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Can you make a story compelling enough for a large audience if every character is evil? I thought about this, but most popular stories have some good characters, I am wondering if it's even possible to make a story compelling enough for a large audience if all of your characters are evil, and there's no good in them, not an ounce of good in them. Is this possible? And what are things you can do to make it more compelling without changing the fact that every character is evil?

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  • Would Suicide Squad count as an example of this, or are its characters too redeemable?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 12:49
  • @F1Krazy From what I've seen from the box office takes from the film, this wouldn't count. I would suggest Breaking Bad.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 19:53
  • @hszmv I was referring to the first one, which apparently made $750m. I didn't even realise the second one had bombed that badly.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 19:55

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Is it possible? - Certainly. Is it easy? - Probably not. Generally the audience is looking for someone to root for - and that can either be because they align with the character's aims, goals or motivation (i.e. they're a "good guy"), because they like the character, find the character compelling or a mixture of these.

Liking a character or finding them compelling and them being "evil" aren't mutually exclusive - and there's a wealth of successful stories out there with anti-heroes and/or villain protagonists out there to back that up. I doubt many of the millions of people who watched The Sopranos would particularly align with Tony and company morally, nor would they particularly want a criminal enterprise like that in the real world to succeed. But those people still tuned in week after week and cheered on their escapes from the efforts of law enforcemet to snare them. Why? Because they were compelling characters, interesting people in their own right through which the writers told us interesting stories.

But like I said it's not easy to pull this off - which is why you don't see many examples of it. If the writer fails to capture the audience's interest, and fails to get them to root for their characters in spite of their morality then you're going to lose the audience very quickly. So how to go about this? The best characters, regardless of their alignment are complex and layered, an evil character who is little more than a caracature who does things for "The Evilz" isn't going to make an interesting protagonist. One who does what society considers "evil", but operates by their own internally consistent code of ethics ala Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan is far easier to get behind.

Having a villain protagonist who goes up against a "bigger" evil then they are is common approach here - Dexter taking on serial killers who target innocents, but you can do without if you make the protagonists more charismatic and likeable- Danny Ocean's crew in Ocean's Eleven aren't taking on a greater evil, they're just robbing someone. But they're doing it with style and their target is a bit of a dick so we root for them.

So it's possible to have a majority of "evil" characters and still appeal to a wide audience, but can it really be that every character is evil? Here you might run into an unintended consequence - immersion breaking. It really depends on how far you take the "evil" label and how layered you characters are but everyone being evil is just as unrealistic as everyone being good. We know that things are a lot greyer than that in the real world so it's a potential pitfall to be wary of.

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There are examples of fiction where the villain of a prior work is recast in a my heroic light (i.e. Wicked, Maleficent) or where they straight up admit to being Evil but in their setting, Cartoonish Supervillainy Evil is the level of evil (Dr. Horrible Sing-A-Long Blog) or the Villain Protagonist is shown resorting to Evil to achieve a greater good (Avengers: Infinity War's directors state that Thanos was the protagonist, not the Avengers and he gets more screen time than the Big Three Avengers Characters) or the character is a tragic protagonist who's decent into evil is driven for what they believe is an objectively good reason (Walter White in Breaking Bad or Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the first two Star Wars Trilogies).

To answer your question literally, it's impossible to have a work where every character is objectively evil, because if you have a villainous protagonist, than they must have a heroic antagonist. The Heroic Antagonist can be a terrible person despite doing the right thing (In Dr. Horrible, Captain Hammer is a Superhero but has a terrible personality that is given a free pass by the public at large, who don't know him beyond his super heroics. In Breaking Bad, Hank Shrader has a personality that at the surface level makes him come off as a bit of a dick, but he's not a bad person and those that know him knows he has a "I pick on you because I care" attitude.).

However, Villainous protaganists do exist and are very possible. The trick is to make sure that what makes them work is that they do not lose audience sympathies. Going back to Walter White, when he meets Gus Fringe, the one difference is that Walter still has the people who he cares about, while Gus has lost them. They are very similar to each other in personality, but Gus is more experienced and has lost the sympathetic edge Walter has yet to loose. However, by the time the conflict resolves, Walter's lost a lot of sympathy from the audience.

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I doubt that a large audience would be interested in a story where every character is evil. Let's start by asking ourselves why a story is liked by a large audience simply because there is something to attract people, to make them want to follow some character and make them want to be in the shoes of some character. A story where everyone is evil would miss out on all these points. There won't be a role model for most people who are looking for something good.

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I can already think of two shows that pull off the "everyone is evil" trope well. Inside Job and Helluva Boss

In Inside Job everyone works for an evil Illuminati-style shadow government. In Helluva Boss, the characters are literal demons from Hell.

Let's compare. How do these shows get away with this when their protagonists are morally grey at best and pure evil at worst?

1-Despite being evil, the characters are relatable and sympathetic Reagan from Inside Job is, in essence, a mad scientist with severe anger issues. Still, she's also a hard-working businesswoman who suffers from anxiety, parental neglect, and belittlement in her work despite being the most competent member there. Blitzo from Helluva Boss is a demon but he struggles with personal insecurity, self-worth issues, and societal pressure because he is an imp, a type of demon routinely looked down on by the rest. Both characters want to make something of themselves but face constant pushback from the world around them.

2-Comedic Tone to Gloss over the Evil The tone of these series tends to be lighthearted despite the grisly subject matter. It's hard to take violence, death, or cruelty seriously when the characters treat it like it's no big deal. The world could be coming to an end and the characters would still be making funny quips. This leads me to my next point.

3-The world is so messed up that being a villain is inevitable

The world is so fundamentally broken it feels like the characters couldn't possibly be anything other than villains. In Helluva Boss you'd probably say, well, "oh they're in Hell, clearly they're not good people", but that's not the end of the story. Even Heaven is messed up. The Angels are vain and petty, slaughtering the demons at regular intervals. Humans are as evil if not worse than demons, and God is nowhere to be found, and it's still an open question as to what he or she looks like in this universe. It's possible they don't even exist.

Inside Job is no better. The Earth is hollow and filled with horrible monsters, the aforementioned shadow government vanishes people daily, and Reagan and her crew are one bad day away from ending the world on accident. It's chaos.

And with that in context, it makes the characters seem so much better in comparison. This leads to my last point.

4-The main characters aren't as bad as everybody else Reagan from Inside Job does some pretty messed up stuff, but she's still the most idealistic of the bunch. She wants to make Cognito Inc a Utopia for everybody where everyone can get along and everything runs smoothly and efficiently. The way she goes about it can be unethical sometimes but compared to the rest of the company she is an improvement. Her boss JR is greedy, uses the company as his personal piggy bank, and, worst of all, he's incompetent. Reagan actually gets things finished which is why, even as immoral as she can be at times, she's the only person to lead this place. Reagan's father is even worse, a scumbag who essentially ruined Reagan's life, which is the biggest tragedy of the whole show. If she had been raised by decent parents, she might have had a much happier life.

Blitzo from Helluva Boss has a lot of flaws and almost no boundaries when it comes to morals, but he's also, as the title suggests, a hell of a boss. He clearly cares about his workers and wants them to succeed. He's a jerk but a jerk with a heart, a rare thing to find in a place of eternal torment.

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