But there's a difference between characters we love to hate, and characters we just point-blank hate. Period.
I'm talking about the latter kind of character. I'm talking about characters who are honestly no fun at all, who make our skin crawl, who can even make us sick to our stomach. Because sometimes those are the characters our protagonists are going up against. I can think of quite a few characters who are rude, dishonest, even petty, who people still end up rooting for. So what is that makes a character truly despicable?
To be honest, I'm not very naturally good at writing villains, which is why I've been thinking about this lately. When I try to write out and out villains I typically end up liking them too much, and then they turn out more like anti-heroes than real villains. So I've been thinking of villains that I consider truly horrific, and trying to see what traits those characters have that make them so utterly loathsome. Here are some I've come up with.
1. Misogyny and Racism. The second a character in a book or show evinces an inkling of misogyny or racism, they loose all credibility. That is the instant I stop being able to take them seriously in any way. Everything they say from that point on becomes pure bunk. And if a character is so unsympathetic you don't even consider them worth your notice, I think that's a successfully unsympathetic character.
2. Mistreatment of Subordinates. This is a big one. You know the classic screenwriting book, Save the Cat? Well, the title of that book comes from a type of scene that typically comes early on in the movie. It's either a "save the cat" scene or a "kick the cat" scene. If a character seems aloof, rude, or otherwise unlikable, but then comes across a stuck cat and tries to help, we start seeing the possibility of redemption for that character. On the other hand, if a character seems pleasant and charming but, when left alone, starts kicking cats, we as an audience feel we've seen the characters true and contemptible nature. "Kicking the cat" comes in many forms, whether its manipulation, physical violence, or something else. But if you want a villain your readers truly hate, a character who mistreats those with less power is a good way to go.
3. Lack of Remorse. In my opinion, one of the most successful villains ever written is Wild Bill from Stephen King's The Green Mile. (Trust Stephen King to come up with the great villains. And Sam Rockwell's brilliant portrayal in the film adaptation doesn't hurt either.) One of the things that makes Wild Bill so gut-wrenchingly awful is that he is not only outright racist, he not only assaulted two little girls, but he thinks its funny. He spends his time laughing and shouting awful things to the guards and other inmates, and only takes things seriously long enough to be let out of the straight jacket before he's back at it again. If we sense true repentance in a character, I think we can forgive them nearly anything. But lack of remorse equals lack of sympathy.
4. Sense of Entitlement. In almost any crime show, every few episodes you'll come across a criminal who's committing crimes at least in part because they feel they are above the law. They feel that they are above the "common crowd." They are special. This sense of entitlement is particularly awful when combined with abuse of those less powerful. In low doses this basically just makes readers roll their eyes, but taken to extremes can make your audience want to pull the dang rug out from under this idiot in as dramatic and violent a way as possible.
5. Sadism. This one can really get your skin to crawl. And it's one of the reasons I had to stop watching Criminal Minds, because they did this so strongly in a lot of their villains. But let's take a lighter example, like Princess Bride. Prince Humperdink's manipulation of his subordinate (Princess Buttercup) is totally creepy, but equally creepy is the way Count Rugen's eyes get wide with pleasure as he's torturing Wesley in the Pits of Dispair. (Don't even think about trying to escape. Also I still can't believe that's Christopher Guest). Adding that layer of liking the terrible things they're doing to other people really ups the readers disgust.
Now it's your turn. Which are your favorite examples of truly despicable villains? Are there more traits we should add to this list?
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