Sympathy for the Devil

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"Vladimir was one of those old-time bad guys with honor and morals, which made him almost one of the good guys. None of us was a saint."
"God is on your side? Is He a Conservative? The Devil's on my side, he's a good Communist."
Joseph Stalin

The inversion of the Not So Different which occurs when the "good guy" (commonly, an Anti-Hero) realizes that the Big Bad he is after is not so bad, after all. Unlike Not So Different, where the villain tries to sway The Hero to his cause by discovering evil in him, Sympathy for the Devil comes from the other side and therefore generally only occurs in morally ambiguous crime stories like Film Noir and Heroic Bloodshed films.

Very commonly, the two characters involved treat each other as a Worthy Opponent and they are often target of Foe Yay. Also, sooner or later, the bad guy in whom the hero found a glimmer of humanity will die, or suffer a Fate Worse Than Death. Just because the Word of God must confirm that the author doesn't support crime and that Redemption Equals Death (even if the villain never even considered redeeming himself).

The name comes from a 1968 song by The Rolling Stones. Which, ironically enough, is a complete subversion, as Satan is gleefully singing about what a Jerkass he actually is and how he's responsible for all sorts of catastrophes throughout human history.

When the audience feels sympathy for the villain though the characters may not, it's Cry for the Devil. Compare with Antagonist in Mourning, Last Second Chance, Do Not Do This Cool Thing, and Can't Kill You - Still Need You. Not quite the same as Anti-Villain. A common trait of The Messiah. May overlap with Go-Karting with Bowser or Enemy Mine moments.

Examples of Sympathy for the Devil include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star is famous for this trope. Even a deranged emperor that used children slaves to create a giant pyramid gets a little bit of the love.
  • Simon and Viral in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, particularly in the final arcs.
    • Not to mention both pre-timeskip Lord Genome and the Anti-Spiral, who, despite being mortal enemies, are both using the same basic strategy of tyranny to protect what they love (humanity from the Anti-Spiral for Lord Genome, the universe from humanity for the Anti-Spiral).
  • With a few exceptions, this trope is all over the Gundam franchise.
  • Similarly, Black Lagoon is full of sympathetic devils. The only exceptions that come to mind are the Neo-Nazis (who are misguided and comical) and Chaka (who's a Complete Monster in a work filled with monsters).
  • Rave Master Haru Glory has been sympathetic towards several of his foes upon learning the events that brought them where they are. However, his first experience with this through King taught Haru that despite his sympathy "We have to fight anyone who inflicts pain upon the innocent. That's the path we've chosen."
  • Nearly does in Robin Mask when he faces Kinnikuman Mariposa in Kinnikuman's Scramble for the Throne arc. Mariposa tells Robin about his past, in which he was forced into thievery due to poverty and Robin, who had never faced a foe with a Tragic Past before, couldn't bring himself to pile more defeat onto Mariposa. It took a reminder that Kinnikuman himself was a bigger Butt Monkey than Mariposa ever was and overcame it without falling to evil before Robin could get back into the fight guilt-free.
  • In the anime version of Sailor Moon (it's last season, Stars, to be exact) All the Sailor Senshi (yes, even Uranus and Neptune) shed tears after learning about Nehellenia's Start of Darkness. It was hard for them to imagine living with the sadness and loneliness she endured. This prompted Sailor Moon to return Nehellenia to her childhood, giving her a second chance at life.
  • Johan Faust VIII from Shaman King is first presented as a ruthless, cruel, and slightly insane antagonist. He gets a fair bit of sympathy when it's revealed that his fairytale romance with his wife Eliza was cut short like an ironic Greek tragedy, leaving him a broken man. Anna actually recruits him as the team medic in exchange for Anna summoning Eliza's spirit. Having his beloved wife back mellows him out to the point that he's a valued teammate, if still crazy.
  • Higurashi no Naku Koro ni alternates between question and answer arcs, showing each villain from a Sympathetic POV. Even the Big Bad is not an exception, having a Dark and Troubled Past and succumbing to the Hate Plague in the end.
  • After shooting and almost killing Light, Matsuda is shown to feel a degree of pity for him, as does Aizawa in the anime (ironically, he tells Matsuda he shouldn't feel pity for Light in the manga). In the spin-off manga chapter starring Near, Matsuda does freely admit though that Light was "an evil person".
  • One episode of Cowboy Bebop has this as it's title. The devil turns out to be a boy whose aging process was halted by the explosion of a hyper-space gate prototype.[1]
  • Yuu from Holyland comes to realise that some of the gangsters he comes into conflict with just want a place they can call their own, just like him. The main difference is that he's content to get and defend it, while they are aggressive and expansionist in doing so.
  • This appears to be the ultimate Aesop for the anime version of Blue Exorcist; have sympathy for demons, and try to understand them before you try to destroy them. Rin and Yukio's mother, Yuri, literally had sympathy for Satan himself.
  • When Aizen is finally defeated in Bleach, Ichigo is only able to feel pity for him after sensing the soul-crushing loneliness that ultimately drove Aizen's delusions of godhood.
  • In Tokyo Mew Mew, the Mew Mews learn that their enemies once lived on earth, but were forced to leave when the environment shifted, taking refuge on a world that was inhospitable. They returned, only to find that the humans are polluting it, and seek to kill all the humans and reclaim Earth. Zakuro says it's understandable that they would be upset over what is happening to what was once their planet, but points out that it doesn't justify their crimes.
  • Blood Plus's Saya Otonashi shows pity/sympathy for Diva for her tragic Freudian Excuse several times in the series, although it doesn't stop her from carrying out her duty when Diva threatens her family and the world.


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • In Scott Pilgrim, this is materialized as the Power of Understanding.
  • Marvel's Loki uses this trope all the time to get away with a lot, although he's genuinely sympathetic (as jerks go). He's also a user of Not Me This Time, Blame the Asgardians, and I'm unworthy/sorry/cursed, forgive me. Ironically, he usually at least mostly honest.
    • It's telling that a guy who caused Ragnarok several times (though of course only a few were seen in the comics), which killed all of the gods and forced them to start a vicious cycle all over again, has killed his own half-brother in what is usually shown as cold blood, and genuinely delights in mayhem is not a Complete Monster (seriously, go look. he's not on the page). He might be one of the most powerful villains in Marvel and a major threat when he feels like it, but a lot more are worse people than he is.
      • And he casually manipulates or ignores them all the time, or even creates them. He may not be a Complete Monster but Loki can be pretty damn close at times, and has probably done a lot worse than most, though this is partly due to operating on a much bigger scale, being a powerful God of Evil and all.
  • The DCU: First shown in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and then later confirmed in his own title, Lucifer, the Prince of Hell, is actually not that bad a guy once you get to know him. Sure, he's bitter about how God's treated him over the last several billion years, he's arrogant, he's a bit of an asshole, but he's not the soul-stealing Complete Monster Christianity and Islam would have you believe he was.
    • Of course, as Lucifer's own series shows, there's a guy only known as the First of the Fallen who fits the conventional media satanic image much, much better, and emerges from behind the scenes when Lucifer retires. Evidently people had been confusing the two or something.
  • In the Buffy comic series Tales of the Vampires, a group of young Watchers-in-training are brought before a captured vampire who tells them all about vampires both as monsters and people. At the end, after foiling an attempt by this vampire's sire to free him, (and killing the sire) the main character acknowledges that she did learn from the vampire and apologizes for his loss as he weeps disconsolately.
  • In the Sonic the Hedgehog comic series, Sonic is shown to feel visible guilt when a series of defeats reduces Dr Eggman to an insane babbling wreck. Granted this comes to an end when he regains his stability, and all his ruthlessness and more, shortly afterwards.


Fan Fiction[edit | hide]


Film[edit | hide]

  • Darth Vader.
  • CPT. Willard and COL. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
  • Johnny Utah and Bodhi in Point Break.
  • Tequila and Alan in Hard Boiled.
  • In Brick, the Pin, a club-footed drug dealer barely out of high school, briefly opens up to the hard-boiled hero on the beach. Talking about his love for Tolkien, he reveals himself as something of a sad, lonely geek.
  • Another John Woo example: Ah Jong and Inspector Li Ying from The Killer, who end up teaming up against Jong's boss in order to get the money needed for Jenny's eye operation. It doesn't end well for either of them.
  • DeNiro. Pacino. Heat.
  • Happens in Devil when Detective Bowden realizes that Tony was the one who killed his wife and kids, but it was technically an accident because he was drunk.
  • Jason attempts this with Robert in Mystery Team. It doesn't work.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Gollum is a creepy little scumball bent on killing Frodo and stealing the "precious," but when you hear about his backstory...
  • Aziraphale and Crowley in Good Omens, quite cordial for an angel and a demon (specifically, the angel with the flaming sword who guarded the gate of Eden and the demon who took the form of a snake and tempted Eve).
    • Possibly best summed up in this exchange:

Aziraphale: "I'd just like to say, if we don't get out of this, that ... I'll have known, deep down inside, that there was a spark of goodness in you."
Crowley: "That's right, make my day."
Aziraphale: "Nice knowing you."
Crowley: "Here's to next time. And ... Aziraphale?"
Aziraphale: "Yes."
Crowley: "Just remember I'll have known that, deep down inside, you were just enough of a bastard to be worth liking."

  • Erast Fandorin and Momos in The Jack of Spades (Special Assignments) by Boris Akunin.
  • Woland who actually is the Devil in The Master and Margarita.
    • He's also the inspiration for Rolling Stones song mentioned in the Trope description
  • A version of this occurs in Raymond E. Feist's The Riftwar Cycle. The dark elves of the setting, also known as moredhel or the Brotherhood of the Dark Path, are generally portrayed as evil and sadistic, with no morals and a love of torturing their victims before killing them. A huge invasion by the moredhel and their allies is the main plot of one book, A Darkness At Sethanon. In spite of that, the Big Bad of that book, the charismatic moredhel leader Murmandamus, is revealed to be a Pantathian (snake-person) priest in disguise who doesn't care about the moredhel and only wants the Lifestone below the city of Sethanon, an artifact that supposedly has the power to revive the Pantathians' Valheru mistress and revered goddess. On top of it all, the power to use said Lifestone comes from the life forces of all the people who died near the priest, the bulk of which is moredhel soldiers who died in a careless siege against a very well-defended fortress, thus making the moredhel the ones who were most cruelly used and manipulated, resulting in literal Sympathy For The Devil, or for the Dark Elf at least.
    • On top of that, two other books - Krondor: The Betrayal, which deals with events ten years after the invasion, and Honored Enemy, which is set before the invasion - feature moredhel protagonists and switches to moredhel perspective for a change, also making them a bit more complex and multi-faceted rather than the standard 'evil and sadistic' image. Additionally, in Feist's universe dark elves are really the same as light elves, just with a different culture, as opposed to being a different race, as in many other settings.
  • Both in-story and out-of-story with Mayella Ewell, "the loneliest person in the world," in the book of To Kill a Mockingbird. This is particularly true if you happen to catch one easy-to-miss remark, spoilered here because it has the most impact in context: "She said she never kissed a man before, and she might as well kiss a nigger. She said what her pa do to her don't count."
    • Don't forget that she pretty much has to raise her family by herself, and she has no idea what a friend is. She has a few plants that she takes care of, and that's pretty much the only thing of hers. It's really pretty sad.
  • A quite literal sympathy in the case of Hand of Mercy - the Fallen are are depicted as a small band of martyrs just trying to end their people's slavery.
  • I, Lucifer literally has Lucifer attempting to create sympathy or rather simply telling his side of events. He largely succeeds in both regards. He also mentions the trope naming track, The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil".
  • Harry Potter, anyone? The final duel between Harry and Voldemort has Harry deliberately giving Voldemort a chance at saving himself, out of what might have been pity for Voldemort due to his certain fate once killed, not to mention the crapsack life that led him to become what he became.
    • Harry's hatred for Draco is replaced with pity after the events of Book 6. He even saves Draco's life in the last book and Narcissa repays the favor.
  • In Warrior Cats, when the villain Tigerstar is killed, Firestar reflects on the fact that normally he'd be relieved or happy that this dangerous cat is gone, but all he feels staring down at Tigerstar's body is grief. Tigerstar had been gifted with strength, intelligence, and charisma, and he could have become a legend as one of the greatest warriors in history had he not chosen to follow a dark path.


Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Starting around season 3 of Babylon 5, Alfred Bester begins to head this way, bordering on Anti-Villain, due to us learning about more of his motivation and goals and discovering that his lover was taken by The Shadows and turned into a control unit for their ships. The only thing keeping him from going straight into Anti-Villain territory is the fact that he very obviously enjoys torquing with the good guys and Lyta Alexander in particular, along with his casual disregard for the Mundanes.
  • In Season 5 of Supernatural Lucifer tries this multiple times; with Sam at the beginning of the season after appearing as Jess, Sam's dead girlfriend, with Dean when Zachariah sends him into the future, and with Castiel in "Abandon All Hope", while he has Cas trapped in a ring of holy fire. Subverted in that none of these attempts work. Dean even references the trope when calling Lucifer out on his "Sympathy for the Devil crap".
  • The Master from Doctor Who.
  • Scorpius of Farscape fits this trope very well. He pursues Crichton throughout the second season for his knowledge of how to use wormholes. By the end of the third season however, Crichton genuinely considers giving it to him when he comes to understand Scorpius' motivations, though in the end he chooses not to.
  • After Mrs. Etuk's death in Tinsel, Amaka Okoh finally realizes that a lot of the old woman's anger against her was justified.


Theatre[edit | hide]


Videogames[edit | hide]

  • Max Payne and Vladimir Lem in Max Payne. Max kills Vladimir in the sequel.
    • "Max, dearest of my friends… I was supposed to be the hero..."
  • It's a staple for Solid Snake to relate to his opponent during his or her post-Boss Battle dying speech.
    • Although this was averted in the final game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, where Old Snake is too tired to give a crap. Drebin instead fills him in certain bosses backstories if he defeats them non-leathally, relating the emotionally-scarring situations that made them the way they were.
  • Priestess Meden and General Gong Hawkeye of Patapon. Gong's your enemy, yes, but - all things considered - he's also a likeable fellow who certainly strikes a chord with Meden. He tries reasoning with you before he goes to battle, he mourns his fallen comrades, he tries to prevent Queen Karma from selling her soul to the demons and in the end he faces your army alone in a heroic last stand. It's very cruel that you have to kill him to progress in the game.
    • In Patapon 2, Gong becomes your ally.
  • Ganondorf in The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker, definitely. Turns out the entire reason he wanted the Triforce in the first place was to help his people. He lived his life in the harsh desert, where the wind only carried death. He saw how good the people in Hyrule had it and coveted their "winds of peace". Unfortunately, the only way he could imagine helping his people was getting the Triforce... And he went mad trying to do so.
    • Averted in the alternate timeline version of Ganondorf, in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. While we know from Wind Waker that both final versions of Ganondorf were originally out to save his people, this version never regains his sanity and remains a Big Bad, despite similar circumstances of imprisonment. Needless to say, he's not intended to be sympathetic.
      • Ganondorf's more sympathetic shift in Wind Waker is less likely due to the circumstances of his imprisonment and more because of Hyrule's destruction at the hands of the goddesses. Based on some of his dialogue, we can surmise that he was more than a little shaken up by the extent and form of their "mercy." The Ganondorf of the Twilight Princess timeline has never been subject to anything of that nature.
    • After Link apparently kills Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, Zelda says he was a pitiful man who could not control the power of the gods and met an ignoble end as a result.
  • In the original Shadow Hearts, as Yuri and the party find out more about Roger Bacon's imposter, Albert Simon, they start to feel this way towards him. The final battle with him is as rivals deciding the course the world should take, rather than a showdown between Good and Evil... and when he loses, he uses the last of his power before dying to send Yuri and his friends to destroy the Meta God, keeping his word that, win or lose, both sides would accept the consequences and there would be no hard feelings.
    • The sequel takes it even further, with most of the antagonists being at least somewhat sympathetic. The Final Boss, in fact, could probably have finished his plans without interference if he hadn't told Yuri and company when and where to meet him.
  • Towards the end of Yggdra Union, Kylier tells the main characters that she can't hate Nessiah and only feels sorry for him for what he's been through—she's been in his head, and has seen how he was thrown out of Asgard for refusing to fight in Ragnarok, after which he was put through so much trauma that the only support for his sanity was the chance for revenge. (This is after he resurrects her and forces her mind-controlled body to try to kill her love interest solely to power up his sword, by the way, and Kylier isn't what you could call easygoing.) Nessiah's death scene and the side materials, which fleshed out his backstory considerably, evoke this reaction in many a player, too.
  • At the end of Mother 3, where Dr. Andronuts traps Porky inside the Absolutely Safe Chamber, he notes that for all the horrible things he's done Porky was deep down an insecure and lonely little boy driven by the fact that everybody hated him.
    • That last one wasn't helped by him being a total Jerkass since early childhood before descending into Complete Monsterdom. While it explains the reason behind his actions, it hardly justifies them to any extent.
  • Surprisingly averted in Kingdom Hearts II with Sora. Despite being a notorious Friendship Freak diagnosed with Chronic Hero Syndrome, Sora frequently called out Organization XIII whenever they'd pretend they had emotions or that they were completely justified for their actions. It's this very reason why Sora has Ron the Death Eater status with the more hardcore Organization XIII fans.
    • Well, he tries to do this with Xemnas when he seems to die the first time but then Xemnas comes back to screw him and Riku over again. In this light, his previous attitude was probably more justified.
    • Master Xehanort, the Complete Monster Big Bad from Birth By Sleep, is quite skilled at gaining this. He tricks Terra into listening to him not by pretending to be a good person, but by admitting to doing horrific things to Ven and then feigning guilt to earn Terra's pity. Unfortunately for Terra, it works all too well - it's all too clear that he really does feel sympathy for Xehanort, and trusts him more than he should because of it.
  • In Icewind Dale 2, the spirit of Mother Egenia and Iselore are the only characters who express sympathy for the Big Bads Isair and Madae. Egenia was the one who raised the twin cambions after their birth mother was Driven to Suicide. Her spirit mourns her children's turn to darkness but recognizes that they have to be stopped. Iselore was the one who named the twins when they were born. He recalls with shame his warning to Egenia that "they are forged in evil and nothing but evil can come from them!" and wonders if this was a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.
  • Most of Altair's targets get this treatment. So do a surprisingly large number of Ezio's.
  • Appears as a conversation option in Mass Effect 1. Shepard, after discovering that Saren has become a victim of Sovereign's Indoctrination, can remark to Liara that s/he feels sorry for Saren.
  • In Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Spider-Man 2099 is sympathetic to Scorpion, who unlike every other villain who gets a hold of the tablet just wants to change back into his human form.
  • In Dissidia Final Fantasy, upon defeating Kefka for the final time, Terra feels that his urge to destroy was because he was incapable of finding anything to live for save for destruction and that he was trying to find something to fill his "broken heart".
  • In Ace Attorney Investigations, Kay feels some pity for Shih-na/Calisto Yew, who killed her father, because she believes that she was able to look into her heart while speaking to her, and she wonders what it would be like to do all the terrible things she did without feeling anything.
  • In Devil May Cry 3, Arkham manages to use his status as Lady's father to manipulate her into moving into the place he needs her. He tries it again before the final battle when he's kicked out of the demon world by not being able to handle Sparda's power. He's near death at this point, so he loses and lets it slip that he saw absolutely nothing wrong with killing his wife to become part demon. Lady finally has enough. At the same time, Dante obviously feels similar about Vergil since the two are brothers. He doesn't feel good about having to fight him but has to due to Vergil's ambitions being dangerous towards humanity. He even cries for a moment when he meets back up with Lady.

Visual Novels[edit | hide]

  • By the end of Heaven's Feel, Shirou realizes that he no longer hates Kotomine. He actually kind of likes him. In fact, he's more similar to Kotomine than to his own hero figure, Kiritsugu. In the end, there's only a fight to the death because Kotomine is following his 'ideal'/way of living to the end, and Shirou just wants to save his Dark Magical Girlfriend Sakura. Saving the world is a perk. Kind of sucks that he was born so broken.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • On Adventure Time in the Christmas Episode, the main characters Finn and Jake create their own Christmas (they live in a Post Apocalyptic world) after they feel sorry for the Ice King who was just revealed to be a victim of Sanity Slippage via his ice crown.
  • Zuko and Katara's silent but all too visible reaction to Azula's Villainous Breakdown in the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender invokes this trope.
  • The Powerpuff Girls are sometimes shown to take pity on some of their villains. Semi justified at times since they are niave little girls, and most of said villains are rather pitiful at times. This is especially prominant with the Amoeba Boys, who are so hopeless at being evil they actually try to teach them how to commit crimes.
  • In ThunderCats (2011), the Lizards are actually given an understandable motive for siding with Mumm-Ra. Under the reign of the Cats' kingdom Thundera, most of the arable and prosperous lands are controlled by the Cats while the other species are left to starve and are often captured and enslaved if they try to steal food for their people. This is explicitly stated by a Lizard who was captured and tormented by the Cats to Lion-O, which caused him to later defend the Lizards from an angry lynch mob.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Admiral Chester Nimitz defended Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was accused on wartime crimes in the Nuremberg Trial 1946, saying that he too waged unrestricted tonnage war in Pacific, and that there was nothing he hadn't done what Dönitz was accused of. Dönitz finally got ten years imprisonment. Many Allied admiral protested and claimed Dönitz was innocent.
  • A few gangsters in the era before prohibition refused to deal in the newer forms of crime. They were killed off by subordinates who had far less scruples.
  1. He killed a lot of people to keep up the masquerade.