Today I’ll be talking about characters you love to hate! Or is that characters you should hate but love? The answer, my readers, is: Yes.
So, everyone knows their own reasons for liking a characters. Could be personality, abilities, design. Could be a snappy one-liner or an achievement you really loved. There are characters we love wholeheartedly, and ones we despise and want to see dead.
But somewhere out there, some characters occupy a sweet spot, a mix of antagonism and admiration. Whatever it is, they share one thing with the characters that matter to you: You enjoy watching them.
First off, I think it’s pretty pointless to go into the types of love-to-hate characters out there. After all, any character is what they are, and only you can decide whether you think you’re supposed to like them or not. From charismatic villains to annoying government liaisons, you could like them for who they are, what they do, or what they personally remind you of. Like, say, your loving but hilariously politically incorrect uncle.
However, amidst all that variety, I can offer two main schools of thought behind our enjoyment.
The first is that we love to hate them.
The second is that we should hate them, but we love them instead.
So what do THOSE mean?
It’s Good To Be Bad
So, here’s the main idea. You KNOW these guys are bad. You KNOW they deserve to go down. You have SEEN it and you are all aboard with what the creators had in mind. You WANT them to meet justice. But somehow…you enjoy seeing them be horrible? And…judging them for it?
Call it pulling it off with style. Call it being invested in the plot. Somehow, there are characters you very plainly LOVE to HATE. Sometimes, it’s a simple hate: You see bad thing, you want good thing to win. And other times, it’s a hate that gives you purpose. Antagonism so driven, so invested, so disproportionate, that it transcends rational thought and becomes…neeeeeeerd raaaaage. The sort that burns longest, clings tightest, the sort which promises catharsis when you are vindicated. The sort of hate where you’d happily burn if you could take them with you. Where you can exclaim HA! YOU WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG! Loooooong after the point where it is healthy.
You could have all sorts of reasons to feel that way about all sorts of characters. Maybe they did something horrible to your favourites, or they represent an idea you abhor. But whatever it is, believe it or not, there ARE some similarities. Or, at the very least, common threads in their standing, behaviour, and creation.
First off, they strike a sort of balance between Monster and Villain. There’s some sense of being mean enough that we want them to pay, but not so abominable that we can’t stand watching them. And THAT is vital to the ‘love to hate’ part: They haven’t done something that crosses THE LINE in our minds, despite the many other lines they’ve crossed. And because of that, we can still ENJOY hating them or looking forward to their comeuppance. Bear in mind, though, these ‘standards’ are far from fixed, changing from person to person and from franchise to franchise. For instance, we might be utterly disgusted with Pointless Anime Villain killing even a single waifu in cold blood, but totally fine with Game of Thrones nobles poisoning and backstabbing left and right. Guess if the world gets Grimdark enough, our standard of morality tends to drop.
Another factor is, surprisingly, a lack of internal conflict or even depth. We’re talking Scooby-Doo, villain-of-the-week, “tear down the orphanage and build a toxic pollution factory because I love the tears of children” levels of motivation. They vary in actual alignment or motive, but at the end of the day, most share this quality: They don’t think much about their motives, and they don’t feel the need to justify it. And sure enough, the moment a villain tries to give a sob story or to oversell the nobility of the cause, that’s the surest path to send the message of “Feel sorry for me! Love me!” to the audience, which never works unless they’re compelling and charismatic. These guys, on the other hand, have no doubts when it comes to the thing we hate them for. And some of us find that honesty refreshing.
To be sure, it’s not that we have to LIKE them. Often it’s quite the opposite. But whether our hate is a simple longing for the payoff, or a holy mission in our lives as fans, the point is that it’s a feeling and a character we still like seeing enough to keep engaging.
It’s Bad To Be Good
So that’s characters we love to hate. But what about those we should hate, but love?
Now, THESE are easier to imagine. The noble villain, the bombastic boss, the utterly coooooool antagonists. Unlike the guys you love to hate, these are guys you sincerely CHEER for. But why cheer for them? Of course, there are the usual reasons that an author will try and get on purpose. Good characterisation, complex morality, decent writing, a deliberately memorable design and conflict. If you’re imagining a guy you should hate but should love, odds are you’re imagining a masked villain with a billowing cape and ALL the best lines. Darth Vader, Dr. Doom, or Golbez from FFIV, take your pick. Equally possible you could enjoy them because of the reasons in the last mindset: They don’t overthink things and unabashedly love being bad.
But there are also reasons beyond the author’s control. Maybe the author didn’t imagine them as deep or interesting, but wrote them in a way which massively entertains the audience, and their fame spiraled out of control. Maybe they’re preferred because those they’re fighting are much worse. And sure, that happens on purpose sometimes, when you set them up as the first enemy only to have them join forces against an even worse foe. But more likely, it happens if we prefer them over the something that’s central to the story. Usually, that means the main cast; if they’re dull, annoying, or outright reprehensible, it tends to send audiences into the arms of the enemy camp. But it can also be the tone and message of the story; if people hate a story for being dull, soulless, and pretentious, seeing a bombastic, honest “anarchic tyrant uncomprehending of life’s deeper facets” can be a breath of fresh air.
Yes, it’s a shame, but that’s often the first and greatest reason for the crowd to turn to the thing you made for them to hate: They simply hate everything else you wrote even worse. All your efforts to painstakingly craft a world and cast true to your vision of what matters, fallen to their polar opposite.
So that covers the main mindsets behind our love-to-hate or love-instead-of-hate reasons. And in case you think I’m overthinking things (I most certainly am, and I’m most certainly crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong!), lemme point out some actual examples to make my point. And funnily enough, they can apply to both.
Star Wars. Palpatine, the Sith, the Empire, they do bad things. Kill planets and mentors, take over governments, they outright make power and domination their ways of life. But we can love to hate them because they’re so unapologetically evil that they’re honest, refreshing and enjoyable, and also it becomes very satisfying to see them defeated, since we care about seeing their victims avenged.
On the other hand, we can also root for them for real for a number of reasons, from their awesome designs, powers, and lines, to something as petty as “Because I think the Jedi Order is idiotic and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And contrary to your average would-be-know-it-all nerd chalking it up to bad writing and stupidity in portraying their motives as stilted and ignorant, The Clone Wars more succinctly points out that this was the whole point of the prequels. For yes; it is entirely possible that an author made you dislike the good guys (GASP) intentionally!
Or for that matter, there’s Snape in Harry Potter, the very poster boy of flipflopping antagonism and biting wit. For every fan who hates his antagonistic, suspicious nature and longs for the day he’s exposed as a ‘fraud’, there are fans who are sick of the Potter Trio and love it when he puts them in their place. Not least of which is due to the fact that as children, we hate mean people. As adults, we LOVE sarcasm and not having to play nice with entitled brats.
Each of these shows you the different things motivating fans. A sense of finding something cool, or of simply really disliking what they’re against. And on the other side of the equation, we have antagonists which don’t really explain themselves that much, but also keep their ‘evil’ vague enough that we aren’t outright disgusted. And of course, who can pull it off with style. They can do this in many different ways, from being awesome to being sticks in the mud (hey, I know people who enjoy the government workers reprimanding the Avengers because they’re so cranky).
The author may not be dead, but it just goes to show you the independence of an audience. Don’t let vastly conflicting views get you down, though. They’re a valuable source of input and show people of different worldviews care enough to discuss your work. Work with it and grow from it if you can. But at the end of the day, what matters is that YOU have a vision of your work which can guide you.
And hey, with that vision, YOU can play with these expectations, too. From making the protagonist clearly a villain, to creating ‘heroes’ who are deliberately dogmatic. Shifting loyalties, or firm loyalties marred by asshole behaviour. Things which aren’t just “make some flaws because people hate flawless things,” but which actively mess with expectations.
Sure, audiences hate it if you’re trying TOO hard, whether it’s in getting them to love, hate, or even love-to-hate something. But you’re not doing it for them; you’re doing it because that ambiguity and diversity, tempered with hope and likeability? That’s what makes for great characters, worlds, and stories.