Above, you will see a picture from the anime called ‘One Piece’. Don’t go running away yet because there’s a point. In the scene, you have one of the heroes named Sanji (blonde) with a villain named Ghin (guy on the floor). Ghin is part of an ‘evil’ pirate crew and actually one of the more violent members since he’s second to their captain. Yet, here he arrives at the floating restaurant starving and is denied food since he has no money. Sanji refuse to let people starve to death, so he feeds him. This results in a later scene where Ghin, under orders to kill Sanji, can’t do it and begs his bloodthirsty captain to show mercy. There’s also a sacrifice and major change of character for Ghin, which stems entirely from the single act of Sanji giving him food when he was dying. So, kindness changed the heart of a villain.
I’m sure some people are already rolling their eyes because it can’t possibly be this easy to change a villain. I mean, you could say the power of food combined with a state of desperation and vulnerability. You could also point out that it’s a cartoon/manga, which many think are aimed at children. Anime and manga really isn’t just for kids, but I digress there. The thing here is that Ghin reveals he has had a tough life and that’s what lead to him being a villain. Sanji could very well be the first person to show him any kindness and treat him like a human being. That can go an amazingly long way with a villain who still holds some humanity. Even in reality, you would be surprised how often a single act of compassion can turn a person around.
In comparison, his captain, Don Kreig, sees everyone as an expendable tool and Sanji giving him food to prevent him from dying is met with a clothesline to the throat. He goes on to try to kill everyone and take the restaurant that gave him enough food for his starving crew. Then, he fires a gas weapon that threatens even his own men, which shows how evil he is. So, you can see that the same act doesn’t work on everyone. Ghin and Don Krieg are both pirates with violent, evil streaks, but one still holds onto a spark of his humanity while the other is pure villain.
That spark is an important thing to consider too when writing your villains. Do they have anything that appeals to their human nature? It can be an act or something rather sweet like animals or children. In Legends of Windemere, Baron Kernaghan shows a soft spot for a little girl and a cat. Sure, he transforms them into creatures, but he still shows that he cares about them. To be fair, neither would have survived in the Chaos Void in their original forms. Now, this didn’t change the Baron, but it showed that he wasn’t 100% bad. That’s the type of villain that appeals to audiences nowadays. They want to see that there is something relatable in there and maybe even the hope of redemption.
To reach that turning point, an act of kindness is something that can go a long way. You don’t have to make the two happen in quick succession. There can be the kindness and then a trigger for the change down the road. It can be the person who was kind or an item that reminds the villain of that time. A key point is that it doesn’t just change them immediately too. The reason you need time is because the initial act causes them to doubt their actions and path of villainy. They see that tiny thing grow into an internal counter argument for what they have been doing. Truthfully, this tends to work better with secondary villains than the big baddies. That is unless a disaster is started by the main villain and the act of kindness bubbles into their mind to have them realize they made a mistake. It may sound cliche, but you’d be surprised how often people will stay on the wrong course and then come to a triggered epiphany at the eleventh hour. You just have to make it flow.
Personally, I like this twist in a story because it can show a lot of humanity. You have the villain getting a new dimension that can change him or her for the better. You have the person who saw beyond the evil or was ignorant of it, so they treated this person that the audience should hate as a human being. I know we’re always tempted to have the villain come close to redemption and then have them stomp on the act of kindness, which might be a sign of our cynical time. It’s almost like that’s the new standard and having it change the villain is the surprising twist. Of course, there are plenty of levels in between that you can run with depending on your story. It’s all up to you and what you feel is right for what you’re doing.