I'm midway through a Masters in Creative Writing. My tutor recently told me (something like): each character deserves a chance to be liked by the reader.

I didn't want people to like the particular character I was working on and so it got me to wondering about the circumstances around thoroughly despicable characters.

When I think about it, I don't even know if it's advisable to write such a character. I mean, it seems to be that there are always extenuating circumstances and excuses and evil-happenings-in-childhood that can make the character someone a reader can sympathise with - no matter what the character does. But still, I'd like to write an irredeemable character.

So, under what circumstances is it okay to write a thoroughly despicable character with no redeemable qualities?

Just to clarify - I don't need to know how to write complete monsters because I can do that already. What I'm asking is when is it okay to write a complete monster in terms of producing a story that will get a good reaction from readers.

  • Possible duplicate of How to write a Complete Monster? – Galastel May 24 at 11:30
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    Thanks for your comment, @Galastel - I don't need to know how to write complete monsters because I can do that already. What I'm asking is when is it okay to write a complete monster in terms of writing a story that will get a good reaction from readers. – robertcday May 24 at 11:36
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    Oh, OK. You do say you're not sure it's possible to write such a character... "Possible duplicate" isn't meant as criticism - you can't be expected to know all the questions on the site. That's hardly feasible. It's meant as a query - did you find your answer there, or do you need something different. Thanks for clarifying that! – Galastel May 24 at 11:44
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    imo a character without redeemable qualities or a good backstory why or colourful sidekick seems pretty boring. Such a character would have next to zero character growth, nothing to put in constrast with. There would hardly be any conflict and his motives and actions predictable. But then again, I know nothing, it is just my humble opinion.. – Totumus Maximus May 24 at 12:03
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    @robertcday a example I like here is sherlock holmes and dr watson. Sherlock is not really the most likeable of characters but gets counter acted by the character that is dr watson. No matter in which way your character acts a sidekick, someone who sticks to this character without question, can explain or even counter the negative effects it might have on your readers. Be it through sound reasoning or comedy. Make the character 'save the cat' in the most despicable way and let the side-kick explain why by being a more 'normal' person. This will connect with the reader better. Again imo though. – Totumus Maximus May 24 at 12:28

10 Answers 10

Evil-happenings-in-childhood and similar "extenuating circumstances" are a trope referred to as a Freudian Excuse (TV Tropes link). The main problem with this trope is what it implies: because character suffered whatever. it is now OK for them to do Bad Thing. Ergo, it is OK for anyone who suffered whatever to do Bad Thing. Ergo, anyone who suffered whatever can be expected to do Bad Thing, and cannot be blamed for it. Accepting the validity of the Freudian Excuse deprives the person who suffered whatever of free will, de-facto dehumanising them, making them "heroes" just for not doing Bad Thing and acting like normal people instead. It also lowers the morality bar, making Bad Thing acceptable if one can offer a Freudian Excuse for it.
This is extremely offensive to those who have suffered either whatever or Bad Thing in real life. Also, it is a fallacy: everyone has had some sort of negative experience. Anything can be used as a Freudian Excuse. Which would make the acceptability of any crime a matter of rhetoric - can the criminal (or someone on his behalf) tell a sob story to offer a Freudian Excuse? THIS IS BAD.

Despicable people exist. There is nothing redeemable about a serial rapist, a mass murderer, a child molester, a terrorist. They might love their mothers, or their little daughters, or they might save a drowning puppy - those are Pet the Dog (TV Tropes link) moments. They do not redeem a character. If played right, they make a character more monstrous. Compare minion-killing, randomly-sadistic, manic-laughter bad-movie Dark Lord to real-life Doctor Mengele:

He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire ... And then, next to that, ... the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. (Source)

Which one of them gives you the chills? And which one is a caricature?

The thing is, real-life monsters don't spend 24/7 being randomly Evil. If they were, it would have been easy. But instead, they still love their mothers, they still look and act like humans most of the time, so you look and wonder how this charming kind doctor could be doing these things. It's almost incomprehensible. And yet, there it is.

So when is it OK to write someone who is completely irredeemable? When the crime is irredeemable, when you know it to be the act of a monster, you face it with honesty and integrity as a writer: you do not shy away from passing judgement. You do not pretend there are excuses and extenuating circumstances. You make any "Pet the Dog" moments, any "positive" traits, your tools in revealing the face of a monster rather than means to make the monster appear human. Anything less, and you belittle the monstrosity of the act, you hide away from what you have written and cheapen it.

tl;dr: When you write a monstrous act (such as mass murder, serial rape and worse), do it the decency of looking at the monster and calling him a monster.

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    It it permissible to say that I am now in awe, @Galastel? That is such a powerful piece of writing you have just produced - I can feel your emotion. It makes me feel ashamed of the 'devil's advocate' nature of the third paragraph of my question - I'm sorry, I should make that clearer, right? So much for me to learn. – robertcday May 24 at 12:29
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    @galastel This...is brilliant. Standing ovation – Josh May 24 at 15:02
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    @xDaizu When society automatically expects less of you, and treats you just being normal as an achievement, it implies that you're less. When an adult human being is capable of using the toilet, it's normal and expected. When a monkey does the same, it's an achievement. And you're right about tvtropes - I'll edit straight away. :) – Galastel May 24 at 16:33
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    But, on the same principle, let’s keep in mind the important distinction between a pedophile (someone with an involuntary attraction that might be used as an excuse to do bad things) and a child molester (someone who does those bad things). – Davislor May 25 at 5:32
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    @Davislor You're quite right. Corrected it. – Galastel May 25 at 9:17

I am not sure what "under what circumstances..." is supposed to mean.

Whenever you want!

IRL violent psychopaths are perhaps 0.1% of the population, one in 1000. With about 3 billion adults on the planet, there are about 3 million of them in the world, and unfortunately for us their IQs follow the same bell curve as everybody else. So about 1% of that 3M are are also extremely intelligent violent psychopaths, smart enough to get away with their crimes. That is 30,000 of them in the world.

Naturally the chances of some random individual encountering such a person are rare, they are 1 in 100,000 people. But we do interact with hundreds of people in our lifetimes, so there is a chance, and these 30,000 adult, smart, violent psychopaths are all going through life victimizing one person after another for their own personal gain or pleasure.

Focusing a story on ONE of them is not implausible, and they ARE irredeemable! Recent plausible medical explanations are they are born with brain malformations that simply cannot be corrected, they are missing the linkages that make empathy, sympathy and guilt possible at all. Their behavior does not have to be founded in some childhood trauma, a violent psychopath is born that way and no amount of love or kindness can change them.

Your creative writing professor is wrong (and as a university professor myself I have no problem questioning the reasoning of another). People like stories of irredeemable evil, they recognize it in their own lives (generally from afar) and know it exists IRL. Some are terrified of it; some have experienced it or personally know someone that has (I know at least two).

Go ahead and write it. Make them strong enough and clever enough and ruthless enough to scare the crap out of readers, it will make their demise that much more deserved.

  • I wouldn't necessarily call them brain malformations. A lack of empathy, sympathy, and guilt can benefit the person in many ways. They have no place in my mind; I can do things for others when I choose and don't want a nagging voice. Plus, of course, to the person with those "malformations", they most likely would rather be the way they are than be more typical; meaning their brain is perfectly fine because it's how they want it to be. Declaring certain mental/physical conditions as "correct", regardless of the preferences of the person, is intrusive. How your mind "should" be is up to you. – flarn2006 May 25 at 20:17
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    @flarn2006 No, they are distinct failures and missing nerves within the brain. Psychopathy does indeed tend to give some individuals an advantage in competitive acquisition of power and wealth, but the cost to psychopaths is something the vast majority of people would consider horrific: An absence of all the human experience of love (of every kind). Ultimately, a word like "malformation" must depend on what the majority of people consider good or bad or neutral, and the vast majority of people will consider that lack a defect, like born mental retardation, blindness, or other disability. – Amadeus May 25 at 21:05
  • Re: "they ARE irredeemable" I would argue that it's possible for a sociopath to still want/try to do the right thing, even though they feel no empathy for others or disgust at violence. In fact, the popular I Am Not A Serial Killer series features a fascinating protagonist in this exact situation. – MGOwen May 26 at 7:30
  • @MGOwen They may, and we have IRL some soldiers and cops and spies on the side of good with clinical signs of intelligent psychopathy; a much diminished fear response (evidenced in heartbeat, galvanic skin response), an ability to tickle themselves (result of a lack of a certain kind of feedback path), etc. The "irredeemable" are those that have turned to violence and crime for selfish gain or pleasure. – Amadeus May 26 at 17:32
  • @Amadeus I disagree. I think what constitutes a "malformation" depends solely on what the person in question considers good/bad/neutral, even if the vast majority of people disagree. A "malformation" simply means something isn't as it should be, right? If you're saying that what constitutes a "malformation" depends on everyone's opinion, not just my own, then you're saying that my body isn't solely my own to dictate, or in other words that my body "should" be how a majority of people think it should be, even if that goes against my own wishes. Is that really what you're trying to argue? – flarn2006 May 30 at 19:39

A thoroughly despicable character with no redeemable qualities can be absolutely likeable.

Avoid conflating the notion of likeable with any form of goodness. Plenty of irredeemably monstrous characters are relatable in one way or another. We can potentially become fascinated with, and by extension, like, any character trait that resonates with us. Particularly if:

  • the traits result in actions which, if not necessarily predictable, make some sort of cohesive sense in the context of the character.
  • those traits are combined to create a novel personality that makes us feel something differently, or more strongly than usual - including loathing, disgust, and, especially, fear.

Consider Anton Chigurh, the assassin from No Country for Old Men. He kills coldly and brutally, and we are offered no real hints about his "backstory" that might provide insight into his chosen profession, methods, or indifference to death and suffering. Yet he is a popular villain. This owes in part to the slow reveal, over the course of the story, of his attitude and moral code.

The reader is permitted to build a sufficient (if not complete) picture of his nature, and by the end of the story we get him. He believes that he acts as an instrument of fate; going so far, from time to time, as allowing a coin flip to dictate whether or not he takes a life. Despite this, the reader is likely to feel that Chigurh is less random a killer than others, that we have a strong sense of how he might behave in a particular situation. It is clear that his philosophy is the result of substantial thought and consideration, even if its internal logic is alien to us.

On the contrary, a villain who lacks both novelty and complexity isn't much of a character at all - rather they represent a hurdle to be overcome (or succumbed to) by the protagonists, the way a natural disaster might. And like a natural disaster, if a villain is truly banal, the details might be best omitted, so that the unimportant parts of the story do not compete for the reader's attention.

All people, I think, can be redeemed. Even the most horrendous murderer deserves a chance at forgiveness. But what makes a character irredeemable is when they are given the shot at redemption, when they are given a chance to become good, but then... they don't. They consistently and constantly choose to continue down a path which they know hurts other people.

Our actions have consequences. Doing something that is evil is, quite plainly, evil. And as Galastel rightly points out, it doesn't matter if you are a nice person in many respects, or whether you like children and animals, or if you had a rough childhood. So what if your mother died when you're a kid. Cry me a river. Everyone's lost something. That doesn't excuse the fact that you have done something wrong. But doing wrong is also a choice. And no matter what we may have chosen in the past, we can always choose to do better.

We can choose to be good, or we can choose to be evil. It is the mark of a hero to do good, even in the most difficult of circumstances. No matter their past, no matter the tragedies which may have shaped them, what makes them heroic is that they make a conscious effort to do the right thing.

But many people don't. They do something bad and then they say, "Oh well, it's not my fault, it's just the way I was brought up." They don't care about the fact they are hurting other people with their actions. Instead they excuse their ill-deeds by painting themselves as the victims. And perhaps deep down we all want to be victims. We don't want to be held responsible for our own bad choices. But doing bad is still bad, and it can harm people even when we don't realize it.

So while I think that everyone has the potential to be redeemed, sometimes it can be an equally powerful message to have someone not be redeemed. Because evil is evil and if you consistently choose to act in a way that harms other, then you should have to face the consequences of those actions. It is a powerful message to show the reader: that something is WRONG. And if you continue down this path, knowing all the while that it is wrong, then it really is irredeemable.

So in the end, an irredeemable villain can perhaps make us more conscious of our own choices and actions, and encourage us to do good.

There is a phrase that I picked up somewhere and integrated into my life. It helps tremendously with interpersonal relations, but it works for writing as well:

Nobody is the villain of their own life story.

Everyone, even the outwardly most evil person, has some internal logic behind their actions, and could probably explain to you why they are actually the good guys. It doesn't matter which Hitler, Stalin or today Warlord, Terrorist or from history, tyrannical king, child-abusing pope you pick - inside their own minds, they have good reasons for what they do and the best intentions.

This will be true for your unlikeable character as well. I believe what your tutor means is that unless that core belief shines through somewhere, your character will feel Hollywood-style one-dimensional. There is going to be some angle to his story where he can rationalize himself as being right, just or at least doing-what-needs-to-be-done-for-the-greater-good.

  • +1 though I feel there's one nuance worth stressing: with some people, it's less "I have good reasons and the best intentions with a greater good in mind" and more "I genuinely see nothing wrong with me pursuing what's best for me without regard for others". Though they are very rare, few of them admit that except maybe privately/anonymously after they realize how much people dislike that attitude, and hard to write well because not seeing other people/minds are being fundamentally worth anything and feeling no reflexive empathy is alien to most readers. – mtraceur May 25 at 18:28

Any time it furthers the purpose of your writing.

When you write, you're doing it for something - maybe you've got an idea burning in your mind and you feel compelled to put it into writing, maybe you're trying to make the reader feel something or think about a topic, maybe you just enjoy creating a story.

So identify that purpose, and then decide whether or not "a thoroughly despicable character with no redeemable qualities" serves it.

In general, characters like that play a useful role in:

  1. Stories where the despicable character serves as a force or influence on the characters your story actually focuses on.

    Example: Harry Potter: Voldemort does much that's despicable, and the story works just as well whether or not the reader feels he has redeemable qualities. And even though his backstory is explored and there is a suggestion that to some extent he may have been the product of his circumstances, and he is clearly portrayed as a gifted, resourceful, and competent wizard, and the books strongly suggest that he could choose to stop generally doing evil things, he chooses to keep on his path to the very end, so many readers can walk away still not liking Voldemort.

  2. Stories where the intent is to cause emotions like fear or dread, or to explore the space of how we normal humans cope with and interact with the "monster" humans. Sometimes you can't invoke those feelings if the "monster" is relatable or likable or even understandable.

    Example: If I kidnap you, and tell you I'm just holding you for ransom and explain that it's because Nana's in the hospital with ovarian cancer and I already lost my mom when I was young to the same thing and I just can't bear to go through that again - that invokes a completely different feeling than if I tell you that I'm just a sadist, sucks to be you, oh check out this drill, it's about to go in your knee-cap. And quite the emotional roller coaster if I tell you the former but then act like the latter.

  3. Stories where the focus isn't the exploration of the despicable character, but their effects on the world and on people.

    Example: If you're exploring the damage of and recovery from child sexual abuse, your child-raping character doesn't need to (and indeed probably ought not) be explored for redeeming qualities. (There can be stories that meaningfully explore both, but they're extremely hard to pull off, will enrage countless people for merely daring to exist, and the purpose for such stories is more nuanced and different than the purpose given in this example.)

Regarding your advisor's advice:

Each character deserves the chance to be liked by the reader

To me this doesn't mean they can't be despicable, or that they need to have redeemable qualities.

It just means you have to give the reader enough insight into the character to allow them to make the judgement call about the character for themselves.

A "complete monster" will fail their "audition" to all or most readers: what you're not supposed to do is skip the audition entirely - at least, if you want the character to be a real character, a fleshed out being.

But a character doesn't have to be a character.

You can of course also have characters who are just anthropomorphized forces or play a role more as symbols rather than as people. They won't "make sense" to the same careful inspection that a fully fleshed out character does, but they're arguably not supposed to.

The Joker is generally held to be an effective villain in Batman stories in part because he mostly plays the role of a philosophical rejection of much that the protagonist stands for, and generally is a chaotic unpredictable opposing force. He invokes a wide range of emotions in the audience, but mostly while staying in the rather despicable territory in most of his appearances.

Now that said, note that "despicable" and "redeemable" are subjective.

For every well-developed character, no matter how despicable and irredeemable to the vast majority of humanity, you will eventually find a mind which will not agree with your assessment that your character ought not be liked.

Ask yourself why you don't want your readers to like the character. Really take a look at why you don't want the character to be liked by anyone: This will probably help put into focus why you want to write the given story a given way, besides being just good self-awareness mental hygiene.

As a parting exercise:

  1. Read and consider the short story The Things.
  2. The consider and compare the story of The Thing (1982).

Think about how neither story works quite the same if you were to bring the characterization from one into the other. Think about how having read the first story might change a reader's assessment of how "despicable" or more "redeemable" antagonists like the one in the second might be.

I think this will help you determine more precisely whether a story needs "a thoroughly despicable character with no redeemable qualities", or conversely must not go that route, or when a story can tolerate ambiguity on that point.

  • Your reference to Voldermort, Harry thought he had a chance at redemption and gave him that chance. Sure he didn't take it, but part of his reason for doing so was a one people can relate to - a fear of death. People will try a lot of things to prolong their life, he just went about it the wrong way. I think if people can relate to a character in some as, they might see them as redeemable to an extent. Dolores Umbridge, on the other hand I find to be completely despicable, but someone else might relate to her and think her redeemable. – gabe3886 May 25 at 11:16
  • @gabe3886 I agree - can you suggest how I could tweak the wording to make that clearer? The latter I addressed directly towards the end with ""no matter how despicable and irredeemable to the vast majority of humanity, you will eventually find a mind which will not agree with your assessment that your character ought not be liked.". As for Voldy, the semantic fuzz around "redeemable" and "redeeming qualities" here is part of the problem: in the context of OP's question, are they intended to mean a character's theoretical potential for redemption, or (cont.) – mtraceur May 25 at 17:57
  • (part 2) ..the actual totality of the character's choices? I presume the latter was what OP was thinking of, and in that sense Voldy never tried redeeming himself and stood by his whole world domination path, un-bothered by leaving a wake of murder and suffering affecting thousands by his actions. The example was that the majority of the HP story works regardless of whether Voldy is or isn't seen as irredeemable or despicable, since that's what OP was asking about. (But personally I find Voldy's aspirations to both immortality and limitless power relatable and don't blame the guy for trying.) – mtraceur May 25 at 18:13
  • @gabe3886 Thanks to your comment, I've edited the wording of my Voldemort example to put clearer focus more on how it relates to OP's question about when a character works even if they're seen as despicable or lacking in redeeming traits, and less about whether or not Voldy is redeemable. – mtraceur May 25 at 18:44

I would say your tutor is right. But in a similar way I would say, he is not. I would lie to say I wouldn't like a highly sociophatic villian, that is a genius of the evil side and puts the protagonist in pretty much trouble. But it depends on his character if you like him or not.

Basic example is Dr. Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes. His genius is terrible high and he is a worthy foe for Holmes. I love his character under all villians. But on the other side, let's take an example like Joffrey Baratheon from Song of Ice and Fire. I haven't met anyone who liked him. He is one of the few villians you can't understand and like, either way you look at it.

So it is hard to say, that every character should be liked. There are some, who are so absolute cruel, you didn't like them, either way you look at it (childhood trauma, evil-happening or not). It depends on what you want to achive with your story, and especially the reader in the end. Do you want a purely statisfied reader, make a monster and let them enjoy his end. If you want to make an epic tale, you need a Moriarty-kind of character, who is evil, but on some side you vow for an epic showdown between him and the protagonist.

I would like to point to the Villian Thanos from the Avengers: Infinity War movie that came out recently. And apologies for spoilers, but it was the fastest movie to reach $1 billion so I doubt many readers have not seen it.

Long story short, the film is more about Thanos than the Avengers. His stated goal is to kill half the population of the entire known universe... go big or go home... and while it's assumed that the vast majority of the people watching the film are opposed to this plan, they understand the considerable pain Thanos goes through in an attempt to accomplish this goal. By the films end, Thanos has lost all but one of his adopted children and is able to sympathize with someone who has lost an important person in their own life. The villain is a true threat to the heroes and pushes many to the breaking point and yet, when we see the Thanos weep, its understandable. You can be opposed to his goal and still find his humanity.

I don't agree that all characters need to be likable. Take Joffrey in Game of Thrones (I've only seen the HBO shows, not read the books). He is absolutely despicable, we can't stand him.

  • Good example! Just a heads up, I know several people who like the show but have only had time to get through the very early seasons, and who are spoiler averse. I would recommend putting the part after "He was absolutely despicable, and" into the spoiler tag this site provides, which hides the text unless by default. – mtraceur May 25 at 18:19

If the character or the actions of a character have a pivotal role in the story, I guess it helps to shed the narrative spotlight on this character. Novel-sized projects can accommodate many points of view, and as long as you don't dwell on the despicable character or you establish this character's place firmly in the story universe, you'll be ok.

Personally, I rarely have time to say much about despicable characters in my stories. At an author's conference, I was stunned to realize that none of my stories had villains. This wasn't any conscious choice, just that my stories didn't require this kind of character.

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