Why Hypocrites Make Excellent Antagonists

Why Hypocrites Make Excellent AntagonistsWriters are often tempted to think they need to make their antagonists as evil as possible. Serial killers, megalomaniacs, and sadists are all common—and effective—characters. Without question, they evoke fear and disgust from readers. However, sometimes the most hatable characters are those that are slightly less evil and infinitely more hypocritical.

Charles Dickens, who offers us a panoply of antagonistic variation, demonstrates this aptly in two of his dramatic novels: Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Both books feature unquestionably evil characters, particularly the blackmailing lawyer Josiah Tulkinghorn in Bleak House and the French murderer Rigaud in Little Dorrit.

Josiah Tulkinghorn Charles Dance Bleak House Charles Dickens

Rigaud Little Dorrit Andy Serkis Charles Dickens

Both are excellent characters and chilling antagonists in their own right. And yet, both books feature lesser antagonists who garnered a much larger share of my hatred:

  • Harold Skimpole, in Bleak House, is a selfish, lazy fop who manipulates his friends into paying his debts, all the while declaring himself as innocent as a child.

Harold Skimpole Nathaniel Parker Bleak House Charles Dickens

  • William Dorrit, father of the title character in Little Dorrit, insists that he and his family forget about their past in a debtor’s prison, even to the extent of neglecting those who secured their release.

William Dorrit

Arguably, neither Skimpole nor Mr. Dorrit cause as much damage as Tulkinghorn and Rigaud, but because their misdeeds and injustices are perpetrated against those closest to them and under the guise of respectability, they are both reprehensible.

Perhaps because their crimes are ones most of us can understand better than those of the larger antagonists, they are also powerful in their familiarity. These are very human characters, all the more interesting because their brand of evil is not black and white, and perhaps all the more hatable because we can all relate to them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you feature any hypocritical antagonists in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. A very useful tip. Sometimes the minor villians are actually creepier.

  2. These are very human characters, all the more interesting because their brand of evil is not black and white, and perhaps all the more hatable because we can all relate to them.

    Excellent point. We want characters we can relate to, or attempt to understand. Pure evil is a bit OTT.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  3. Even with the most heinous villain, he has to have good motivation for his crimes. In my WIP, for instance, one villain discovered as a child about his pastor father’s infidelity. His anger is understandable but out of control, hence his action to punish.

  4. @Galadriel: Yes, they definitely can be – perhaps because we feel like we have more room to play around with them?

    @Terry: The best villains in literature are usually those who have some redemptive traits and whom we *almost* want to like.

    @Bonnie: William Dorrit is a particularly good example of this. His actions are inexcusable, but his reasons are entirely understandable.

  5. Writing a Mr. Dorrit character can be scary as we don’t have to look far to find the traits to write. Food for thought there.

  6. The best villains are those that have just as much of ourselves in them as do our heroes.

  7. If you watch the commentary for the first Narnia movie, they talk about deciding how the White Witch should be played, and how they agreed that inconsistency can be the most frightening for a child.

    Combine that with the points you make, and it seems they’re frightening for just about anybody.

    And it’s not just the hypocrisy; expectations play into it as well. You expect monsters to be scary and evil, not lawmen or parents (unless you’re super cynical of course). When they are, it’s even more frightening.

  8. Excellent point about expectations. The White Witch is a good example, especially since Tilda Swinton played her so brilliantly.

  9. Great post. Good thought to keep in mind. It’s hard to make villains *almost* likable, but if they are just pure evil, a writer runs the risk of creating an unbelievable character, and ripping the reader out of their fictional world.

  10. It’s my opinion that really good bad guys are harder to create than really good good guys.

  11. Ohhh… This is an excellent point that has the gears in my head turning. I do hate a hypocrite in real life, that’s for darn sure!

  12. Dickens gave us one of the most marvelously hatable hypocrites in literature in another of his books, Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, the character even had a word coined after him: Pecksniffian.

  13. I love hypocritical bad guys. They’re just awesome–so much more “bad-guyish” than straight-up evil characters. Love ’em.

  14. What an interesting post! Makes you appreciate the quality of subtlety in good characterization, and is a reminder that complex characters are often more effective than black-and-white ones.

  15. Great post! There’s a reason that hypocrites are the most savored souls in The Screwtape Letters–it’s the most delicious kind of evil. My own WIP has a hypocritical bad guy, and I’m working hard to make him evil-but-understandable.

  16. @Robyn: Black and white characters occasionally have their place. But intelligent readers usually crave more depth.

    @A.J.: Good description of The Screwtape Letters. That’s one of my favorite Lewis books.

  17. OTT villains are as laughable as OTT heroes for all the same reasons. What makes them real and menacing is the possibility that they could be as inconspicuous as your next door neighbour. To be living there though there would almost certainly be that degree of hypocrisy that lends credibility to the character and that’s the hook. Thanks for the post.

  18. Something that’s always helpful to remember in crafting villains is that, in their own minds, they’re always the hero of the story.

  19. Crafting antagonists at first had been one of the hardest experience for me. Then I learned it that we all have a personal list of antagonistic forces in our very own lives. From then on, I just uses real life examples of peoples I am close to hate and get excellent writing materials from them__and they equally wonder why I have suddenly started to hang around so much with them.

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