Q&A

How Do I Craft Truly Despicable Characters?

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Hello Mythcreants.

Do you have any advice on how to make characters (villains or not) truly despicable? How to make sure they will be hated with a passion by the readers?

Thanks in advance.

Tom

Hi Tom,

Without other story constraints, making audiences hate a character isn’t difficult. Since you haven’t specified what this character will be used for, I’ll assume what you want is for your audience to enjoy seeing this character have a horrible horrible death. If you don’t have a bad end planned for the hated character, put the brakes on this, because you can’t redeem a character that’s hated that much by audiences.

Ok, so the key to this is giving the character really bad karma.

First, the character should do super morally bad things. For maximum impact, the audience should see the character harm something they care about. If the villain harms a character the audience has gotten to know and love, such as the protagonist, it will probably have the most impact. (Harming the cute and innocent also works, but audiences are more likely to quit the story if they see that because it’s so unpleasant for them.) Making the character a raging bigot is quite effective, though keep in mind the effect is not evenly distributed – whoever they are bigoted against will dislike them more.

Second, the character shouldn’t be facing any kind of consequences for their bad deeds. In fact, most people love and worship this person! The character is wealthy and wildly successful. They get away with their bad deeds easily. To top it off, they’re super arrogant and smug about it.

When the protagonist finally defeats a character like this, audiences will be happy to see it.

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Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Jenn H

    Giving them a thoroughly unpleasant personality goes a long way too, especially if it reminds readers of people they’ve likely encountered in real life.

    They could be completely self centered, judgemental, hypocritical and/or controlling. They “want to speak to the manager, now!”. They have loud conversations on the phone on the bus where they complain about everyone and everything. They’re the sort of person who will find something to criticise you about no matter how hard you try. When they f*ck up, it is always somebody else’s fault. Just generally the sort of person many of us would like to avoid.

    Then back that up with some truly awful evil acts and you’ve got someone everyone will hate. Many villains can do terrible things but will still be liked by the audience because they are stylish, competent, brave and generally badass. Avoid giving your villain too many traits that would be seen as admirable in a hero, instead make them just functional enough to do a lot of harm.

    There is a reason many people hate Dolores Umbridge more than Voldemort.

  2. Cay Reet

    It’s a bit of a balance. A despicable character should have a lot of bad character traits, such as being arrogant, being unjust, being bigoted, being self-centred, and so on. At the same time, you need to make sure not to overdo it, not to turn them into a parody of a villain/despicable character. Nobody is always and only bad, even the most evil supervillain has some good sides – even if it’s just their large collection of pretty magical kitty plates.

    Generally speaking, there’s types of people in real life you don’t like for the way they behave (Jenn H already gives a few good examples) and you can extrapolate from that. Push their bad sides and remove or weaken their good sides. They don’t have to dine on kitten soup every night, but it’s easy enough to show them abuse or humiliate weaker characters or use the system to their own advantage on other people’s expenses. Think of people who cut the line or demand to be served first, even though they have no right to it. Think of bosses who talk down their employees (often because they fear an employee might prove more competent than them). Take that kind of behaviour and crank it up to eleven.

    Villains should be competent, because it hurts the hero, if the villain is not. A hero is only as good as their villain, so a stupid or incompetent main villain (a smaller villain to the side can be comic relief) makes the hero look weak.

  3. Em

    If you want to see a truly great example of an absolutely despicable character way beyond redemption: Read the first four novels of the Honorverse. Pay close attention to Lord Pavel Young / Earl North Hollow.
    Taught me a lot about writing characters to hate.

    Yeah, I know four novels sound like a lot, but the Honorverse is a brilliant series anyways, so in my opinion it’s worth it. (I think the blogrunners can vouch for me on this one.)

  4. Tony

    Regarding villains victimising beloved characters to demonstrate how evil they are, I’d advise going about that carefully. A lot of the time, it can feel unnecessarily gratuitous. This type of villainy also often targets female victims who only exist in the story to be brutally fridged and give the male protagonist cheap pathos and motivation, which isn’t good either.

    • Cay Reet

      Very good point.

      I’d suggest for the villain to do something to the protagonist themselves instead (and, perhaps, avoid sexual violence, there’s other ways to torment or injure someone).

      • Tony

        Yep. Palpatine torturing Luke in Return of the Jedi is a good example of that.

        • Gray-Hand

          The Emperor was one of those characters that hit a lot of truly despicable qualities in a very short space of time:

          1. Pettiness. He sarcastically gloated about successfully luring the rebel’s into a trap. Seriously dude, you’re the actual Emperor if the whole galaxy – maybe try to keep it classy.
          2. Disloyal. Vader had given him everything, and he tried to get Luke to kill him.
          3. Sadistic. As mentioned.
          4. Actively tried to not just dominate or defeat his enemies, but wanted to make the people around him worse.

          That last one isn’t that common in villains, but it works. Regina George is a good example.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, the Emperor is a very good example here. He is only really in Return of the Jedi – the one scene with him (not played by the same actor) in The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t really count -, yet he manages to become despicable within the few scenes he’s actually in.

            He’s shown both as competent (despite his pettiness, he seems to have things under control pretty well) and utterly despicable, displaying all of the traits you use. And in the prequels (which I often pretend do not exist, but let’s go there for a moment), he’s still shown as competent in his actions. I just wish they’d made more use of him when it comes to Anakin’s arc – that would have played out better, I think, with the Emperor being such a good manipulator.

    • Sedivak

      Perhaps not beloved characters then. Victimising their own (preferably adult) son or daughter – who don’t need to be important characters in the story at all – is usually a very effective shorthand for a really despicable character – and cold verbal or psychological abuse would perhaps cause the strongest impact – maybe because the readers can easilly imagine it.

      This of course is a very serious topic and it could be highly unpleasant or even traumatising for some readers. The author needs to know whether thay want to write this kind of story.

      I would strongly warn against writing about victimising children – that would almost certainly be too much and could even prove harmfull to the society in real life (desenzitization or worse).

      Examples:
      Ikari Gendo from Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime)
      Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth (movie)
      The Father from Death Is My Trade (novel by Robert Merle)

      • Tony

        Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender is another good example.

  5. Gray-Hand

    Thinking of some of the fictional characters I have most despised over the years, in no particular order:

    1. Joffrey.
    2. Dolores Umbridge.
    3. Sergeant Obidiah Hakeswill.
    4. John Kreese.

    All of them are bullies. All of them have a sadistic streak.
    At least two of them are cowards, but none of them will act from anything but a position of strength.
    They are selfish. At no stage do any of them act in a selfless way to anyone.
    They never exhibit loyalty beyond what benefits them.

    Mostly though, what makes them hateable is that for a long time, they avoid the consequences of their bad behaviour. Jabba the Hutt isn’t hated, because he dies twenty minutes after he turns up. The rest of them lasted either until the end of the movie, or at least several books/seasons. You can’t microwave hatred, it needs time to roast.

    • Tony

      Then again, Fullmetal Alchemist fans hate Shou Tucker even though he only stuck around for a little while (except in the 2003 version).

  6. Sam Victors

    Not sure if they count as truly despicable, but it was my best shot creating them.

    The villains in my first story are a wicked Fairy Queen and her son. In the Fairyland there is more than one monarch and each rule their own domain. This Fairy Queen and Prince are akin to the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty.

    The Fairy Queen, named Belledame, is a cold, arrogant and aloof person who takes what she wants, especially mortals. Should a mortal (regardless of age or gender) capture her eye, she will slowly seduce them and whisk them away to her domain, to be either her lover or pet. The problem with that is that she can get bored with them, and toss them out like an old rag. Should a mortal refuse her offer or even outright reject her, Belledame would get furious and turn them into either an animal or an object. She never personally kills anyone, rather, she would have others kill for her. She would travel between the mortal and Fairy worlds, either lounging around in her dwelling, or enjoying the luxuries of fancy hotels, balls, restaurants, cruises, operas, ballets, etc.

    Her son, Odilon, was sired by a mortal king (Henry VIII to be precise), and he is a spoiled, dramatic young man, who’s relationships with mortals are unhealthy because of the total power imbalance, as he is a magical, ageless monarch who expresses his love in a beastly manner. The love between him and his mother is very, borderline Oedipal.

    What intrigues me the most about them, is that they are the Shadow selves of the young, autistic, bisexual heroine, and that they slightly resemble her birth parents. The heroine is adopted by her relatives, and she has this love and resentment toward her birth parents; they were a May-December romance (the mother is older than the father by a decade), famous actors and directors of the their time (the story is set in the 1920s), and were also involved in the Pro-Eugenics Society, and that’s one of the main reasons they gave up their daughter, she didn’t fit with their ideas and chose to voluntary sterilize themselves after they gave up the Heroine. This is one of the problems the Heroine has. Like Sarah from Labyrinth, she’s obsessed with fantasy and myths, but is hurt over the thought the she was an unwanted child in more ways than one. That, and she is something of a black sheep in the family, and even at school.

    The Fairy Queen and Prince even tried to seduce the Heroine once in her 16th year, in the guise of her birth parents.

    • Sam Victors

      They even tried to trick the Heroine into harming her family (again) by promising her to make her the Queen of Fairyland, as they told her what scared her the most; that as she will grow older, she will no longer visit the Other World again, as so many stories (with Wendy, Alice, and Dorothy) have stated. That she could either deny her adventures ever happened, go mad from the memories, or she can make a wish to return to the Other World again and never leave (but that is all a ruse to get her away from her family and curse them again, as the Fairy Queen and Prince are very sore losers).

  7. Leon

    Can you redeem an absolutely despicable character; a user, a manipulator, a killer and a lire (from the heroes perspective), if a shift in perspective and context reveals them to have done every thing right?

    • Leon

      I should probably clarify, she’s not a villain.
      The main character is a military hero who realizes she is the Dragon and her former lover is the Big Bad (but not actually bad).
      At the beginning of the story she absolutely hates her and has every right to. As she matures she starts to see the big picture and learn the truth about what she did and she begins to forgive her, then as she begins to love her again she learns that they are doomed to be enemies.

      Can this work or does it tend to come across as the writer manipulating the reader?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Redemption usually means a character making up for what they did, so I wouldn’t call it a redemption if you’re primarily revealing new information that justifies acts we thought to be evil, which it sounds like you’re talking about.

      That can still totally work though. Like in A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the reasons everyone thinks Jamie is bad is that he killed the king he was sworn to protect. But then we find out that said king was gonna burn down the entire capital to spite his enemies, and Jamie killed him to stop that.

      This isn’t a redemption, but it does make Jamie more sympathetic, which is important for his actual redemption arc where he in theory makes up for the bad things he did, like pushing Bran out a window.

      One thing to watch out for in this kind of reveal is contrivance. Such big reveals about a major character may raise questions about why the protagonist (and audience) never learned this before. This is especially likely if it’s something the seeming villain could have explained but didn’t.

      The other risk with revealing that the big bad isn’t actually bad is that now your story might not have enough conflict anymore. Who is the hero opposing if the villain turned out to be good?

      I don’t know the details of your story, but those are the problems to watch out for.

      • Leon

        Thanks Oren,
        I think my main worry is people rejecting the idea that two lovers never talked politics, especially when one is a Skylord (literally the owners of space habitats or city ships) princess/skyfleet commander, and the other is an incredibly potent force multiplier. Though some couples do avoid awkward conversations.
        I think the solution may me to do more of that hard work thing.

        • Cay Reet

          You might also want to work her character over. Give her a few positive traits, something which can be expanded, once she is turning around and joining ‘team good’ for real. You can keep them on a low boil at first, just hint that she’s not all bad, that she has some redeeming traits. In short: perhaps don’t make a character despicable, if you want to redeem them. They can still be villainous, they can still do bad things, but the audience shouldn’t outright hate them for just existing. That makes it easier to give them a redemption arc.

          • Leon

            The thing is, Big Bad isn’t actually bad. The story begins with her estranged from the Dragon. She’s a captain/general and she needs her Dragon back to secure a terrifying ancient weapon that only the Dragon can wield. The Dragon mainly hates Big Bad because she gets the idea that she only ever saw her as a weapon and their relationship was just maintainance, and because many of her friends died when they followed her back to the battle, field and certain death, to rescue her.
            The thong that puts them at odds i the dragon is from a fishing village on a once lost human colony and she was mutilated by a petty warlord after her first act of heroism, so she believes in the value of a strong multinational/state government or federation or empire. But big bad is believes in the cosmic feudalism model (and mutually assured destruction) and therefore wants her kingdom to have the biggest throne.
            So its basically two heroes who had an unhealthy relationship discovering that they have ideological differences whole on a mission to recover a lost super weapon (oh, the super weapon has a pilot already bit he’s lost his mind – he was linked up with all of his officers so experienced all of their deaths first hand – they need Dragon to recover the weapon safely before it finds its way to aliens who have the ability to reverse engineer it.).

          • Leon

            Sorry about the typos. I didnt have time to edit.

  8. marinaZ

    The character’s actions are what make the character. Not your description , not the dialogue, not what your character’s motivations are. Deeds.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree partially. Deeds speak loudly for the character.

      What deeds someone chooses to do, however, connects with their character traits (i.e. ruthless characters will use more brutal methods than other characters) and their motivations (i.e. if the villain thinks they’re ‘doing the right thing,’ they’re more likely to justify brutality for themselves). A character can also be defined through their relationships and through other in-story pieces (such as back story).

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