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I notice in a lot of media there is a strong emphasis on the greatness of evil characters. They can often end up more popular than the good guys in the book or on the show, and overshadow everyone else around them.

Darth Vader is a good example. He is a despicable human being who has committed genocide and is responsible for the deaths of billions of people. Yet the common talk is of how much of a badass he is. His coolness has made him one of the most popular characters in history. He is on lunchboxes and has action figures, and people dress up as him in costumes.

How can you write an evil character while reminding the reader that he leaves behind real damage? That he causes suffering and pain to flesh and bone people without dwelling on how awesome he is while doing it?

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    A strong hero needs a strong villain to push them to the limit. If you make a villain with no admirable traits whatsoever it can be satisfying to see them lose, but it can also stretch credibility because among other things it's difficult to imagine how somebody with no admirable traits could be a threat to the hero – GordonM Jun 29 '17 at 15:11
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    GordonM's comment made me think: Maybe the problem is not that the villain is cool but that the hero is uncool. Think of Thor and Loki. Most people root for Loki. Why? Because Thor is incredibly boring. He's good looking, his decisions are morally sound -- we really should idolize him. But we don't. We cheer for Loki, because Loki's character is obviously flawed. We relate to these flaws better than we do to Thor's perfection. Another example that I could think of is Harry Potter. I believe if Harry wasn't so dreadfully good, Draco and Snape would get much less attention. – Filip Jun 30 '17 at 9:00
  • So my approach would be to level out the sympathy distribution between the hero and the villain a bit. Grant a strand of evil to your hero, and a splash of goodness to your villain. Then keep GordonM's comment in mind about making your villain a worthy match of your hero. My favourite villains still are Barbossa and Davy Jones from the first and second PotC movies. Barbossa seems cruel at first glance, but in contrast to Jack (who, granted, is not the hero), he cares about his crew and not only about himself. That's what makes him a captain. – Filip Jun 30 '17 at 9:05
  • Also consider the differences between a villain and an anti-hero. In Harry Potter, for example, I would call Snape an anti-hero more than a cut-and-dry villain, as opposed to Voldemort. However, I'm not familiar with Star Wars, so I can't comment on where Darth Vader would land on this spectrum. – vpn Jul 3 '17 at 0:39
  • Simplistically, does your story want a metaphor, or an anchor? There's a difference between Darth Vader, a visual metaphor for the the classical good(wearing the white hat)-vs-evil(wearing the black hat) construct where everybody knows how it's all going to turn out and are in it for the ride, and Hannibal Lecter, which most people absolutely loathed by the end of the story. – JBH Jul 17 '17 at 23:50
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As readers we can find an evil character "sexy" or "cool", because these traits have little to to with the character being morally good or evil.

Darth Vader is cool because he has great magical powers, wears awesome armour and has menacing dialogue. Joffrey is not cool because he is (regardless of being a sadistic tyrant) a whiny brat without any gravitas.

At least one way to make an evil character unsympathetic is to give them traits/faults that are unrelated to their moral standing: traits that would make them unlikable whether they were good or bad people.

Give your character nasty, disgusting habits - make them pick their nose or wet their bed. Make them suck up to their betters. Make them pick pettily on their underlings. Have them make unfunny jokes and then laugh at them with a shrill, undignified voice.

Avoid giving them "pseudo-faults" such as dramatic scars or tragic pasts. These traits can actually increase the "coolness factor" of the character, even if they make them less powerful at first glance.

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    I think this really gets to the heart of it. +1 – sudowoodo Jun 29 '17 at 11:22
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I really like this question but I don't think you will be able to completely eliminate the "cool" factor. Look at most horror films. They all end up commercialized for costumes and certain social groups tend to idolize them. I believe in Vader's case, his actions were not talked about. It was not shown in much of a negative light either. So he was more so made to seem like a bad ass with a demanding attitude rather than someone to be feared.

If you really want to try to come up with someone who is BAD but isn't on lunch boxes, I would look to Game of Thrones. Many people idolize a lot of the main characters. Universally though, Joffrey and Ramsay were hated. You don't see any fan pages, and they are hardly talked about except for wishing they would be killed off already. This would probably be your closest bet to what you are trying to imitate. That being said though, I do know some people who still thought Ramsay and Joffrey were cool because of their domineering ways. Someone is bound to like a character, no matter how evil you make them out to be.

  • I agree here. When I was trying to think about bad characters who are both convincing and totally unsympathetic at the same time, Joffrey and Ramsay came first to my mind. You might not see Hannibal Lecter on lunchboxes either, but this character generates some intrigue a fan-following nevertheless. – Alexander Jun 28 '17 at 22:54
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    @Alexander I would love to own a Hannibal Lecter lunchbox. Or a chef apron. :-) – Lew Jun 29 '17 at 17:37
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    +1 for last sentence; very good point – vpn Jul 3 '17 at 0:44
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I agree with ggiaquin answer, but I'd advise against giving the character some overly nasty habits if it isn't necessary just to make them more unsymphatetic, as other users have suggested.

Adding uncanny traits just for the sake of doing so will create an overly parodistic villain. There are a lot of movies where this happen: somehow, the big boss of the world-menacing, all-powered evil organization is a whiny weak man with daddy issues. It's not very believable and it doesn't really work.

Evilness comes with a measure of coolness, just to be sure. But almost everyone will have a "point of no return", meaning, an action so evil that will go against that person moral standard. Of course it changes from person to person. What you can do is to describe how and why that villain is evil, and show how little regard of human life/ethics/pain/well-being/etc he has. Disgust from the character shouldn't be disgust for his habits (e.g., wetting the bed) but from the moral value of his actions (e.g. eating newborns out of fun).

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Let me throw a couple keywords to help you get your villain being despicable:

  • cowardly
  • backstabbing
  • honorless
  • lying
  • egomaniac
  • petty
  • malicious
  • ruthless (no punishment too high for offense too small...)
  • unfair (an act of obvious injustice, for arbitrary reasons makes many people fume)
  • disgusting
  • lazy / slothful
  • narcissistic
  • blackmailing

Pick any number of the above and you have someone very hard to adore.

Keep ruthless, and add into the mix paranoid and competent and you have a villain both hated and feared, killing whoever has even a potential of becoming a threat, disposing of faithful followers before they could get disillusioned, abusing power for own perverted pleasures, never showing regret or hesitation.

Above all, no redeeming values whatsoever. No tragic backstory, no noble motive, no justifiable cause. Just ego. Own sense of entitlement.

You know, how a smart villain will listen to his faithful first officer when given advice about own weakness, and an arrogant villain will ignore the advice and possibly punish the faithful first officer for the offense? This one will listen to the advice, but before following it he will kill the first officer, because being able to spot the weakness, he became a threat.

  • Your list makes me think about the typical high school queen in teen movies. – Patsuan Jun 29 '17 at 15:25
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    @Patsuan: Rarely likable. Also, rarely competent. – SF. Jun 29 '17 at 16:03
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Cowardice. Villains who are bold and brave like Darth Vader have a cool factor because of their boldness and bravery. However evil their deeds, they display characteristics that we admire and would wish to possess. But the cowardly villain, the obsequious sneak like Uriah Heap or Wormtongue has not such attractive qualities.

There is a story (probably apocryphal) about a Harley Davidson executive saying something to the effect "What we sell is the ability for a forty year old accountant to ride into a small town and have people be afraid of him." It is that ability to awe people, to make them take a step back, that we would all like to have, that would make us feel powerful and respected and safe, that we admire in the cool villain.

The uncool villain is simply someone we projects no such similar properties, the villain who works by stealth and lies, but whom children would not be afraid to throw stones at if they met them in the street and knew them for what they were.

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In contrast to some (or possibly all) of the other answers, I don't think it's to do with what particular traits the villian has so much as whether they embody a consistent set of ideals (however appalling those ideals may be).

We may not exactly forgive a villian for their disregard for the other character's lives, but if they show the same disregard for their own we will more inclined to like them in spite of it. Similarly, a dishonest character willing to forgive others for their dishonesty is more likeable than one who fumes at them for lying.

I even think you can go as far as actively giving your villian virtues, just as long as you also make them a hypocrite about these virtues. A brave character who despises and belittles the bravery of those around them will probably not be very likeable, regardless of what "badass" things they personally do.

As for showing the damage the character does, this is just a matter of putting the heroes of the story (or the narrator, if nothing else) in the right place at the right time. Show what the villian does to other people's lives, while simultaniously making it clear that the villian isn't acting according to any reasonable or consistent set of values (and that the acts they perform are therefore motivated by a weakness, essentially, rather than a misguided application of strength), and I think it will be difficult for the reader to forgive or like them.

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