From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

5 Traits of Seriously Despicable Villains

There is a whole spectrum of antagonists and characters who are just awful people. There's the cackling, hand-wringing villain, the sweet but deadly villain, the shy misunderstood villain, and even villains who probably more like anti-heroes (*ahem* Snape *ahem*). These types of characters are kind of fun to watch. We like to see them be witty and snarky or finally show their true inner feelings.


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?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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SPOTLIGHT:

28 comments:

  1. That sense of entitlement definitely gets me. I hate seeing that in real life and in a book it just brings all that back! I write books for tweens, though--and snobby, entitled girls make great villains!

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    1. Ugh yes, isn't it awful? Those sound like excellent villains :D

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  2. I really liked Criminal Minds at first but yes, it got to be too much. One episode that I did like was where the son was killing girls because of a mommy issue. It had to do with her being a movie star and in the end we find out she's been dead for a long time, but she still haunts him. The other that was creepy, but not too bad (I don't think) was a woman who kidnapped girls and made them her live dolls by drugging them.

    If I allow myself, I can write a good villain, but giving myself permission is the key. :)

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    1. I super, super loved Criminal Minds as well. Especially Mandy Patinkin, which is what started me watching in the first place. It was very interesting and engaging, but eventually I just decided I needed a break. I hadn't thought of it in that sense of giving ourselves permission to write awful characters, but that's a good way to think about it!

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  3. Lack of remorse is a big one. We see it in real criminals often.

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    1. Definitely. I feel like that's a huge sign that they themselves don't empathize with other people, which takes them out of the realm of sympathy for us as an audience.

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  4. You came up with a super list. Any one of those things would be enough to make me dislike a character. Another one that gets me is the evil-doer who hides behind a friendly facade and smile. People who only pretend to be kind and trustworthy punch ragged holes in my trusting Pollyanna nature.

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    1. Ugh, exactly! That was one of the worst things about Umbridge from Harry Potter. And I'm definitely on the Pollyanna end of the spectrum, so I know how that goes :)

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  5. Great list! I would add Hannibal Lecter, Lord Voldemort, Iago, and Nurse Ratched just for fun!

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    1. Mwa ha, great choices!! Anthony Hopkins was in that movie for I think a total of just 17 minutes and yet he still managed to be one of the greatest film villains of all time. Just goes to show how memorable true villainy can be.

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  6. Fantastic list! A few of the villains I really despised are Jagang (Sword of Truth series), Negan (The Walking Dead graphic novels), and Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones).

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    1. Oooh, those are good ones. Especially Joffrey from what I've heard...

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  7. Frank Herbert did very well with his main villain in Dune, I think, making him a gluttonous pedophile.

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    1. I keep meaning to read that one. Isn't it terrible that I haven't? Yeah, it's terrible.

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  8. Great traits. I'm gonna have to keep this in mind when I plan my next villain. The racism issue really ticks me off, so it makes great villains for me. It's one of the driving forces behind my current main villain.

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    1. Yeah, I'm hoping I can use things like this if I very want to create someone really despicable. I haven't tried to that extreme thus far, but I may.

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  9. Great list of traits! The villain who I hate the most is Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. Not even her cute cat plates could redeem her. LOL!

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    1. Ugh, yes, she is atrocious. No falsely positive facade can hide her true terribleness :)

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  10. I always love anti-heros. Truly and deeply. Yes, there are people who appear evil, but no matter how bad they are, there's a shred of humanity somewhere, and it needs to come out at some point. The best villains in my opinion are the ones you cheer on while hating what they're doing to the protagonist.

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    1. Me too!!! Which is why I have a hard time writing truly evil villains. They typically end up coming across like those anti-heroes. So this post was me trying to think of ways to write really, really despicable characters should I ever need to :)

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  11. Now I didn't like the villain you chose in the Greenmile either, but I also thought the mean guard gave him a run for his money. He was even scarier because he was lose to do as he pleased. That one made me sick to my stomach.

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. *shiver* yes. Percy. *more shiver*. He was completely awful. King really does these guys well, doesn't he? That guard definitely makes this list too.

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  12. Amazing way to look at a villain's traits without actually being a villain!

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    1. Thank you!! I appreciate it, hopefully this is helpful :)

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  13. What a great list of traits! The Green Mile was such an outstanding movie filled with its fair share of despicable characters. Sam Rockwell's Wild Bill was a shining example.

    Julie

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    1. Glad you agree :D And yes, it really was an incredible film. This movie plus Galaxy Quest and now The Way, Way Back have confirmed Sam Rockwell's place on my list of not just underrated, but all-time great actors.

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  14. This is a great list! And I think lack of remorse is probably the biggest sign of a TRUE villain.

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    1. Oh absolutely. Glad you agree, hopefully this brainstorming will help me with writing villains in the future :)

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