Most villains are the type readers love to hate, but a rare few inspire actual compassion. Some have been treated like garbage their whole lives, others are consumed by jealousy, and quite a few are just plain charming. Whatever their secret, these baddies know how to win readers over -- at least for a little while.
Here are the villains we find most sympathetic.
1. Satan (or "Lucifer") in "Paradise Lost"
Milton was probably not trying to make Satan out to be sympathetic (though this is debated among critics), but somehow he comes off that way. Satan gets banished from heaven and you know what? We feel bad for him. He follows the trajectory of a tragic hero, while cranking up the hubris to levels that would make even Achilles blush. He's so charming guy that you just can't help pulling for him. Of course you'd be upset if your friends banished you from a beautiful place to be doomed in Hell. Of course you'd want revenge. Totally understandable.
2. Humbert Humbert from "Lolita"
We all know that what Humbert Humbert does is absolutely disgusting. But he's the one telling us the story, and his unreliable narrative is awfully compelling. He, like Satan, is a serious charmer. Give Nabokov credit for making such a despicable character so ridiculously likable.
3. Bertha in "Jane Eyre"
Sure, she does some crazy things. She tries to set Rochester on fire, and then eventually ends up burning down his house. But we couldn't blame Bertha after reading Jean Rhys's brilliant response to "Jane Eyre," "Wide Sargasso Sea." This book recalls the courtship of Bertha and Rochester, and it paints Rochester as far more villainous than Antoinette. (In Rhys's telling, Rochester renames her Bertha when they move to England.) Their marriage is arranged, and he is a horrible husband. She is definitely mentally unstable, even in Rhys's book. But does that justify locking her in an attic?
4. Raskolnikov from "Crime and Punishment"
Most of Raskolnikov's punishment in this novel takes the form of self-punishment (until he is sent to Siberia at the end). Before he murders a pawnbroker and her sister, he is depressed and living in poverty. He barely eats. He doesn't have money to finish his education. He tells himself that he will use the pawnbroker's money for good, but he just ends up hiding her purse under a rock. His guilt and terror of being caught for the crime overwhelm him. He eventually confesses his crime to the police, at which point he begins to mentally recuperate. Clearly he doesn't have what it takes to be a true villain because he was completely undone by his crimes and was innerly tortured by them. May we note that he also turns himself in. That makes us feel pretty sorry for the guy.
5. Grendel's mom from "Beowulf"
We feel really bad for Grendel's mom. Beowulf kills her only son, and all she wants is revenge on the man who killed him. (What mother wouldn't?!) Beowulf responds by decapitating her and then keeping her son's head as a trophy. Sad.
6. The Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz"
Well, first of all, Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch's sister. Secondly, Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" changed our mind about Baum's flat character. She is born with green skin and sharp teeth. Imagine how that played in junior high. When she grows up, her lover is taken from her and presumably murdered. She is an animal activist. She's really not such a bad gal.
7. Professor Snape from the "Harry Potter" series
Snape goes to great lengths to make Harry Potter's life miserable, but we later find out that it's because he was mistreated when he was young at Hogwarts and rejected by Harry's mom, whom he adored. Poor guy! Snape is one of the most morally ambiguous characters in the "Harry Potter" series. Is he good? Is he bad? We remember thinking that there HAD to be a good reason he killed Dumbledore, because Snape totally wouldn't do that! In the final book, we found out how right we were.
8. Cersei Lannister from "A Song of Ice and Fire" series
Cersei gets a bad rap. Yes, she has incestuous sex with her brother, and she's super protective of her horrible son Joffrey. But again, what mother ISN'T protective of her son, however horrible he may be? Cersei longs to be a powerful woman in an environment where women are not taken seriously. We feel that. Her deceased husband, Robert Baratheon, was always bedding new women and had bastard children all over the city. Her father, Tywin, tells her she is no longer wanted on the king's council and that he wants to marry her off to someone. Girlfriend is a proud woman, and she is constantly shown "her place." That sucks.
9. Moby-Dick from "Moby-Dick"
Come on, y'all. Moby-dick is a whale! How can a whale be evil?!
Who are your favorite sympathetic villains? Let us know in the comments!
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Beowulf took Grendel's mom's head as a trophy. He actually took Grendel's.