In last week’s post, I gave you 9 Ways to Write Characters Your Readers Will Love.
This week I have some tips to help you write characters that readers will love to hate. Surprisingly, its a lot easier to get your readers to hate a character. It’s really simple human psychology. All of a person’s good and wonderful deeds fade if they do or say something horrible. And when a character is completely loathsome from the get-go and your reader will never forget them.
Here’s a few ways to write characters we love to hate.
1. Make them a bully and/or a sadist. The east way to make a reader dislike a character is to show them deliberately causing an innocent person physical or emotional pain and suffering. If they derive some sort of pleasure from it, we will despise them even more.
Sadistic villains might torture the hero into divulging information that they don’t have. They can make demands that are impossible to fulfill so that everyone around them is constantly terrified of punishment or crushed by guilt and disappointment. However, sort of villain often that lacks depth. We rarely know anything about them except for their hunger for everyone’s suffering. It’s easy to see them as purely evil.
In order to avoid creating a cliche, it might help to keep in mind that bullies and sadist are not necessarily in love with inflicting pain and emotional distress—it’s the power that gets them off. The need to control someone else’s body and someone else’s life is the driving force behind their actions.
2. Make them a murderer or a vigilante. This seems odd to say but killing someone doesn’t make a character likable or worthy of hate. Crazy, right? Unlike bullying, if the intended victim is evil enough, the killing can be justified. “Some people just need killing.” And just like that, a murderer becomes a hero.
Murder—and all other crimes, for that matter—only transform the character into a villain if they do it for selfish reasons, or if innocents are caught in the crossfire. A motive can make all the difference. A cold-blooded killer can be sympathetic if they are avenging the deaths of innocent people. A con man who targets lonely, single mothers and drains them of every cent to their name, will not garner sympathy.
3. Make them self-serving and/or self-aggrandizing. There are a few things that are more annoying than a know-it-all or a self-appointed expert. It’s a strange dichotomy when you really think about it. We can’t stand folks who are shiftless and lack ambition, but we can’t stand a social climber or a clout chaser either. Shame and woe upon those who insinuate themselves into places where they are unwanted or uninvited. And that disdain for an interloper or self-serving opportunist will linger until they have proven themselves and/or earned the respect of the group.
This character is recognizable and can garner quite a bit of sympathy at the beginning of your story because at one time or another, we have all felt like an interloper. Be it at a new job, a new school, or a new neighborhood, we have all longed to be accepted by that new group. To make this a character we love to hate, they must remain an outsider. They can never be vindicated. They must always remain too different to be accepted and that fact can drive them to react in negative ways.
4. Make them break promises. A character that breaks your hero’s trust will be a betrayal that your reader will take personally. Depending on the damage it causes, this breech of trust may even be unforgivable. This character will have a long way to go to make amends and until then, they will be see as a villain.
5. Make them classist/and or elitist. Any character who presents as someone who believes that they are superior to others is easy to dislike. Some folks are distrustful of educated people and may even harbor some resentment toward that person. Formal speech or eloquent diction can be intimidating as well.
6. Make them mentally unstable. This is a touchy one, but we are fearful of people who frequently experience breaks with reality. They can’t be reasoned with. They won’t talk it out. There’s no way to get them to see things from your point of view. While most people who are mentally unwell are only a danger to themselves, there are a select few who are dangerously and criminally insane and must be handled accordingly. Consider the recent Ted Bundy documentary for example. No matter how “charming” and “attractive” the media portrayed him, there is no way you can see him as a good guy after you’ve learned of his heinous crimes against women.
7. Make them rude and/or difficult to be around. We all know what makes a person rude or difficult, but I’ll list a few: no sense of humor, a whiner, a complainer, callous, and apathetic toward others, judgmental, hypocritical. You get the jest. Slather your villain in some of these negative traits and your reader will immediately see them for who they are.
One important tidbit to remember is that everyone is a hero of their own story. None of these heroes would be interesting if all they portrayed were negative qualities. Find ways to justify their actions and you can effectively soften your villain into an antihero. And that, word makers, would be a worthy opponent for your hero.
Until next week…happy writing!