.
  • Snatcher and Gale from Sidekicks. Snatcher just wanted to get rid of her powers which she viewed as a curse and Gale felt hard done by after being coldly dismissed as a sidekick since his father died allowing him to become one. Both end up being killed by the same Jerkass superhero.

    Web Original 


Video Example(s):


Otto Apocalypse

After Kallen's death, Otto becomes cruel and obsessive in his attempts to bring her back.

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Main / StartOfDarkness

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