Unofficial WFG Workshop #1 - Likable Antagonists & Villains

(Because long titles search well.)

Might as well get the ball rolling. ;P I mentioned this one when I mentioned the shop because it's something that I always really liked and figured it'd be a nice opener.

Shop Topic: Likable Antagonists

Main Question

How do you, personally, make an antagonist likable while remaining an antagonist? If you haven't, how would you?

Can't think of an answer, is your answer the same as someone else's, or you just plain want to talk about the topic in a wider context?

Secondary Questions to Consider:

  • Why make a villain likable at all if they're going to remain a villain?

  • Is there anything that would make an antagonist likable that wouldn't work with a protagonist?

  • What happens to the story overall if you make an antagonist likable? Are there special considerations?

Remember that the main topic of discussion should be the main question. The secondary questions are there if you need help thinking about it, or if you want to contribute but don't feel you can with such a narrow topic. I feel there's a lot to be talked about within this narrow parameter...

... however, that said, have fun, don't worry about it too much, and feel free to ignore the main question if it's grown stale or you just want to talk about likable antagonists more generally. We'll wing it as we go, folks. ;) The main topic, however, should remain the sole topic of this thread, I think. Not going to worry about too much, though. :)

One last thing: Please list any topics you'd like to see covered. The following is a list I had in mind, but feel free to mention ones you'd like to see yourself. Please tell me if these or any of the others mentioned by others interest you. :) I'm trying to incorporate a variety of topics ranging from narrow specific ones that could be fun to talk about, to more general ones that are more aimed at helping in an overall way.

Possible Future Topics

  1. What is different about how you plot serials vs how you (would?) plot novels?

  2. What value are chapter titles and how do you use them?

  3. How would you make a proactively violent protagonist likable?

  4. What are things you consider when making a magic system?

  5. How do you lighten the mood and tension after a particularly dramatic chapter?

  6. When you notice a plot hole, inconsistencies, or otherwise conflicting information in your serial, how do you handle it and why do you handle it that way?

I feel like likable villains are really fun, but difficult to do well. You either end up not making them very likable at all, or making them too likable to the point that the reader doesn't quite root for the protagonist anymore.

That said, done well, likable villains add a rich layer of humanity to the story. There are two ways to do this that I favor.

1, Use humor.

Humor is amazing. It can be used wrongly and sometimes humor isn't enough, but an antagonist that makes you laugh is an antagonist you may be hard pressed to not like, at least a little.

However, humor might not be enough. Humor can just make an antagonist more unlikable. It's a powerful tool and powerful tools are easy to mishandle. It can also be used for the opposite effect. The Joker, while sometimes funny, rarely actually makes the reader laugh and even when he does, he's no where near really likable in most iterations. He's a madman that you want to be scared of, just a little. Not likable at all.

Deadpool, however, could play the villain if writers wanted, but we just don't care because he's almost innocent in his humor. We don't sense a great deal of malice in Deadpool himself and even if he started to play a villain, we'd still like Deadpool, unless he did something completely horrendous.

So when humor fails or just needs an extra boost, there's always...

2, Make them human.

We've all done things that wouldn't be the most sympathetic thing in a book. However, we're still human and generally good people. When you humanize a villain, you make people relate to them. And this powerful. You can do this by showing their reasons for doing what they're doing, and making those reasons actually fairly reasonable. Something you could possibly see yourself doing if you had lived the antagonist's life.

The danger in humanizing villains is that they can become too sympathetic, but that's really it. If you're careful, and plot your villains well, without making them complete monsters, you can make wonderfully three dimensional villains that wow you and your audience.

Making a complete monster likable is, I would say, still possible. But you'd have to go into their backstory so much to detail why they are the way they are, it can be absurd. Or make them grow and make them grow a lot but this is still, I think, harder.

At least that's my two cents on this topic. I have more I could say (because I'm a windbag) but I'm curious what y'all say. Since this is supposed to be a workshop, I'd think other people's posts are open-season to be picked apart, if you like. ;)

The thing I try to keep in mind for my villains - some of them anyway - is that if you zoom in tight and don't focus on what they're actually doing they can be noble.

I had a scene where one of the bad guys is set up as a patsy to take the fall for a saboteur. The other bad guys who figure this out call him in and say "hey so someone is trying to make you look like a traitor, we just want you to know we know you're not, and everything's ok" and the guy sighs, and he patiently explains to everyone how it's NOT ok, and how if they don't publicly execute him they'll never catch the real threat. So by the end of the scene, he's instructed them on the best way to off him, to make sure it looks realistic, and the big bad is FURIOUS because he was about to lose one of his old school true believers and it lights a fire under them to catch the real traitor.

None of which is a good thing, because these guys are eeeeeeeeevil, but if you don't look at that part one guy is being noble and heroic and sacrificing himself for the cause and the others are grief stricken and determined to avenge him.

Which is a long meandering way of saying "the bad guys also love their kids."

I enjoy writing monstrously Nietzchean-ubermensch villains. The sort of villain whose ultimate victory isn't to defeat the protagonist, but to force the protagonist to admit: If they had been through what the antagonist had been through, if they knew all the antagonist knew, *that the Protagonist would have done the exact same thing* the villain did.

Or even better yet, forcing the protagonist to admit that they would not have had the bravery or moral strength to do what the antagonist did.

If the core of a hero is moral, make their villain moral. If your hero has a noble belief in a virtue, give your villain a noble belief in a different (and ideally, opposing) virtue. You don't have to make every villain the *hero* of their own story, but they are certainly still the *protagonist* of their own story.

That being said, there's incredible power behind villains who *know*, and more importantly, *accept* what they are. Doubly so when they have the presence of mind to regret it, triply so when they have the force of will to forge ahead based on their convictions. That kind of internal struggle can make for masterfully compelling villains.

Give us, as a reader, a reason to root for the villain. Even just a little. The protagonist's ultimate victory against the villain should be garnished with just a *little* sadness, a *little* disappointment, because maybe in our hearts we were rooting for the villain too, just a little.

Personally, my favorite villain of all time in all things media will be Bill, from Kill Bill. Entirely because he was aware of his nature, understood it, embraced it, and didn't let that stop him from doing what he (in his twisted judgement) believed was right.

Let's say you craft a story that requires your villain to do something genuinely heinous, like, say: Carve his way through an orphanage.

Ordinarily, in a cheaper story, the villain will be one of two kinds: The one not in control of his actions, or the one who absolves himself of all guilt for his actions Because Reasons.

But if you want to step it up a notch? Show me the villain shouldering that guilt, accepting it onto himself, acknowledging that what he did was wrong... and proceeding forward, because he has a reason in his heart that genuinely, sincerely outweighs the evil of his actions. Give me a villain who has his own internally consistent reasons to believe that what he did was a *necessary* evil, a *necessary* tragedy, a *necessary* sin. And then never let me hear him whine about it to the protagonist, never show me that villain groveling about it. If he has to explain himself to the protagonist; explain it, have him stand by it, unashamed. Perhaps regret-laden, but not ashamed.

In From Winter's Ashes, I'm building up the primary antagonist as both an entirely heinous and evil person, but also one who has his own legitimate reasons for pursuing his evil deeds. Namely, that he's doing what he can to fight back against the forces that slaughtered his parents and tried to shatter the cause they gave their life over to, and that cause was, at least subjectively, a good one. He's the disillusioned son of a pair of parents who ended up dead because the Powers That Be didn't like the good works his folks got up to. Now he's doing terrible, evil things that his politically naive parents wouldn't approve of if they were alive. But the point is: They're not alive. They died for their beliefs. Their son wants their beliefs to live on, but he's not going to die naively believing that the world will welcome what he has to offer with open arms. So his entire series of heinous, evil acts, centers around two goals, one noble, one ignoble: To secure a safe way to further the good works of his deceased parents, and to take revenge on the people responsible for his parent's death.

He's young, he's angry, he's grieving and furious that two deeply excellent people were slaughtered by the Church just because one of their many, many fields of study was necromancy. But to keep their ideals alive, he needs a power base to operate from, and that requires the actions that gathering and securing power takes: Namely, violence. And if he can viscerally punish the Detective bitch that saw his naive idealist parents go to the noose? All the better.

He acknowledges and indulges his evil feelings, while still overall pursuing a greater good, and he is untroubled by the idea that the end result may be good fruit from a poisoned tree. So long as the fruit is good, that's what he'll judge his works and results by.

Better still, he's clever *and* humble; the rare villain who actually respects and *listens* to his henchmen, and deliberately surrounds himself with people *smarter* than he is, so he can benefit from their wisdom.

In short, he's a villain that could have made a great hero to the society he's from, if not for The Powers That Be deciding, rightly or wrongly, that his parents had to die.

Oh, and malice.

Give me villains with malice. Naked, unapologetic, unabashed *malice*. Villains who understand their own malice, who wield it as a tool, with a firm grasp on it so it isn't often turned against them. Vicious, cruel, cunning bastards, who will stare you in the eye as they destroy your life. The ones who cold-bloodedly tell you that when they're done with you, they're going to go into your wallet, find your ID, find your address, and go there and kill everyone they find. Because it is crueler to do so.

Give me villains who can turn their malice off and on at will as needed; the ones who draw it and sheath it like a dagger, and for much the same reasons.

Interestingly, I don' t use antagonists. Or to put it another way, my antagonists become the protagonists. My writing is like "Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha", if you toned down the "I'll make you a friend by repeatedly punching you in the face" aspect. (If you've never heard of that anime, by Season 4, every villain who isn't dead is working for the "good guys".) For me, the villain isn't a person as much as it is the SITUATION.

For instance, in "Wish Fulfilment" (part of my larger "Epsilon Project"), the problem is that wishes are constantly being granted. There is an "wizard antagonist" of sorts, but she's trapped by the situation as much as the rest of them. Or in my "Personified Math", series 2 had the Conics kidnap the parabola for what they felt were legitimate mathematical reasons... and so they're working with the Polynomials in series 3, related to a Trigonometry plot. Then they all band together when later, they have to deal with the Fractals. In "Time & Tied" I go full out crazy and have the protagonist SIMULTANEOUSLY be the antagonist - she ends up having to confront herself along an alternate timeline. (However, it takes something like 40 parts to get there.)

It's almost like I have two sets of protagonists instead - it's simply that you only really see the story from the perspective of one set initially. Because as Patrick said, villains are the protagonist of their own story. Or to put it in terms of English class conflicts, I'm more "Man vs. Society" (or "Man vs Himself") than "Man vs Man". Which I grant isn't for everyone.

I suppose that means I should address the "If you haven't made a likeable antagonist, how would you" part of the question... I think that probably goes to giving them a sensible backstory, connecting to what others have said. I've also read a good book where the antagonist seemed like a perfectly ordinary person - until you see inside his mind and realize OH GOD WHAT IS EVEN THE HELL, so jarring dissonance might be another way to go about it. The future topics look interesting, by the way. I'm guessing we're going this route, rather than some sort of podcast then? Unless there's going to be a summary discussion.

Usually I either don't use villains or I don't try to make them likable. The one exception is ironically the one that took the longest to set up, and eventually I never got around to implementing it.

Anyway. In order to create a likable villain I started out making him one of the two progagonists. Then I made him break down, and my plan for the third book was to have the other protagonist very reluctantly hunt him down. The underlying design was to push the best-friend-turned-enemy -concept much further than it's done in for example Ben Hur.

The answer to WHY is quite simple. In general I hate the 'Ho ho ho. I'm so evil! Ha ha ha!' -kind of villain. They don't make any sense to me. I want the villain to BEHAVE like a villain but believe they have a valid reason for doing so. If possible even believing they're the good guy.

A protag is likely to have a goal that the reader can agree with. There's a symbiotic connection between likable character and good ends. With a likable villain it's different. The character is likable DESPITE the goal.

I can't answer the third secondary question. I never got around to implementing it.

How do you, personally, make an antagonist likable while remaining an antagonist? If you haven't, how would you?

I have a couple of thoughts on this:

- Every character in your story thinks they are the hero of that story. That includes your protagonist, the minor characters, and the villain. They ALL have wants and desires and, obviously, they hold that want and desire more important than anyone else's want and desire. So, really, at the end of the day, the villain actually thinks HE'S the hero of this story.

- Like Shakespeare said (in Hamlet I believe), things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. Therefore, the villain's want or desire may not actually be bad at all. The protagonist might think it's bad and portray it as evil, but a good writer knows how to spin anything.

- If there is a good reason why the villain is doing something "perceptively" evil, then that helps a lot. This creates sympathy. Typically all characters have some kind of "world perspective changing event" that gives them their beliefs, and fears, and ultimately the inception of their internal/external goal (or want or desire).

- Make the villain as human as possible. If the villain is doing something awful but it's to protect his family and we later find that out... well, is he really that much of a bad guy? Wouldn't you do whatever you could to protect your family?

- I can't remember what it's called again, but Hollywood screenplay writers use this tactic for their antiheroes (which can be used on villains just as easily): basically, the antihero (or villain) does something very sweet and kind at the very beginning of the story. So let's say there's a kid lost in a mall looking for his parents and the antihero (or villain) helps the kid to find his parents, that helps us to like him (this technique is also used for the hero as well, and it's just a very easy way to get readers to like your hero).

- If the villain honest to God believes that what he's doing is for the greater good, you can sell that. Brandon Sanderson's Lord Ruler in the first Mistborn series is a great example of this. I liked him a lot even though throughout the book he's a bastard.

Secondary Questions to Consider:

Why make a villain likable at all if they're going to remain a villain?

I don't think you necessarily have to make them likable and I think framing that way can drive you crazy. I think as a writer you want to make their actions justifiable TO THEM. As in, they know why it is they are doing what they're doing, even if the protagonist doesn't agree and hence why they are against each other. It's basically a way to get over the whole evil for evil's sake (which can be fun and is totally doable.)

Is there anything that would make an antagonist likable that wouldn't work with a protagonist?

I guess making them witty and sardonic can make them likable to some readers but which may not work for a protagonist (unless the protagonist is an antihero). Look at Milton's Paradise Lost--the Satan character is easily likable and he's the freaking DEVIL! But he's also super funny and witty and sardonic. It's kind of like, people love the asshole.

What happens to the story overall if you make an antagonist likable? Are there special considerations?

What you get is an antagonist that's more real and has more depth to what he's doing. Again, it's not necessarily that he's likable but that his wants and desires make sense, have a past event which started it all, and that he feels that he's the hero in this story. Look at all our villains in history. Genghis Khan probably thought he was a hero not a villain, and he had a very good reason for why he did what he did and people love and admire him (even today!) even though he massacred most of China.

Ubersoft, aye, but I think if you show them doing absolutely reprehensible things, these can far outweigh their heroic qualities. Hm. So if your villain is heroic, what's something you could show about them in order to straddle the line between "hero you don't want to see die" and "villain that you hate", you think? So sure, they have to get their comeuppance, but you kinda like them, too. You're amused by them more than you hate them, maybe.

Somewhat similarly, Buffy did this in season three with one of the major villains. He was genuinely a nice guy, he just really, really wanted to become a demon and rule the world. He was likable (YMMV) in that you'd laugh at his antics, but because his goal was ruling the world, he really needed to be killed.

Patrick I like your points, but I'm not sure I'd call it a "cheaper story" if the antagonist if the antagonist feels no guilt. For a lot of stories, an unapologetic, straight villain can server the story very well, even best; not all stories, even really good, deep, or complicated ones, need a rounded villain. Other than that, though, I'm not sure I have much to say. Maybe someone else has something to add. xP

mathtans You know what you made me think of? What if you wrote a story from two protagonist's viewpoints, but make them opposed to each other? This has been done, of course, and some people take it a bit further, like George RR Martin if I'm not mistaken (personally, his books are too dark for me, so I'm mildly guessing and going off what I've heard and seen on the television show).

Another example could be Miyazaki's movies, where there isn't really a real villain in most of them. Many of the seemingly antagonistic characters are shown that they're simply doing what they believe is right and the viewer can't really blame them.

Of course, there's also something to be said for antagonists not being redeemable as well.

Sten Hm, but of course, making a villain likable isn't the only way to avoid the "ho ho ho!" type of villain, no? Because giving a villain a belief in their reasons doesn't necessarily make them likable.

ALL If anyone wants to start the topic for the second workshop (if you guys like this, anyway) just let us all know so we know who's doing it. :P I wouldn't start it until next week, though, just because I'd rather we not all burn out on this. Haha. (Remember, just do whatever topic you feel like. It doesn't have to be anything I or anyone else suggested.)

Well I don't want my readers to like my villains all the time. I want them to rubber band a bit... you see the villains working hard and working together to achieve their goals and you find those qualities admirable, then the camera pulls back and you see what they're actually working for, and it's HORRIBLE, and you realize that this group is willing to put their backs to the wall in order to make it happen... the idea is for the stakes to be high not just because of the terrible thing they're doing, but because you can see that they're just as committed to it happening as the heroes are to it not happening.

Interesting that you bring up "Buffy", Michelle. A more classic antagonist example there is Spike, from Season 2. Dude was supposed to DIE, but he'd been so well received - due in no small part to James Marsters' charisma and line delivery - that they only put him in a wheelchair. He then survived all the way through to becoming a protagonist on "Angel". Perhaps THAT'S what happens when you make a certain type of antagonist likeable? You're forced to give them a soul?

You're also right in that Miyazaki's another good example for me (I suppose I'm heavily influenced by anime). Come to think, I don't think I've EVER made an unredeemable villain. Maybe I should try it sometime, people wouldn't expect it from me.

Just to veer the conversation to the side a bit, as many people are talking about the antagonist being "human too" and "a protagonist in their eyes", what qualities do you think it is that makes them the antagonist then? Killing people is generally the line thou shalt not cross. Of course, there are worse things than death, but what about looking at less than death? Is lack of remorse over someone's suffering enough? Or cruelty to small animals? Where's the tipping point, or does that depend on the protagonist they're contrasting?

I think the important thing to keep in mind is that at teh end of teh day, most villains think they are the heroes. I hate to go Godwin so fast, but... Most Nazis truly felt they were defending their familys and way of life. Crusaders felt that they were saving souls while taking lives,. Villains aren't always EVIL. or at least, don't think they are.

For those that are, you have to make them complex, make them characters. There's an old line, if you're nice to me, but you aren't nice to the waiter, you aren't a nice person. But most people don't get to SEE them being mean to the waiter, and even when they do, all the times they are nice to everyone else influences that. Give them hobbies, give them jokes they like to tell, things that make them sigh, drinks that they like, foods that they gag at teh smell of. Make them complex, and they will be more relatable, more likable.

Look at Hook. dastardly fellow, he's a pirate. he kills other people for their money, and enjoys doing it. He also plays piano, practices calligraphy, enjoys a good tea, and is deathly afraid of that ticking, for good reason. When he's not actively being a villain, hes an okay guy, and that cognitive dissonance makes us think... well.. maybe he's got a good reason for what he does.

Hunh, now that I think of it... crafting a truly evil likable villain is like engaging the reader in a emotionally abusive relationship where you make them doubt their own judgement and cause them to start making excuses for the villain's behaviour. I'm... not sure how I feel about that.

Mathtans, i can't wait till act three of Phoenix. The main antagonist who has been pretty well liked so far and will likely be better liked will admit to doing many horrible things, and have no remorse, but make it seem like an okay thing to do, and one of the protaganists is going to murder them in cold blood in front of another protag, and its going to be a very not okay thing to do. Evil is just so subjective.

Hunh, now that I think of it... crafting a truly evil likable villain is like engaging the reader in a emotionally abusive relationship where you make them doubt their own judgement and cause them to start making excuses for the villain's behaviour. I'm... not sure how I feel about that.

This is an awesome quote. And it's probably more true than we want to admit.

The mitigating factor is, it's a story, and we put up with a lot of things in stories that we would never put up with in the real world. The fact that we can hold the story away at arms length whenever we want to really helps with that.

For my antagonists I devote time to being their heads and seeing their beliefs through their own eyes and in their own words. My story is about war and history moreso than magic or superpowers and it's important to me that the reader be able to see some part of the justification every character has for initiating or participating in aggression. These are, essentially, mundane people, whose only real power is that the decisions they make will affect other people (and for some having a huge tank or gun but w/e). So I try to give the readers some clarity on why they're moving the way they're moving, what they hope to gain, and what their own opinion of their role is. I don't show everything, but I try to show enough.

I "go out of my way" to make them "likable" (to certain extents) because they're still characters in a story. To me they should have their own draws for the reader, or at least, a point of interest. That's why Horrible Person Extraordinaire President Achim Lehner has such a bombastic manner of speaking and got a whole chapter devoted to his crappy childhood. He is weird and maybe funny and also an amoral imperialist monster. You can laugh at his exaggerated mannerisms and understand his pains but he's still the antagonist, and his callousness is on full display.

I've always disliked the idea of "likable, human" antagonists. It feels manipulative to me, to some extent. "Look, the Dark Lord Nebolousity just destroyed the Eastern Seaboard and plunged countless millions into abject misery to serve the unfathomable will of an evil overlord, but hey, she was bullied once so her motives are understandable". Am I supposed to clap? Be mournful at the horrible consequences of myopic perspectives? Is this some sort of paean to our shared, common humanity?

If you're writing a story that has "villains", the least anyone can do is make them properly villainous ("Cower before me! Mwahahah!"). Else any claims and grounding for moral debate fall flat, lost in some generality about how we're all people deep-down. It doesn't work, or at least, if already claiming that this is a story where "villain" and "hero" apply, it seems to me a little strange to also want the villain to be "human and likable". After all, if one was just writing a story about people with different motives and means that would all go without saying, there'd be no reason to spend extra time dedicated to making the unreasonable seem reasonable. It's only when you're already sort-of-subtly hinting that unreasonable things are happening that it's even required. In a story where Lord Hawkstone tortures prisoners for information and Lord Stonehawk doesn't, and then they have a fight and eventually one dies both are human and their motivations for doing what they did can be discussed. That goes back to Shakespeare. In a story where Lord Hawkstone is evil and tortures prisoners for information because the noble is a villain and Lord Stonehawk let's everyone go without torture, any time spent making Lord Hawkstone seem more reasonable, likable and friendly is time spent undermining the premise that he's apparently also evil. The story is already set up in a such a way as to indicate one set of actions is "good" and the other not, so further time spent fleshing people out is coyly manipulating the reader.

I don't know, it feels as if it ties into the bedrock assumption of the story being told ("good and evil are things!") and then asks me to politely consider "burning orphanages" and "murdering people" somewhat less terrible because the person doing it might also have a family and a hobby, be weak flesh and full faith like me! A kinship bond of our common humanity! Well, I don't burn down orphanages anymore, I kicked that habit so you've already lost my sympathy. If you're writing and find yourself wondering: "Huh, is this making my antagonist too human and likable?" I guess I just wonder why that'd even be a problem, unless you're already setting up a situation where the the actions of the antagonist are not okay and you're using the protagonist to highlight their not-okayness so in order to justify the protagonists continued resistance you have to make them slightly less likable. The readers might lose sympathy for the protagonist if the villain's plans are revealed in full, or their background explorered too deeply? Why is that a problem? In that situation someone is already explicitly making universal judgement about right and wrong, and so, cloaking it in "oh, but they go home to their family and have tea" reads manipulatively to me. Jarring, anyhow - odd.

But then I come from a somewhat different perspective in that most of my antagonist writing has been for various shades of table-top scenarios, which involve setting up antagonistic organizations. Because of the assumption of those systems ("literally evil demons") I don't need to worry so much about "Likable", I just have to worry about "relatable" which strikes me as a better metric in general.

Antagonists with plans, purpose and plots are relatable because they're trying to achieve something, not necessarily because they're by any stretch likable. Ubersoft and Patrick Rochefort hint at that. If you can look at what they're trying to accomplish based on what has gone before, it makes interacting with the villains a lot better. Oh, so the Dark Lord Nebolousity was bullied and because of that she wiped Washington off the map so that she could rule the world from her Gloom-Fortress and monitor everyone 24 / 7 so no one could ever be bullied again.

Well, I don't agree with her motive or her methods, but at least I see where she's coming from. (in tabletop terms: "Oh, so *that's* why the X is doing Y, the fiends"). Lord Hawkstone was desperately in need of the information at hand and short on time? I don't agree with what he did, but I suppose I can see why he had to resort to finger-nail pulling and tickle therapy.

"Humanizing" can easily slip into accidentally "excusing" the terrible atrocities that have taken place ("But in the end, it was for love!"). Making the specific goals and aims for whatever antagonist in question explicit doesn't quite run the same risk, and in the cause of exploring that, you'll almost certainly also add a few characteristics to the creation in question. Not everyone can be in the Doomclock 24/7, at some point they have to take a break and play chess or have tea. Human moment! Now back to plotting the military take-over of the solar system.


I think there's more humanity in that. It doesn't cause a conflict with the implied morality of designating one group of characters as "heroes" and another as "villains", and if someone has a relatable plan for accomplising a set goal it's generally something that will make anyone reading it at least somewhat more sympathetic towards that character. I think most people sympathize with trying to achieve something, so merely explaining the background and the thought-process behind The Nebolon Corporation's #12 Step Programme for Optimizing the World helps make them seem more reasonable without undercutting their evil. If they're all incredibly affable, polite, conscentious, charitable and also psychopathic murderers, I just start to feel confused and wonder if perhaps I'm missing a joke somewhere.


That said, let's talk about "literally demons". At the risk of sounding incredibly silly, Dungeons and Dragons is a pretty cool tool for exploring deontological ethics as it applies to metaphysics. Devils in D&D are composed of actual 100 % Evil. Humans have cells, demons have Chaos and Disdain and Malice-chondria. By definition, they're irredeemable. (Well, in some versions anyway, let's not get into that)

As a story concept, that's actually kind of neat and I think adding the existence of something like that in a fictional universe can be an interesting tool. Well, this is the country of X and over here is the Principality of Y and this little spot of darkness at the corner of the map is objective, absolute Evil. You can't make something like that human. It's like Sauron, the lesser lieutenant of what'shisface, 100% proof evil, out to destroy you, no good. Hates puppies and rainbows. And those fellows can actually be pretty likable because being gleefully, irredeemably inhuman and into malice and the banality of small pain skips neatly past all the underlying ethical problems in thinking about whether antagonist XX is human or right to do what they did.

At least they enjoy their job, which is all-right. That serial killer slasher is just really into body-art. Art with your body, granted, and it's all of the "let's see if I can peel of your skin" varity, but at least they like doing it. That's neither human nor likable, but it is relatable and might make reading about them fun. At that point the conscientous, happy, polite, friendly and neighbourly psychopathic serial killers aren't humanized or near it, so reading about their antics takes on a escapist bent. There's a release valve I think gets flipped when that sort of stuff comes up, because instead of wondering about how many millions one must sacrifice to the meat-grinder to starve away the extinction of the human race ("Were they right to do what they did? WOULD I, knowing what I NOW KNOW perhaps not HAVE DONE THE SAME?! gasp horror shock"), you can just read about a road trip of twisted murderers who bumble along being unpleasant to everybody. It's something so essentially inhuman and horrifying that you can get away with it. At the end of the day, evil, actual capital E Evil is <i>unpleasant as all hell</i>, so humanizing those who do it too much makes the sheer banal atrocity of things too readily apparent.

. . . So I guess my response is "I don't try to" or "Gleeful serial killer".

But I guess also, like, having someone crack a joke might help.

I suppose it hinges on how the author views villainy in general. Or to be more specific, it depends on how you want to address the problem of evil in your work.

Obviously not every antagonist is evil, just as not every work is going to really warrant addressing good and evil--there are plenty who stick firmly to shades of gray and more than a few others who go decidedly postmodern when it comes to trying to examine "good" and "evil" as concepts. And I can't really speak to any of them, because that's not what I do, so let's just assume I acknowledge their existence and move on to something I actually do. :-)

So... taking from Fibi's post above (welcome Fibi!) I take a sharply opposing view of the D&D Alignment wheel. D&D has spheres that are good and evil, and "good" and "evil" are about as different from each other as you can get. I suppose my view wouldn't be so much an alignment wheel as it would be a platonic sliding scale, with "good" being Plato's "pure form" and "evil" being the degree to which the pure form is corrupted.

So, for example: racism is a corruption of the desire to protect one's family--it is so corrupted that the original noble goal is no longer present, but playing on the ideals of family is how you suck in new recruits and start sending them down that slippery slope (there is actually a certain amount of this present in Neo-Nazi and white supremacist literature, so I'm not actually inventing anything new here).

So for example, earlier when I replied to Michelle that I wanted the reader to "rubber band a bit" when it comes to my villains, more specifically what I want to do is show that the "pure qualities" still exist in some way, even if in small amounts (because none of the characters I've introduced so far represent an abstract archetype of anything) so you can genuine nobility or love or sacrifice being used and twisted in the service of something Seriously Not Good. And I want to show, to a certain extent, how a character can do completely amoral/terrible things like work to cover up the murder of America's Greatest Superhero but still respect and watch out for the other people on his team.

Keep in mind that I'm not claiming that I actually do that WELL at this point -- to stay with my previous metaphor, that is the platonic form I'm trying to achieve, and it'll take a lot more iterations before I get where I want to get in that regard.

I personally liked Patrick's take on it, though I think there is one minor point that's been missed in all this: the main question is about the antagonist, not the villain.

It's a bit of a distinction when the story's protagonist isn't necessarily a hero. Could be a villain, like in The Cask of Amontillado or my own World Domination in Retrospect. Could just be a regular person who isn't trying to save the world. Either way, there's an antagonist.

As previously noted, humanizing them makes them more likable. Some of that is in humor, self-awareness, and vulnerability. When it comes to humor, we're more likely to be sympathetic to someone who makes us laugh because of the laughing. Not sure if that psychological thing has a specific name. The self-awareness is the part where they know they're doing something wrong. It's not that murdering an entire orphanage is the right thing to do. It's that a villain might know murdering the orphanage is the wrong thing to do and does it anyway for his own purpose. And then makes a joke about it.

To quote sociopathic sidekick Richard from Looking For Group: "Like I told your captain, that orphanage attacked me first. It was self-defense." There's humor there because he knows perfectly well that what he did was wrong. And I believe there was a spoiler later in the comic about why he kills so much.

The vulnerability stuff can happen too, especially if the antagonist doesn't always come out on top. Maybe they have something wrong with them not as an excuse, but as a problem they have to compensate for. Something that someone else could rub in their face. If they can be a victim, then they can also be sympathetic. I know it works in wrestling. From Cactus Jack in ECW because of a joke sign saying to cane his son, to The Rock going bad in part because fans liked to say "Die Rocky Die", to Kane being hell bent on revenge against the Undertaker because 'Taker set the fire that killed their parents and disfigured Kane himself, it's especially used as a way to start someone down a dark path. It also helps if someone knows they wouldn't be able to win if they only played by the rules, too.

It also helps, similar to that notion of a hero who may have turned out like the villain, is to make them somewhat of a mirror image of one another. Like Psycho Gecko's and his nemesis, Venus. Both are baselines of their species who were orphaned and trained from a very young age to fight for the greater good, often coming out on top thanks to their respective gadgets and gizmos. In Gecko's case, it was by a shadowy government agency using brutal methods in a Cold War-esque setting; in Venus's case it was by a then-secret academy that teaches superheroes. In a lot of ways, they aren't so different. That is one of the things that makes her sympathetic as an antagonist, and it also allows her to get under his skin in a way other heroes just don't. That, and her stubborn refusal to die.

That said, Fibi had an excellent point as well: people tend to forget that the antagonist is the antagonist. That's something I disliked about Wildbow's Worm (wink wink, nudge nudge), though not necessarily Wildbow's fault. Wildbow often made villainous characters extremely sympathetic in interludes and people's perceptions changed right then and there. A guy who has done nothing redeeming gets redeemed in their perception just because of a backstory. Maybe it's because someone like Saint didn't have a lot of self-awareness, so they seemed to lack as much choice in the matter. But I think it needs to be pretty firmly established that if an antagonist has acted antagonistic, their actions in the past and future don't change because people became sympathetic toward them.

Antagonists suck as antagonists if you get too sympathetic. People want them to be a protagonist if that happens too much, so make sure to keep them on the side they're supposed to be on.

To be fair, though, if your antagonists ARE villains then it IS one and the same. I realize there are people who separate them. I generally don't--not in the big arcs, anyway. Also, while the first post does say specifically "antagonists" the title of the freaking thread includes villains.

I'm not sure that this is a way to make someone likable, more a way to make the reader want to read more: Make a villain who simply does not give a fuck. Any evil person can murder, rape or steal and then rationalize it. Not anyone can beat an orphan to death with a puppy and expect the other kids to laugh.

Some of my favorite villains are definitely not likeable or relatable, and more studies in human depravity. Whether its The Joker asking if you want to hear how he got his scars, Yuno Gasai gunning down cops and civilians in a shopping mall with an innocent smile on her face, or Jack Slash casually tossing a baby across a room, somehow these people are somehow so depraved that we stop hating them and begin to, if not like them, become fascinated by them.

Ubersoft, the notion of a tribalism and an antagonist Other is pretty basic, extending far beyond just racism. You'll often find people trying to appeal to one group by creating or dividing them from some antagonistic Other group.

Technically, that kind of fearmongering is what we're doing as writers, except we have to make a better case for an antagonist being antagonistic rather than "He's a commie/jew/atheist/muslim/welfare queen/intellectual/lives in the city." I wouldn't use the same rhetoric that they use, however, since the reasons are either distorted, way overly simplified, or a fabrication. Even in Lex Luthor's case, where he dislikes Superman in part because he's an alien, it's grounded more in the idea that Lex Luthor wants to be superior to everyone, and would be if not for a being from another planet entirely. It's like cheating, to him, that the only way someone on earth could be his better is if they came from another world and naturally had Superman's laundry list of powers.