Zeref Dragneel. The Black Wizard. Emperor Spriggan. This character is one of two main antagonists of Fairy Tail. But is he actually evil? Or is Zeref simply a tragic villain; a victim of the circumstances that life has cruelly placed before him?
As a child, Zeref was orphaned. Dragons killed his mother, his father, and his younger brother. As a result, when he entered the Mildian Magic Academy, he zealously researched the connection between life, death, and magic so that he would be able to resurrect his younger brother. However, despite his research and creations, he was unable bring his brother back. Instead, he was expelled from the academy and was cursed by Ankhseram with the curse of contradiction.
The curse of contradiction is given to those who tamper with life and death. It is an unstable magic that renders the user immobile and will randomly burst out of the user, killing everything within a certain radius. In addition, it also places the cursed individual in a near immortal state. But perhaps the most cruel thing about the curse is the law it operates by. The more the user values and cares for life, the more they will inadvertently kill all life around them.
Let’s be clear about something. Zeref is not a killer. He does not want to kill and even expresses remorse for those who die because of his curse. So, what he does to try to keep everyone safe from himself is attempt to kill himself. Zeref creates the Etherious in the hopes that they will be able to end his life. He even goes so far as to turn his younger brother into an Etherious, finally successfully resurrecting him, but is unable to keep him or be around him lest the curse kill him. He ends up giving Natsu to the fire dragon, Igneel, to raise instead. Then, he leaves in an attempt to isolate himself because he does not want to kill anyone else.
Enter, Mavis. To prevent this post from getting too long, I’m not going to detail the entirety of Mavis and Zeref’s relationship. What’s important here is that Mavis also receives the curse of contradiction and Zeref falls in love with her because she is the only person who truly understands him and can walk beside him. This love does what I would argue to be the single saddest thing in all of Fairy Tail (outside of Makarov’s sacrifice, of course). The curse activates in response to Zeref valuing Mavis so much, taking essentially the entirety of her life force and leaving her lifeless in his arms.
In summary, Zeref lost his family. He was expelled from his school and cursed by a god (with a curse that killed everyone in his school) for daring to even attempt bringing back his dead brother. He lost the one person who he loved and was capable of loving him back. And, he isolates himself for those he cares about in order to keep them safe for himself. While it is never stated in the anime or manga, I would even theorize that, aside from killing Acnologia, the only reason he wants Fairy Heart is to free Mavis from her curse, free Natsu from himself, and end his own life.
Whether you like Fairy Tail or not, I think it is possible for you to sympathize with Zeref as a character because, despite the things he has done or is currently doing, he is a victim of the circumstances life has placed upon him. Therefore, Zeref Dragneel can be considered a tragic villain, and an antagonist worthy of our respect.