Sometimes I get questions about how to make an awful character (such as villains) likable. The idea of a likable villain is no surprise, since anti-heroes have been the trend lately. I think it’s an interesting subject too, since it blurs that line between good and evil. Lately I’ve been playing with the idea of redemption, and how far a character can go down that path of evil before they’re simply irredeemable, no matter how much they change and try to make amends later on.
Anyway, I digress. Making a protagonist likable is one thing, but how can you make readers like your villain—someone who does terrible things during the book?
And I don’t just mean giving them a motivation where they’re working toward a greater good (the end justifies the means kind of thing), although that’s certainly a way to make your readers feel some sympathy. For most of this article, I mean someone who is genuinely a bad person. They’re only looking to serve themselves, and the idea of “morality” can’t sway their decisions.
Creating your likable villain
Remember: not everyone will like them, no matter what you do. Everyone has different tastes. Plus, if your villain is especially despicable, it’ll be even harder to get readers to decide they’re okay, let alone likable.
When you go about creating any character, remember you standard rules. Give them solid importance in the story, for one. They need to actually work in your plot and this “likable” personality should contribute in some way. And, of course, they need to be a well-developed character overall. Flesh out their character. Give them some values and things they care about—even if they only care about themselves.
Harry Flashman: Protagonist and (arguably) Likable Villain
I’m going to explain a few features of the main character in a book called Flashman: A Novel by George MacDonald Fraser. I think a lot of these points can apply to making villains somewhat likable, even if we recognize them as awful people and are sometimes even disgusted by what they do.
The main character, Harry Flashman, is an awful, good-for-nothing kinda character. He’s a selfish coward who lies and manipulates in order to get what he wants. He even rapes a girl at one point, and throughout the novel people die because of the choices he makes. Granted, he has his limits—he doesn’t go out of his way to make people miserable; he just doesn’t care who gets hurt along his own path to success.
The thing is, no one really knows this side of him. He hides his true self, and often through sheer luck, no one finds out about the things he’s done. To everyone else, he’s a brave, upstanding young man from a well-off family. An upper-class man such as himself couldn’t possibly be a weasel underneath—at least, as far as everyone else believes. And Flashman uses this to his advantage.
1. The likable villain is your main character.
By default, your main character tends to get a little bit of automatic sympathy, just by the grace of being main character. I’m not saying it’s a free pass—you still need to work at it. But typically, readers will be willing to give your main character a bit more time to win them over. They are, after all, a sort of “ambassador” character who’s introducing us to this world, and we want to trust them to give us a good show.
2. The villain has a good sense of humor.
Flashman is a humorous narrator. Honestly, I think humor would be the easiest way to get a reader to sympathize or soften to a villain. At the same time, humor doesn’t erase any of the evil we see in them, so it doesn’t make them any less of a villain.
Another thing about Flashman’s humor… when he does poke fun at someone, it’s someone who deserves it. He’s always making fun of the pompous, incompetent people around him. This is definitely a type of humor that can win over readers, since it allows us to “side” with Flashman. We’re on the same team, because we hate the person he’s making fun of, too. However, if he picks on someone undeserving, then we just see him as a bully and probably dislike him for it.
3. The villain is… Honest. Sometimes.
In the novel, Flashman is the very definition of dishonest. He’ll say literally anything if it can benefit him in some way. That said, how he treats other character is different than how he treats the reader. Flashman is told in 1st person, and he’s very honest and open with us, the readers.
The novel is written as if he’s talking to us and telling us the story, and he’s a lot more honest with the reader than he is as a character. He readily admits to us that he’s a lying coward, even though he puts on a show for the other characters in the novel. This helps build a bit of relationship specifically between Flashman and the reader, since he opens up to us in a way he doesn’t for anyone else.
4. The villain redeeming qualities, and/or is highly skilled.
Flashman is smart and clever. His quick thinking gets him out of a lot of really sticky, really scary situations. Even though we know he’s awful, at times we can’t help but feel a grudging respect for how often he manages to wiggle out of even the worst situations. A lot of times the people he escapes from are just as bad–if not worse–than Flashman himself, so we’re happy to see him escape.
We like a character who shows a lot of skill in an area or two. They seem almost “superhuman” in a way and worthy of admiration. It gives us someone to cheer for.
SEE ALSO: The 7 Traits of Enduring Characters. That list can help your villains stand out, too!
5. The villain is not as big of a jerk as he could have been.
Let’s be honest. If you’ve set a really low moral bar for your villain, then even the tiniest of mercies makes you go “Wow, he didn’t kill her! Maybe he has a heart after all.”
Of course, we shouldn’t be praising someone for NOT killing someone (that should be expected). But when your character slaughters a village but spares a single family, it’s a bit touching. (Also—this is not a reference to Harry Flashman. He didn’t slaughter an entire village, and honestly, I don’t think even he would go that far in his moral ambiguity.)
In the novel, Harry Flashman is a British officer (and someone who bought his way into a respected rank, of course). He was sent abroad to assist in British colonialism in India and the Middle East. But even though colonialism by itself is an awful thing (basically enslaving the native people), he handles it differently that most others. For one, he actually cares about learning the native language and culture. He tries to learn their ways, as opposed to higher-up officers who have lived abroad for YEARS and still don’t speak a word for the native language. He treats the natives like fellow human beings (for the most part).
Granted, he doesn’t do it out of the goodness of his rotten heart. It’s just in his best interests to learn language and culture, since being able to blend in might help him (and does help him) get out of sticky situations. But still, I felt it made him a bit more sympathetic to see him take a step in the right direction, regardless of intention. He even gave some political commentary about why colonialism never works out in the long run, and that the lack of willingness to adopt to the local culture is most of it.
6. The villain offers a different perspective.
This leads me into the last point. In order to get by as he does (a wolf in sheep’s skin, almost) he needs to be observant. He only gets away with this stuff because of the flaws that exist in British imperialistic society—something he fully recognizes. He’s fully aware that what he’s doing is wrong (he just doesn’t care) but he also knows there are people who get away with much worse simply because of Victorian society’s priority of values.
He recognizes the competent and good types as being good—the ones who should be in charge—and thinks poorly of the people currently in charge, who can’t do anything right. The British officers leading the army in India and the Middle East either bought their way in, or were given the title because of their social standing. As such, they’re completely incompetent. One general ends up being the cause of thousands of deaths. Even Flashman is disgusted by how things turned out because of that general.
He comments on how much more successful British colonialism would be if only the generals learned the language and culture. Not only would it make it easier for the British to rule, but it also wouldn’t be nearly as awful for the natives. (I’m not implying it would be peaches and daisies for the natives, just that it would have been a little less awful if the natives could keep their culture, religion, way of life, maybe even a few people in the local government, etc).
There’s also the question of character motivation.
Flashman doesn’t really have a motivation, other than staying alive, but that’s another area you should consider. What’s your main character’s motivation in all this? Does he just kill people for fun, or is there some other small reason for it? Does he do it to feel powerful? Does he do it out of vigilante justice? How does he get away with the things he does?
You should avoid making him “the manifestation of true evil” if you want to make him semi-likable villain. If he’s nothing but pure evil, that makes him a rather flat and boring character. And it’s really hard to like someone who’s just plain boring. Give him some lines that even he won’t cross. Have him make judgments and have opinions of good/evil about other characters.
A motivation is really important. Even if on the surface he doesn’t care about anything, there should be a secret motivation underneath.
Even for someone like the Joker I would argue that he has a bit of motivation. He wants to create chaos for the fun, certainly, but I think he’s usually interested in the social experiment side of it, too. Perhaps his motivation is to bring out the worst in people, or prove that people are naturally evil/selfish (I’ve only seen the movies so if he acts differently in other medias, sorry for the bad example).
I also have a semi-villain that’s likable, in a way. (One beta reader fell in love with him, at least.) This character is apathetic about everything and even kills people “for entertainment,” but there’s more to it than just “he’s an awful person.” He had chosen the path of a demon by his own free will, and used to be excited about it. But when he started to regret it, he just gave up and stopped caring about anything since you can’t really go back once you’ve turned into a demon. He’s stuck with his situation. So, he adopted a “make the best out of it, I suppose” stance on things and kept killing people out of habit. It’s what demons are supposed to do, after all, and he decided to keep playing along.
Back to you
Overall, villains can be a lot of fun. Plus, you know what they say—a story is only as good as it’s villain. If this is the kind of villain you want to write, then I really recommend that you grab a copy of Flashman: A Novel. It’s an easy read and really humorous… even though there were times I disapproved of Flashman’s choices. If you end up liking the book, there’s an entire series of them so you can keep reading.
Do you have any villains that blur the line between likable and unlikable? What tactics do you use to shape how your reader views them?