It's amazing how I can feel sorry for you and hate you at the same time. I'm sure there's a German word for it.
- You want to witness being hurt by the villain just so you'll feel even more sympathetic toward them.
- You'd like to get to hug or otherwise care for or help them.
- You want to see any villain who hurts them get hammered by Laser-Guided Karma.
The Jerkass Woobie, though, produces a slightly different visceral reaction: you'd like to punch them in the face yourself and you also want to hug them and say, "I'm so sorry that your life is such a mess."
This character type is defined by three elements:
- First, the character must be a jerk. Even if they help people, they're not just selfish or insensitive - they're outright cruel, insufferable, immoral, and/or amoral. They have a mean streak that tends toward the sadistic; they delight in hurting others, whether emotionally or physically, and often have little patience for anyone who disagrees with them.
- They have a hidden, softer side. Many are clearly capable of being downright friendly, courteous, and kind, but either are too angry and impatient inside, or fear showing their softer side when not behind closed doors. Others are clearly Troubled but Cute, with a Freudian Excuse.
- As if in return for their bad behavior, the author seems to delight in placing them in unpleasant situations, and yet continue to show that they are sympathetic. Basically, the universe hates them so we don't have to.
This isn't a case of Defrosting Ice Queen, Sugar and Ice Personality, or Flanderization, however. The character is just that complex. From both the fans and the other characters' point of view, the character can come across as an Anti-Hero of the worst sort, or just plain nuts, and there may even be a Broken Base over whether they are a Karma Houdini, got what they had coming, or were more victim than villain. They likely think of themselves as a Butt Monkey, Cosmic Plaything, etc. It also helps if the audience gets to see just why the character is always in such a bad mood. Being the Only Sane Man or Surrounded by Idiots can take its toll on even the most patient of souls. Typically, the trope is Played for Drama or Played for Laughs as a justification for Jerk Justifications or Jerkass Dissonance.
This character type may:
- Overlap with Anti-Hero, Anti-Villain, Babysitter From Hell, Alas, Poor Villain, Byronic Hero, Cry for the Devil, Designated Monkey, Draco in Leather Pants, Fallen Hero, Good Is Not Nice, Hero with an F In Good, Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain, Nun-Too-Holy, Tragic Hero, Tragic Villain, Tsundere, etc.
- Be subverted if it turns out that their nice side was just an act as part of an Evil Plan, or their cruel side turns out to be a paper-thin facade and they are really a Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold, a Noble Demon, or Good Is Not Nice.
- Be a symptom of Grey and Gray Morality, Crapsack World, Fantastic Racism, etc.
The difference between this and an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain is that an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain is often Affably Evil, but their nasty schemes fail so miserably that you start rooting for the author to Throw the Dog a Bone while this character's evil is often less about schemes and more just a mean streak. The character's woobie nature may also play a factor in the phenomenon of All Girls Want Bad Boys.
Contrast Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, where a pathetic but rarely cruel character destroys everything around them because they have already been broken. Not to be confused with Put Them All Out of My Misery, where a sympathetic villain seeks large scale destruction out of a desire to end misery. Also contrast Jerk Sue, where the author sympathizes with the Jerkass character, and Draco in Leather Pants, where the audience sympathizes with a character not originally intended to be sympathetic.
No real life examples, please; this is a subjective trope and we don't need people adding "myself" as an example.
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