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From the Villains Wiki:
"A character who, although acting for primarily 'evil' or selfish goals, is either not in full control of their actions or emotions and the reader or viewer can sympathize for due to them not being evil by choice; but rather by them being a victim of circumstance. These villains can face a crisis of conscience in which they submit to doing evil. These villains often have confused morals believing that they are doing moral when in fact they are doing evil."
A type of Anti-Villain and the ultimate Deconstruction of the Villain, a Tragic Villain is a villain with a tragic backstory that shapes them into who they are. They are completely aware of their evil but are unable to stop it, or must continue to do evil for other reasons.
A common form of Tragic Villain is one who has his Heel Realization after crossing the Moral Event Horizon: he has no hope of redemption, so despite My Master, Right or Wrong, he continues to follow orders. A Knight Templar 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.
Or maybe a Hero was forced to commit a necessary evil, 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.
May also be a Tragic Monster; there is strong overlap. A prime candidate for redemption, but also everything associated. Compare to Well-Intentioned Extremist, who commits evil actions in hopes of producing good results.
Anime and Manga
- Yu-Gi-Oh! has Pegasus, who was driven mad by the Millenium Eye, and his primary motivation for his subsequent villainy was the resurrection of his dead wife.
- Pluto in Astro Boy.
- Stella Louissier in Gundam Seed Destiny, due to being a brainwashed Super Soldier who was given Training from Hell since she was a young child and has a Control Word to keep her in line. The other members of Phantom Pain could also qualify, but Stella is the biggest example because of how childlike and broken she is, and her love for Shinn Asuka.
- She is an Expy of Four Murasame and Rosamia Badam in Zeta Gundam, who also suffer the same horrible fate and sacrifice their lives for their only redemption. Louise Halevy in Mobile Suit Gundam 00 is another example, only she got better in the end thank to Saji and Setsuna. However, Anew Returner is not as fortunate...
- As you go down the line from the One Year War, you'll find Zekes and Feddies both that get caught up in a Cycle of Revenge as the previous wars left them scarred and without purpose but vengeance. The most recent example of this is Loni Garvey from Gundam Unicorn, the daughter of a former Zeon soldier who brought the remnants together, she lost her parents in a Feddie hunt for remnants and it has consumed her such that all she wants is vengeance for that.
- Hokuto no Ken: Shin, originally Kenshirou's best friend, is tricked into becoming a Big Bad due to his weak heart by Complete Monster Jagi, who convinces him to kill Kenshirou to get his lover, Yuria, whom Shin has long had a great desire for. He tries to please Yuria with every luxury he gains with his bloody hands, but to no avail. When Yuria commits suicide - or at least, she seems dead - to prevent him from doing it any further, Shin is left heartbroken, and finally joins her in the afterworld after his defeat in the hands of his former friend, Kenshirou.
- Souther also qualifies as a Tragic Villain - a particularly cruel, tyrannical type, making him look like a Complete Monster from the start. Overrun by the grief of killing his own beloved adoptive father and master, who instructed him to do it to complete his training, he goes insane and orders little children to build a pyramid for his master without mercy, until Kenshirou gives him a mercy kill, making him reveal his human side at his death.
- In Code Geass, either Lelouch or Suzaku or both could apply for this: They've both done morally dubious things in the hope for a better world, they've both demonstrated a great deal of regret and guilt over what they've done, and yet they both feel that they have no other choice but to continue down their current path.
- Mao may count as well, since the reason why he's a villain stems from the Geass he received at the age of six. Unlike most examples, though, he doesn't seem to be aware that he is evil.
- Some of the Undead in Shiki hate what they have become, but the pressure from other vampires combined with their uncontrollable bloodlust and desire to live mean that they can't stop themselves. The best example would be Tohru.
- The Akuma from "D.Gray-man" could count, especially the ones given backstories, like Mimi, Crea/Claire from the first few episodes, and the witch from the witch arc.
- Gaara of Naruto started out as a Serial Killer, but Character Development revealed that his psychosis was a direct result of the actions of his own father's attempts to either turn him into a living weapon or kill him. Insanity and Shukaku's whispers were his last refuge from the bleak emptiness of his childhood. Thanks to Naruto, though, he pulls a Heel Face Turn and gets his life back together, even becoming the beloved Fourth Kazekage as a result.
- Rosine from Berserk was an abused child who sacrificed her parents to the Godhand. There's also Griffith, who is a Complete Monster, but only became one after crossing the Despair Event Horizon. In fact, all of the demonic Apostles, the main villains of the series, were once humans who made a Deal with the Devil during a moment of ultimate despair.
- The King of Night in Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?. He grew to hate his immortality and just wanted to die. However, Yuu saw him as a friend still and didn't want to kill him, so the King went out and caused everything that happened to get Yuu to hate him and thus kill him.
- Adolf Kaufman from Adolf. He was forced to go to Adolf Hitler Schule and became a true Nazi who killed without compassion. He crossed the Moral Event Horizon several times, which made him lose his friends and family. He realized at the end of the war that what he did was useless, but it was really too late for him to have any chance of rehabilitation...
- In Sonic X, Dark Oak, also known as Luke/Lucas, counts as one, as his tragic past happened during a war that took place on his former home planet of Seedrius-Flora/Greengate. Refusing to leave with the other Seedrians and abandon his home planet after having fought so long, he began using its Planet Egg to make the male Seedrians' transformations last longer to Hertia/Earthia's shock and dismay, forcing the females to destroy the males and leave them behind. But a few males survived and they became the Metarex. The motivation of Dark Oak and the Metarex is to erase all life of flesh and blood from the entire galaxy so that plants can rule, and therefore bring their own peace and tranquility to the galaxy, and they require the Planet Eggs and the seven Chaos Emeralds to do so. In the end, Dark Oak finally realizes the errors of his ways when Sonic and co. defeat him with help from Cosmo's Heroic Sacrifice - he realizes that Hertia/Earthia was right about his lust for power destroying his own people and him bringing nothing but pain and suffering to everyone. Hertia/Earthia appears before Dark Oak and gives him a second chance, and he happily reunites with her and they both depart for the afterlife.
- Precia Testarossa in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The MOVIE 1st combines this with Fatal Flaw and Fond Memories That Could Have Been. As she falls to her death, Precia remembers that Alicia once wanted a little sister and realizes that she could've treated Fate as another daughter instead of a failed replacement for Alicia. Unfortunately, there is no longer enough time left to make amends or even apologize.
- Accelerator from A Certain Magical Index is this at the beginning and after his Heel Face Turn. He is desperately trying to make up for his very heavy sins.
- Gluttony from Fullmetal Alchemist. Despite embodying his Father's gluttony, Gluttony is a near invincible overweight manchild who would rather eat and spend time with Lust like a child with his mother than actively hurting anyone beyond eating them. No doubt tears were shed when he himself was eaten by Pride, calling out to Lust (who died earlier in the series) to help him.
- Envy, one of the worst Homunculi, proves to be this at the end. His sadism towards humans is because he envies them, trying to act human but never being able to become one. When Edward pities him for this, he's so ashamed he commits suicide.
- Batman has Mr. Freeze, an archetypal Anti-Villain in many of his appearances. His main motivation is to find a way to save his dying wife, no matter what it may be. A major factor in his introductory appearance in Batman: The Animated Series is that a Corrupt Corporate Executive directly caused his Freak Lab Accident that nearly killed both him and his wife.
- Every Batman villain that isn't The Joker has a tragic motivation.
- The Joker has one too...probably. He just can't remember what it is. Or, possibly he just made it up to get his targets to lower their guard.
- Depending on the Writer, fellow Batman foe Killer Croc can also be seen as one of these. Yes, he's a homicidal cannibal, but he is often portrayed as having little to no control over those urges. His increasingly bestial appearance and the gradual loss of his own humanity (again, Depending on the Writer) makes it impossible for him to have any sort of life other than that of a villain. In his appearance in the Titans series, he mentions that all he wants now is to be left alone.
- Recently[when?], Wonder Man, long-time Avenger, has been straying into this. After being revived, he's become increasingly disillusioned with the perpetual cycle of superhero-supervillain violence. After repeatedly asking the Avengers not to re-assemble, he puts together a team of similar malcontents (including a new Goliath, angry over his uncle's death during Civil War) who attack Avengers Mansion and Stark Tower, demanding that the Avengers be disbanded.
- In Minimonsters, both Henrietta and Miss Hit qualify for this trope. Henrietta is a Broken Bird whose evil split personality has gone out of control and is trying to replace her. Miss Hit, for her part, tries to replace her because she's tired of being looked down upon her Ill Girl other self, and genuinely believes she's the "superior" personality due to her Super Strength. Miss Hit's hopes are crushed once she looks at the truth mirror and sees her "weak" self (Henrietta) is the superior one, prompting her to shut down completely.
- Dr. Caine in Hollow Man
- Star Wars: Darth Vader. Sure, he's pretty evil (although not comparable to Big Bad Evil Guy Palpatine), but the prequel trilogy (Hatedom aside) made him go from just Luke's evil father to Luke's tragic, evil father.
- Michael Corleone in The Godfather Saga. He starts as an independent minded War Hero, but he is gradually dragged into mob life to protect his father and his family. He fought his perceived enemies with cold ruthlessness for years while he struggles to achieve legitimacy, and by the time he gets there, he admits that it's too late and that he is too tired and past redemption, and passes the torch to a new Don.
- Mr. Brooks is this trope to a T.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Davy Jones falls into this category, since it was his love for Calypso and her betrayal that caused him to do the things he did, including telling the pirates how to lock her in a human body.
- Godzilla. The original 1954 film Gojira showed that he was as much a victim of the atomic bomb as everyone else.
- Loki from Thor. He was motivated by a combination of sibling rivalry with Thor, the desire to impress his father, personal ambition, and a messed up sense of duty towards Asgard. There is also probably a fair dose of self-loathing, seeing as he found out that he was a Frost Giant and not an Asgardian.
- Hans Beckert of M doesn't want to murder children, but just feels compelled to do so. His speech at the end (wherein he calls out the Mob hunting him down on their ruthlessness) reveals just how tortured and fucked up he really feels.
- Tony Montana from Scarface.
- Toy Story has a few:
- Toy Story 2 has Stinky Pete. His antagonistic actions are fueled by grief over not being sold and watching other toys be bought instead of him. He does seem to genuinely believe he's saving Woody, Jessie and Bullseye from being destroyed and ignored and, as seen in Toy Story 3, these are not unwarranted concerns.
- Toy Story 3 has Lotso as a completely unsympathetic example, as while he did suffer from being unintentionally replaced by his former owner, his atrocious and often disproportionate actions prevent him from having any kind of sympathy from the characters and the viewers. A much better Tragic Villain is his henchman, Big Baby, who is nothing more than a child who has been duped and abused by Lotso to do his dirty work. Tellingly, he pulls an immediate Heel Face Turn after having enough of Lotso's bullshit.
- Dune: Dr. Yueh. He effectively killed the Atreides, for his Wanna.
- Moby Dick: Captain Ahab. While the whale can be seen as the villain, Ahab could be seen as the Tragic Villain: consumed by his own insanity, forced to chase the beast.
- Cujo isn't really a villain in the popular sense of the word, but he's just as much a victim as anyone else is, and if the Cambers had taken the possibility of their dog catching rabies seriously, the disaster could have been avoided.
- The Phantom of the Opera, otherwise known as Erik.
- Macbeth, if one interprets the play in one particular perspective. He likely became an unwilling tyrant due to the twisted fate the befell him.
- Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. Due to his "Well Done, Son" Guy situation with his real father, Crouch Jr. came to see Voldemort as a Parental Substitute.
- Both Rhulad Sengar and his boss, the Crippled God, from the Malazan Book of the Fallen commit or orchestrate acts that cement them as villains, but both are also portrayed as deeply tormented victims of circumstance (a Jerkass Woobie and a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, respectively) and you really can't help but feel sorry for them.
- Claude Frollo in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- Mordred in some King Arthur interpretations.
- This is what Murtagh from the Inheritance Cycle is supposed to be. During Eldest, he is enslaved by the Big Bad and forced to fight on his side. Brisingr at first makes it appear that he's gone completely evil, but Eragon speculates that he's getting back at the world for giving him a shitty life. Near the end of the book, he's fighting the Dragon Rider Oromis and he desperately screams at him, "YOU COULD HAVE HELPED US!".
- His Dragon Thorn is as well, as he wonders why he was brought into the world only to be tortured and destroy things.
- The Big Bad Galbatorix's dragon, Shruikan, is arguably one of these as well. While Galbatorix remains the villain, several characters point out that Shruikan never chose to serve him; his real rider was killed when he was a hatchling and he was forced to bond with Galbatorix, driving him insane. When he finally appears in Inheritance, he is a nightmarishly huge and powerful dragon that appears to be an Omnicidal Maniac; Elva tells Eragon that nothing is left of him but pain and hate, and the best they can do is end his suffering.
Live Action Television
- Londo Mollari of Babylon 5 is a perfect example. He often expresses regret for his ultimately genocidal actions, but continues to dig himself in ever deeper until midway through season four. He ends up doing some medium-evil things but also suffering greatly and ultimately sacrificing himself for his country.
- Michael Dawson from Lost, who murdered Ana Lucia and Libby and delivered Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley into the hands of the Others because it was the only way to free his 10-year-old son and get him off the Island.
- FBI Agent Alexander Mahone, the main villain in the second season of Prison Break, is only trying to murder the protagonists because the Nebulous Evil Organisation is blackmailing him (they know he murdered a Serial Killer), on top of threatening to kill his wife and child. It'd be really tragic if he wasn't so ridiculously good at the "murdering the protagonists" bit.
- Gamel, one of the Greeed in Kamen Rider OOO, is by far the most sympathetic of the Greeed, being a childish simpleton who doesn't care about doing evil things, and only wants to make Team Mom Mezool happy. He's still The Brute, and has absolutely zero regard for anyone's life but Mezool's, but his puppy-like devotion makes his eventual death (both of them) feel very sad.
- The Master from Doctor Who, especially during the two-parter The End of Time.
- "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones.
- 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 Into Black" by Skillet
- "It's the Fear" by Within Temptation
- Final Fantasy IV has Golbez, really Theodore Harvey, Cecil's brother, who may cross the Moral Event Horizon several times in the game, except that he was under the control of Zemus and takes full responsibility for his actions once freed from Zemus's control.
- Mass Effect has most of the decoy Big Bads throughout both games, via varying forms of Mind Control and Mind Rape. Matriarch Benezia, the Collector General (the whole Collector race), Shiala, even Saren gets a few woobie moments, despite being established as a Complete Monster Knight Templar long before Sovereign got his tentacles into him. The Collector General especially gets quite a few fan-tears shed over its death.
- David Archer from the Overlord package.
- In fact, almost all the antagonists in the series are this in one way or another, to the point it would be easier to list those who aren't this trope from those who are.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3: Yuriko Omega, born Yuriko Matsui, was kidnapped by Mad Scientist Shinji Shimada and transformed into a Tetsuo-like psionic monster with no feeling of empathy toward anyone else, particularly because she was bullied by her schoolmates due to her natural psionic ability that caused her tragic fate. She even went through hell to find and save her sister, who turned out to be just another power-hungry Complete Monster who wanted to be at the top of the world, just like other people, including the Allies. After doing what has to be done, Yuriko still remained a lonely, unloved girl, vilified continuously by the news media of the major global powers (all Allies, the Soviet Uion, and Japan).
- All four main antagonists in the Fatal Frame series. All of them were nice people when they were alive, it's only when they died and were corrupted by their respective gates to Hell that they started killing everyone.
- The Beauty and the Beast Unit from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
- In Infamous, Kessler, reveals to be Cole from the future who have turned Empire City into hell just so that he could turn his past self into the savior of the world from the beast.
- Thanks to the events of Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, Xemnas from Kingdom Hearts, of all people, was given shades of this. His original persona, Xehanort, happens to be the end result of Terra being body snatched by Master Xehanort and then both of them being subsequently locked out of this new being's heart, leaving the man with only about a year's worth of memories. Then he loses himself to darkness yet again, with his leftover body and soul (Xemnas) having nearly no memories whatsoever to draw upon and suffering from Wistful Amnesia about the friends he can't entirely remember (Aqua and Ventus), much to his frustration and chagrin. Xemnas might share a lot of traits in common with Master Xehanort, but the small flickers of Terra's personality within him and the life of the mind-wiped Xehanort himself make him seem almost pitiable. When Sora asks Xemnas if he can remember all of the feelings in a heart besides anger, rage, and hate and Xemnas replies with an almost sorrowful "Unfortunately... I don't," he's not lying. That line becomes even worse when you remember that it was Terra's own hatred of Xehanort that essentially led to him becoming Xehanort. However, other revelations in 3D call into question how much of this is true and how much of this is simply Xemnas being a devious thespian.
- Wakfu gives us Nox, a crazed time mage out to gain power by any means necessary, no matter who he has to hurt. Why? So he can go back in time to save his family. In the process of doing, all of the damage he's done will be undone, creating a better future for everyone. He fails.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Prince Zuko started out as this, going on a Snipe Hunt against the Avatar due to his horribly abusive father scarring his face and generally screwing up his life. Thankfully, he does a Heel Face Turn by joining Team Avatar, and comes out much better for it.
- His sister, Princess Azula. Due to her mother favoring Zuko over her, she thought she didn't love her and spent her life becoming Daddy's Little Villain to prove she didn't need her love. Unfortunately, Ozai's teachings caused her to end up being betrayed by the only two people she considered friends (who were afraid of her), forcing her to confront the revelation that her main ideology is a failure. And when it becomes clear Ozai doesn't give a crap about her besides being his personal Tyke Bomb, rendering her efforts pointless, she ends up having one of the most epic and heartbreaking Villainous Breakdowns in animation history.
- Fire Lord Sozin betrayed his best friend, Avatar Roku, and ordered the genocide of the Air Nomads in a misguided attempt to better his country. He ends up having a Heel Realization and died a miserable man overcome with guilt. It gets worse when his descendants became outright tyrants in comparison (especially Ozai, who is the main reason Zuko and Azula are this trope in the first place)
- Demona from Gargoyles. She seems to be aware, on some level, of her evil, but can't stop doing it or even consciously admit it to herself because that would require her to admit that much of the suffering she's experienced over her millenium-long life was her own fault. So, instead, she's the ultimate Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, lashing out at the world around her in the hope that, if she kills enough humans (and anyone else who gets in her way), it'll be enough to make the hurting stop. She's definitely a villain who needs to go down, but you can't help but feel sorry for her, all the same.
- The Ice King from Adventure Time assumes this role when it is revealed in a Wham! Episode that he used to be a normal human with a fiancé, whom he called his "princess". His Artifact of Doom ice crown made him go insane and made his fiancé leave him when he just tried it on for a laugh, and turned him into a hermit that constantly kidnapped princesses, subconsciously trying to get Betty back.
- Lemongrab of Adventure Time embodies many evil qualities- he's overly-controlling, harsh, often mean and cruel, unsympathetic to anyone... But his excuse is that he's a) a failed experiment with mental problems, and b) only about one year old. Also, it's implied that his creator was so taken aback by him that she had him sent to a castle to live out his life in isolation.
- Several established Batman villains are portrayed this way in Batman: The Animated Series, as people whose lives have been consumed with a desire for revenge on the people who caused their disfigurements. Mr. Freeze in "Heart Of Ice" is probably the best example.
Freeze: To never again walk on a summer's day with the hot wind in your face and a warm hand to hold. Oh yes, I'd kill for that.