Advice & Tips On Creating & Writing Bullies
It happens a lot that we need to write bullies, but... bullies are actually pretty darn hard to write. Far too often, we end up with characters who are barely more than two-dimensional caricatures, or characters who go through all the right motions but feel more like puppets manipulated by the author than actual people.
Before we begin, let's get two things established:
What kind of people can be bullies. Anyone can be a bully. Although many tend to think of bullies as something that exist mainly in school, the reality is that they're everywhere - they can potentially be spouses, parents, co-workers, doctors, teachers, therapists, clergy, politicians, etc. This is because those who were bullies as children often (though not always) grow up to be bullies as adults. Also, children can end up learning and adopting bully behaviors as they develop, possibly because they could see no other way to survive or progress.
What kind of actions make someone a bully. Bullies are people who habitually employ cruel, hurtful, and manipulative behaviors to have their way or pleasure at the expense of others. While anyone might occasionally do something bullyish (because nobody's perfect and everybody has an off day now and then), true bullies will chronically and persistently engage in these behaviors, or at least consistently engage in them whenever they face challenge or disappointment of some kind. (Many bullies can be quite pleasant as long as things are going their own way.)Now with that done, let's move on to some advice and tips for writing bully characters.
Table of Contents
- Common methods/styles of bullying
- A few examples of what bullying can look like
- Possible driving factors behind bully behavior
- Other behaviors (or potential behaviors) of bullies
- How much hope is there for improvement?
- A few examples of fictional bullies
- A few more tips for writing bullies
Common methods/styles of bullying
There are many ways that people can bully others. For the sake of this article, a few major ways people do this have been categorized into four types. (Note that this is not any sort of "official" classification system; it's just for the convenience of breaking down and analyzing behavioral patterns for fictional characters.)
Volatile bullying: Bullying with obvious/overt anger or hate. This can include blatant insults, threats of personal harm, physical violence, shouting, screaming, throwing or destroying things, aggressive responses, or aggressive tones of voice or body language/facial expressions, etc. Volatile bullies might also make a point of criticizing people or describing them degradingly in front of others. This is often the easiest form to recognize, though very often it's only the tip of the iceberg in a bully's behavioral repertoire.
Cold bullying: Bullying with contempt and disdain, whether overt or covert. This can include covert or backhanded insults, malicious sarcasm, mockery, passive-aggression, stonewalling, cold or apathetic responses, or cold/apathetic/contemptuous tones of voice or body language/facial expressions, dismissive words or behavior, etc. They might also spread malicious rumors and gossip, or start smear campaigns. Cold bullies can sometimes be extremely hard to recognize because much of what they say or do would not actually be bullying in a different context.
Pathetic bullying: Bullying through trying to make oneself seem like the true victim in any conflict or situation. This can include guilt-tripping and shaming, or one-upping trauma or tragedy. Also, pathetic bullies might play themselves up as victims to gain sympathy for themselves, and might even completely make up stories of being wronged. Like cold bullies, they can also be hard to recognize because much of what they say and do wouldn't actually be bullying in another context.
Barter bullying. Bullying through withholding goods and services until compliance is given (or by threatening to do so), or by giving people "Hobson's choices" - IE, a choice that isn't really a choice because the only feasible option is the one the bully wants the victim to take. The bully's demand also can sometimes be framed as a duty or obligation. Some are particularly adept at making their demands seem perfectly fair and reasonable (again, their terms or requests might not even be bullying in another context), making their bullying hard to recognize for what it is. Barter bullies might also talk up how unfair and uncooperative their victims are.
Important to note is that most real bullies use some blend of the above. For example, someone might start out using pathetic techniques, then switch to volatile when the former fails to phase someone. Someone might use a lot of volatile techniques early in life, but switch to cold, pathetic, and/or bartering behaviors after finding out that volatile behaviors are more likely to have negative consequences. Or someone might use volatile, cold, pathetic, and bartering techniques all in the same incident.
A few examples of what bullying can look like
To give you an idea of what these various modes of bullying can look like in practice, here are a few examples. Keep in mind that these are absolutely not the only possible ways bullies might behave in these situations, but are simply meant to illustrate a few ways they might behave.
Someone says: "My hamster died!"
A volatile bully response: "It's just a hamster! You stop the boo-hooing right now or I'll really give you something to cry about!"
A cold bully response: "I'm sorry, why are you telling me about this?"
A pathetic bully response: "Yeah well, at least your grandma didn't die last week!"
A barter bully response: "If you don't stop whining about that and pull yourself together, I'm going to take your games away."
Someone says: "I just found out that my favorite band is going to be playing here in a few months! I'm so excited!"
A volatile bully response: "Hey, guess what? Nobody cares about your stupid band obsession, so shut up!"
A cold bully response: "I still can't believe you care so much about this silly little band."
A pathetic bully response: "At least you can actually go to your favorite band's concert. I never get to do anything fun."
A barter bully response: "And you know what? If you don't do what I tell you, I'm not going to let you borrow the car to drive to the concert."
Someone says: "I just bought this new dress, and I love it!"
A volatile bully response: "Whatever, it still won't do anything about your ugly face."
A cold bully response: "Are you sure about that dress? It doesn't seem to fit you very well in a few places, especially in the back."
A pathetic bully response: "Wow, lucky you, actually able to find a dress that looks good on you."
A barter bully response: "With all that money you spent on it, you'd better be ready to work it off around the house, or else you can go right back to the store and return it."
Someone says: "I really don't like how you've been treating me lately."
A volatile bully response: "You think I'm treating you bad now? You haven't seen anything. Maybe you'd like me to give you a good whipping so you can see just how soft I am on you the rest of the time."
A cold bully response: "Really? And how do I treat you that's different from how I treat anyone else in your position? It seems to me that you're just looking for special treatment."
A pathetic bully response: "Well, it's not half as bad as how I've been treated! Why don't you think about somebody besides yourself for a change?"
A barter bully response: "You complain as if I don't do anything nice for you. Well, maybe I'll just stop paying for those little luxuries you love, since you're such an ingrate."
Someone says: "I'm really sorry, but I can't help you with that."
A volatile bully response: "That's a line of baloney and you know it! You get over here and help me right now, or I'm gonna make you sorry!"
A cold bully response: "Mmhmm. Because you have so many other important things going on right now, right?"
A pathetic bully response: "No, no of course you can't. You have all these other things you have to do. You have no time for me anymore."
A barter bully response: "Well, in that case, I guess you don't need my help with that oh-so-important project of yours."
Someone says: "Sir, I'm really not confident with this plan. I think it might be better if we took the other road."
A volatile bully response: "Excuse me, but I didn't ask your opinion! You shut your mouth and do as you're told, or you can face a court martial! Or we'll leave you behind for the enemy to pick up, whichever's easier!"
A cold bully response: "I'm sorry, did I ask for your opinion? We're taking this road, and if you don't like it, you can just stay right here. Or go ahead, take the other road. Go ahead and just do things your way, since you seem to know so much better than your commanding officer."
A pathetic bully response: "Look, you disrespectful little ass, I stayed up all night working on this plan! I don't see you working half as hard to pull your weight around here, so how about you shut your mouth?"
A barter bully response: "Uh-huh, and since I didn't ask for your opinion, I'm going to charge you three rations for it. Next time, it'll be six."
After the bully has been confronted on a bothersome or unhelpful behavior...
A volatile bully response: "Excuse me, but you don't know what you're talking about, so you shut your mouth and back off!"
A cold bully response: "I'm sorry you feel that way, but you clearly expect far too much out of me. I hope you know that no one is going to work with you if you're always this much of a control freak."
A pathetic bully response: "I'm just trying to do my best here! Why must you pick on me? Why am I always the bad guy?"
A barter bully response: "Well, hey, I'm not forcing you to stay. If you don't like the way I'm treating you, why don't you just pack up and leave?"
And after the bully has lashed out...
A volatile bully response: "You should know this is your fault, because you forced my hand!"
A cold bully response: "Maybe I went too far, but you have to agree that I'm not the only one at fault here."
A pathetic bully response: "Look at me, I'm so upset now! You're so heartless and cruel!"
A barter bully response: "All I'm asking for is a little cooperation! If you want to get something, first you have to give something!"
Possible driving factors behind bully behavior
If you plan to write a believable bully, it's a good idea to figure out the factors behind this character's behavior. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating yet another two-dimensional caricature, as far too many fictional bullies are. So here are some possible driving factors, which you can choose from and mix to create exactly the kind of bully you need for your story:
Displaced aggression. Where someone has something causing frustration going on in another area of life, but can't (or won't) deal with it properly, and instead takes out that frustration on a third party.
Lack of better example or instruction. Those with bullies for caregivers may have learned few interpersonal skills outside of bullying, or those who had absent caregivers might have never received proper instruction or correction.
Sadism. Some people just really enjoy seeing others suffer in some way - whether it's seeing them in physical pain, emotional pain, or just seeing their willpower or self-confidence crumble. (Some may believe that their victims deserve it for one reason or another.)
Unwarranted sense of entitlement. Believing that their wants and needs take priority over other people's wants or needs, or believing that they are right or justified in doing as they wish where others are not, or simply believing that they ought to receive something or be treated a particular way, especially where they don't believe others deserve the same consideration.
Contempt. IE, believing that other are inferior to oneself in some way, and are disgusting beings for it.
A desire or compulsion to control or manage others. Some people find the idea of others acting outside of their control an unsettling or even frightening prospect - what if they do something really inconvenient? What if they use their free will to abandon them?
A warped sense of duty or responsibility. Some may believe that others need certain behaviors reigned in immediately, or they're going to go down the slippery slope to all manner of terrible behavior. Or they may feel that some people "need" reminded how terrible they are, lest they start developing an ego and start thinking that they're not terrible.
Spite. IE, feeling a desire to hurt people whom one feels has done wrong or injury of some kind, or that one feels annoyed or inconvenienced by.
Personal insecurity. Some people have very fragile egos and find themselves deeply unsettled by those who remind them of their own perceived flaws and shortcoming, or who seem to be possible threats to their own statuses (be they social or official), or threats to their ability to manipulate and influence others.
Finally, it's important to note that many of these can stem from either internal factors or from external ones. For example, an unwarranted sense of entitlement might stem from inherent feelings of superiority and deservingness, or it might come from being taught from childhood that others owe or ought to give one these things. Something else to remember is that bullies whose behaviors aren't the result of a bad or twisted upbringings usually tend to elicit a lot less sympathy than those whose behaviors are.
Other behaviors (or potential behaviors) of bullies
Bullies tend to make friends with those who will never significantly inconvenience, challenge, resist, or disagree with them. When bullies have friends, they tend to be people who will generally go along with whatever they say or want - and who can easily be intimidated, guilt-tripped, or otherwise manipulated when they don't. As for how they make friends, some bullies are naturally charismatic enough to attract quite a few people to themselves (the "queen bee" type of bully would be this), while others will make friends with those who are otherwise unable to get them.
Bullies often view themselves as victims when others inconvenience, challenge, resist, or disagree with them. They often have a belief that those who don't go along with them are malicious, rude, inconsiderate, ungrateful, negative, toxic, vindictive, insensitive, too sensitive, or even that they're the real bullies!
Some bullies are very good at disguising the fact that it's all about them. When others do anything that they don't like, they try to pretend it's not all about them by trying to appeal to hypothetical people or to abstract ethical concepts. For example, a bully might say something to the effect of, "Your actions show that you have no respect for anyone else and that all you really care about is yourself. The way you act, you ought to be thrown out." While this is not an inherently bullyish thing to say, a bully may exploit it if it's expedient to do so.
Particularly cruel and sadistic bullies might deliberately set people up for failure, humiliation, or discomfort. For example, by deliberately giving someone incomplete or misleading instructions and then faulting the person for failing to follow them correctly, or giving someone incorrect information about what ought to be worn to a social event, or inviting someone over only to make a point of ignoring that person or to suddenly announce that something important has come up.
They might see their own faults as virtues. For example, they aren't finicky snobs - they just "have standards." They aren't cold or apathetic when others are displeased with their behaviors - they just "have no time for haters." They aren't being overly harsh or critical - they're "just trying to help others improve." They don't overreact over minor hiccups and setbacks - they just "really care about the project." And so on and so forth.
They often think that they have reasons while everyone else has excuses. For example, if someone snaps at the bully, it's "rude," "hateful," or "disrespect." But if the bully snaps at someone else, then it's "I had a really bad day" or "I just couldn't tolerate the nonsense anymore!"
They might put themselves into positions of authority and power. If they really and truly enjoy bullying others for some reason or another, they might put themselves into positions that give an air of legitimacy to their behavior, or officially sanction it, or enable them to carry it out to a far greater extent than otherwise.
How much hope is there for improvement?
How much hope there is for a bully to improve depends on the person. Three big factors here are:
Capacity and willingness for empathy: Those who are able and ultimately willing to empathize with others may eventually realize just how hurtful they were being, and change their behaviors accordingly. On the other hand, those who are incapable or unwilling probably will not. Similarly, child bullies may naturally improve over time if they go on to develop normal amounts of empathy.
Reasons behind bullying: Someone who was acting out of displaced aggression can potentially learn to deal with that aggression in a healthier way. Those who bully because they lacked better examples can sometimes improve if they're taught better social skills. And those who acted on an unwarranted sense of entitlement can improve if they can be brought to appreciate that their expectations were unrealistic (which usually requires some amount of empathy). On the other hand, there's little to no hope for a spiteful sadist with no empathy. (About the only thing that can keep people like this from bullying others is a fear of consequences, and even then, many of them are very clever about finding subtler, sneakier ways to bully people.)
Ability to admit and own up to mistakes: Bullies who genuinely believe that there are valid justifications for their actions can potentially improve if they can come to realize and admit (if only to themselves) that these reasons are invalid. But if not, then their behavior is unlikely to change. In fact, they may even bully others harder than ever in an effort to assert their perceived righteousness or to make themselves feel justified.
A few examples of fictional bullies
Mother Gothel from Disney's Tangled acts as if she is being victimized (pathetic behavior) when her "daughter" Rapunzel tries to assert her independence. She makes her promise never to ask her to leave the tower again (barter behavior). When playing the victim and bartering no longer works, she moves to guilt-tripping and shaming (cold), then violent force (volatile). The reason behind her bully behavior is an unwarranted sense of entitlement (IE, that she is entitled to stay young forever at the expense of Rapunzel's freedom) and a desire to control her (if Rapunzel leaves, she'll no longer be able to keep herself young).
Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series uses a mix of cold and pathetic behaviors. He often demonstrates cold behavior by making snide or disparaging comments toward others. A very prominent example of Draco behaving pathetically is when he acted as if he was an innocent victim after being injured when he failed to follow instructions given by a teacher for his own safety, then went on to pretend his injury was worse than it really was as part of a ploy to get the teacher fired. His reasons stem from contempt (disgust toward those he deems lower than himself), unwarranted sense of entitlement (he felt bitter over Harry rejecting his overtures of friendship), sadism (he enjoys making those he doesn't like suffer), and spite (bullying Harry after the aforementioned rejection, and the aforementioned incident with the injury).
The Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland often calls for the execution of those who inconvenience or annoy her (volatile behavior). This behavior seems to stem from an unwarranted sense of entitlement (IE, that she is entitled to never be inconvenienced or annoyed) and spite (believing that those who do the aforementioned deserve execution).
Li'l Gideon from Gravity Falls combines pathetic and volatile behaviors. When he doesn't get his way, he often resorts to tantrums and playing up his "cute child" image to make others take pity on him. When that isn't enough, he resorts to violence and other forcible measures. He often acts out of an unwarranted sense of entitlement, spite, and sadism.
Gaston From Disney's Beauty & The Beast believes he is entitled to marry Belle because he "deserves the best," and acts out in bullyish ways on it. He tosses Belle's book into a puddle when he believes she isn't paying enough attention to him (volatile behavior), attempts to have her father committed to an asylum to force her to marry him (barter behavior), and tries to murder the Beast in one last bid to have Belle for himself (volatile).
A few more tips for writing bullies
Avoid making your bullies talk like old Saturday morning cartoon characters. Nothing screams "fake, two-dimensional villain!" like a bully who talks like a character from an old Saturday morning cartoon. Have your bullies talk like real people, or like anyone else in their area might.
Don't base your bullies on old Saturday morning cartoon characters, or on characters who act like them. Don't use these characters as templates; most of them are pretty unrealistic in some way, and if you copy from them you'll most likely end up with characters who are even less realistic. (A good example of this are the bullies from Jeff the Killer. The characterization is so bad, it's positively cringeworthy.)
Give your bullies some appropriate core drives and motives. Far too many bully characters go through all the right motions, but still feel fake and contrived because the motivation behind their actions isn't really there. Try giving your bully characters some core drives to help ensure their behaviors end up authentic and consistent, and check out Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy for some possible motives. Or to put it another way, don't create a character who simply is a bully, but create a character who is motivated to be a bully.
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