Villains: Likable or Hateable?

@smitheclaire asked an interesting question on Twitter yesterday: Is it better to have a likable or hateable villain in your story?

The question made me think, of course, of Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’ cannibalistic bad guy who somehow gets us to not only like him but root for him. That’s quite an achievement for a writer, creating a sympathetic and relatable villain. But there’s also something to be said for those villains who are bad through and through — I can think of several James Patterson bad guys who still give me the creeps after 20 years. That’s quite an achievement as well.

Likable or hateable? What do you think?



4 thoughts on “Villains: Likable or Hateable?

  1. I think bad guys should be real, and that could be likable or heatable. Almost all bad guys have something likable about them. Almost but not all. I know some are hateful. What they do, be it ugly or good, should be real, not something the reader would think the guy would never do. As a reader I expect justice to be served one way or another, even if it means a likable bad guy gets busted. Blessings to you, Dina…

  2. I never found Hannibal Lecter “likable,” although he was made sympathetic by the cast of characters around him. Maybe this is a semantic difference.

    As with sooooo many other things when it comes to story, it depends. I personally enjoy “bad guys” who don’t perceive themselves as bad, because I think that’s actually true of human nature. We tend to see ourselves as good people, even when others perceive us differently. We know our hearts and intentions, and have an amazing capacity for self-justification.

    Many of us are willing to justify and accept behaviors from ourselves that we would never tolerate from someone else.

  3. For me it’s not either or when it comes to the antagonist. I think what’s important is for a villain to have complexity. They need their own well developed backstory even if ultimately as the author I don’t share all of it with the reader. I like to know what makes my villains tick, why they do what they do. Helps me to create them in such a way that the reader will hopefully have a complex response the character.

  4. Hmmm…

    Hateable villains give us a chance to vent our moral steam.

    Likeable villains let us realize that we, too, have good and bad aspects in our makeup.


    Seems a story with both a hateable villain and a likeable villain would be pretty cool :-)

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