How To Keep People From Admiring & Idealizing Your Villains

It happens all too often that people try to create villains or a villainous organization that's supposed to be the very epitome of evil, yet a large amount of people finds these them just a little too sympathetic... or even admirable. Yikes! If you want to avoid people doing this with your own villains, here are some things you can do, based on observations of which villains do and don't get idealized. Of course, there's no way to guarantee that absolutely nobody will idealize your villains, but hopefully some of these will help you mitigate it at least somewhat and help you better convey the overall message that you really do not want to be these people or follow in their footsteps.

Last revision: March 18

Table of Contents

Villains In General

Don't give them better fashion sense than the heroes. If your villains' outfits are sharper, sexier, cooler, more elegant, or simply more interesting in some way, people will find them a touch more appealing on that basis alone. Same goes for if your villains get to wear dark colors while none of the heroes do - those who prefer dark colors will see the villains as being better-dressed, or see their side as a place where they probably won't be judged for dressing how they like.

Don't make your villains more interesting as people than your heroes. If your villains have complex motives, have been forced to make difficult decisions, or have gone through hardships the audience can relate to moreso than the heroes have, they're going to be far more compelling characters. If you've got complex villains and simplistic heroes, try giving your heroes a little more depth and development. And don't make them squeaky-clean paragons of goodness who get bailed out of making tough choices at the last minute by some deus ex machina while the villains constantly have to grapple with tough do-or-die choices. (It can be argued that supposed "villains" who try to make the best choices they can in horrible situations have better moral character than alleged "heroes" who don't choose at all, because the former actually does something to ensure that the best possible outcome happens, while the latter does nothing and simply hopes that things will somehow get better on their own - an unconscionably risky attitude if people's lives are in imminent danger!)

Avoid making the good guys come off as a bunch of self-righteous and/or elitist prats. This can include heroes who vocally disapprove of questionable choices the villains made, despite the fact that the villains were A: between a rock and a hard place at the time, and B: the heroes have never found themselves in that kind of position themselves, or if they did, were bailed out at the last minute by a lucky break. It can include heroes whose actions have horrible consequences, but who don't really care because they just "did what heroes do." It can also include heroes who fight to maintain a comfortable status quo for themselves while showing no sympathy for the fact that the villains' own actions are motivated by self-preservation or just wanting to get out of a miserable situation. Just about nobody likes people like this, so if audiences perceive that your heroes are this way it'll be a lot easier for them to find your villains sympathetic. For more information, you can look at Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It and How To Avoid Elitist Overtones In Your Fiction.

Don't act as if your villains' sympathetic qualities are completely irrelevant or aren't worth talking about. Some writers try to make it clear that their villains are Not To Be Sympathized With by acting as if their sympathetic qualities just don't matter. The heroes might never show the smallest shred of sympathy for these villains, or the villains might never be offered a chance at redemption where it would actually make a decent amount of sense. The problem with this is that it often leads to people feeling even more defensive of these villains, as it just reinforces their belief that these characters are being unfairly maligned and deserve a break. For more information on this subject, you might want to look at How To Write Sympathetic Antagonists Without Endorsing Or Excusing Their Actions, & Without Making Your Protagonists Seem Heartless.

Organizations & Groups

Don't make the protagonists' group less diverse than they are. If your villainous organizations are more diverse than the protagonists', you'll create the impression that your villains are a lot more accepting and tolerating than the protagonists. Additionally, it suggests that your villains actually have a justifiable reason for fighting the protagonists - maybe it's the bigotry of the protagonists that started the whole conflict in the first place. So, make sure that your protagonists are as diverse as your villains are.

Show it stifling its members' freedom and individuality. One reason villainous groups can seem so appealing is because they're perceived as offering more personal freedom than the heroes' sides. But in real life the opposite tends to be true, so feel free to inject a little realism here. You might depict its leaders as insecure control freaks who can't tolerate the slightest dissent in thought. You might show the leaders being unrelenting authoritarians who operate on the unequal respect paradigm. You might have them force members to wear bland and unappealing clothes, force them to give up their passions so they have more time to serve the group instead, or even take away or destroy things that members care about, but that the higher-ups don't approve of them having. Show them policing what members think, say, and do. In short, you might aim build up a cultish atmosphere.

Build up at least one of its members as somewhat sympathetic, then have the group do something bad to that member. Maybe we see one of them confiscate or destroy a personal possession because it's "not allowed here," maybe we see this member forced to work a grueling and thankless job as punishment for some tiny infraction. You might show them using bully behavior to wrest compliance out of the member. You might even have them kill this member on suspicion of disloyalty after this member acts on conscience or common sense rather than doing exactly as ordered.

Make being part of the group tedious and boring. Maybe they have to do their own laundry and repair their clothes themselves. Maybe they're forced to do busywork or put on inane performances (whether plays, "celebratory marches," or similar) for the leaders. Maybe they have to undergo a bunch of boring, repetitive, and pointless-seeming tests. Maybe they have to work long, difficult, or even risky jobs for small or chintzy rewards. If their work involves inflicting violence upon people, you might depict it as an unpleasant or banal chore, or as something that brings them no particular joy or relief.

Make joining the organization or group disempowering. Those who join the group (or find themselves in it against their will) might be reduced to boring, even meaningless work and find that the leaders don't care about their opinions or feelings at all. Should they ever speak up for any reason, they might be upbraided or even punished. They might even have their own personal powers or weapons taken away and only have them returned when the group deems it necessary, or they might even be forced to use inferior versions.

Show that nobody is really having fun. Everyone in the group (including those closest to the leader!) might find themselves facing impossibly high performance standards and facing verbal abuse or punishment when they can't accomplish the impossible. Those who wield power might be miserable due to setting high expectations or lofty goals that can't realistically be met. Members might take out all of their frustrations on each other, making themselves even more miserable. They might end up in a cycle of blaming and scapegoating each other for their failures to live up to the leadership's impossible standards and end up trying to police and bully their subordinates or equals into line in order to avoid the wrath of their own superiors. They might have little to no time to do anything fun or pursue anything that would bring them emotional fulfillment, or trying to do such might be seen as selfish.

Watch out for these common mistakes!

Assuming that using brutal violence is in itself unappealing. While you might think that putting your villains up to extreme acts of brutality might dissuade people from liking them, it's not actually all that effective, at least not in my observation. Part of the trouble is that these acts are often seen as a display of strength and power, which can actually make these characters even more appealing. Furthermore, people who already sympathize with these characters will often find ways to rationalize their actions. This is not to say that your villains can't be extremely brutal, but rather that you can't rely on brutality to keep people from admiring and romanticizing them. If they are going to be violent, it helps to make it a tedious and unpleasant matter, or at the very least one that isn't particularly fun or interesting. (Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know and Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment can shed some insight into how this can be handled.)

Trying to make them unappealing by making them gleefully sadistic. The simple fact that they're having fun being evil can make them and their actions seem appealing. Some people might even perceive such villains as empowered and find that admirable. This effect seems to be particularly bad if the villains are attractive and/or live enviable lifestyles (EG, largely free and unrestricted ones). This is not to say that you can't have sadistic villains, but you do need to be mindful of this effect.

Making them awful in every way conceivable, whether or not it really makes sense in context. It's a good idea to try to make your villains unappealing in more than one way, but trying to make them awful in every conceivable way tends to leave you with a contrived mess on your hands. So don't try to tack on each and every one of the suggestions above; instead, aim to use the ones that make actual sense per your villains' particular sensibilities, methods, and limitations. For example, a large organization with near-ubiquitous control over its domain (such as a government) can easily get away with executing people for perceived disloyalty; a small group risks wiping itself out and/or attracting the attention of authorities. So before tacking anything on, think about whether or not it really fits the villains you're writing.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Tips To Create & Write More Interesting & Believable Villains
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning

On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction
Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings

Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using

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