Making people hate a character who kicks puppies or steals from the downtrodden is simple. But what if you want your audience to dislike someone woven from stronger moral fiber? Perhaps your story has a villain protagonist and a heroic antagonist, much like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Or maybe you’d like your protagonist to squabble with someone who later becomes their friend, like Harry and Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Luckily for your story (if not for humanity), your audience can be turned against heroic characters with a few innocent flaws. You’ll need one starting ingredient: a protagonist they love. Once you have a relatable main character, you can leverage them to create wrath against a hero. Just use these techniques.
1. Cultivate Jealousy for the Heroic Character
If your audience loves and relates to your protagonist, they’ll want the character to get some candy by doing awesome things or receiving outside validation. If they have to sit by and watch as some heroic side character hogs the entire pile of chocolate bars and gummy worms, they’ll build up resentment on behalf of their preferred character. You can encourage your audience to feel jealous with these steps.
- Put your loved protagonist and hated hero in comparable positions. Maybe both are students of the same year, two messengers of similar experience, or two children of the same monarch. Superficial similarities also help. You can make them the same age, gender, or give them similar backgrounds.
- Let them compete over something important. They could be trying to win the same tournament, court the same love interest, or earn an elevated position. They could also compete for something more amorphous, such as the respect of their social circle, as long as your protagonist cares about it.
- Make your heroic character compare favorably to your loved protagonist in every way that is obvious. The heroic character doesn’t need to cheat their way to the top, but they also shouldn’t work hard to get the upper hand. They could be better looking, smarter, more charismatic, or from a wealthier family. Illustrating how everything comes easily to the heroic character will help build resentment against them.
- Give the hated hero a whopping dose of outside validation. People the protagonist cares about could admire the heroic character or praise them. Those same characters should be unimpressed by the protagonist. The protagonist can feel hurt or disappointed by this, but don’t let them hate the heroic character just because that person is more successful.
In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Captain Hammer competes with Dr. Horrible for success, glory, and the affections of Penny. Captain Hammer is lavished with attention from the media, fans, and Penny herself, while Dr. Horrible struggles for recognition. While Dr. Horrible toils to invent new technology that will give him the edge, Captain Hammer is naturally strong.
2. Put the Heroic Character in the Way
An audience that loves your protagonist wants to see them achieve their goals. Any character who continually gets between the protagonist and their desires will become annoying fast, especially if the obstruction stems from an innocent character flaw. Take these examples:
- Every time your protagonist goes on a mission, they are forced to bring the heroic character along. And every time, this character knocks something over, making noise that reveals their position to the enemy. The two of them have to flee before finishing their objective.
- The heroic character leaps to save people without thinking. More often than not, the villains are too tough for this character to handle, and then the protagonist has to rescue the foolish hero along with the original damsels.
- The protagonist plans a private gathering so they can get to know their love interest better. The heroic character overhears the details, assumes it’s a big party, and enthusiastically invites the whole town.
Deliberate obstruction from a heroic character can also work. In this case, add irritation by making the heroic character a little rude, showing your audience that the character is clearly wrong, or both.
- The heroic character is the protagonist’s older sister. She insists the protagonist isn’t ready to go on missions, and she’s probably right, but she’s also condescending. She talks to the protagonist like they’re still a little child.
- The heroic character is the head of a university. He blocks the protagonist from getting a critical scholarship because he doesn’t believe the protagonist will take it seriously. However, the audience watched the protagonist sacrifice everything to get nominated in the first place.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby is constantly obstructing Harry in a misguided attempt to help him. He almost prevents Harry from returning to Hogwarts. A curse he puts on a Quidditch bludger injures Harry, makes him lose the Quidditch game, and causes his treasured broom to break.
3. Drown the Heroic Character in Karmic Debt
It’s easy to create resentment for people who haven’t earned what they have. If it feels like Lady Luck has emptied her purse on the heroic character, the audience will look forward to seeing them get shortchanged. You can use a variety of methods to put a heroic character in karmic debt:
- The heroic character could get credit for something they didn’t do – or worse, get credit for something the protagonist did. Perhaps the protagonist spent a sleepless week casting spells to weaken a rampaging dragon. The spells are so effective a knight just rides up and chops its head right off. Then everyone celebrates the knight’s heroism.
- Let the heroic character make a foolish decision and get away with it. For instance, they could march right into an enemy encampment by themselves, even though the protagonist warns them not to. Lucky for the heroic character, the enemy happens to be distracted by something completely unrelated. While no one’s looking, they waltz in, free the captive, and waltz out again. Afterward, they tell the protagonist, “I told you so.”
- An ignorant character might think they’ve earned their way to the top, when instead, a powerful parent has been pulling strings. After five promotions, the heroic character just assumes that everyone recognizes their brilliance. Your audience will love watching their inflated ego get punctured.
In Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Penny thanks Captain Hammer for saving her from being run over by a remote-controlled van. Dr. Horrible hijacked the van with his fancy tech, but it only became dangerous after Captain Hammer damaged the control mechanism and left it to go on its way. Not only that, but Captain Hammer didn’t even prevent it from hurting Penny; Dr. Horrible managed to regain remote control and stopped it himself. A perpetual braggart, Captain Hammer takes credit for the rescue.
4. Give the Heroic Character Grating Gimmicks
A fine line exists between humor and irritation. The annals of storytelling are filled with characters like Neelix and Jar Jar, who were intended as funny but turned out vexing instead. Characters with irritating gimmicks have several traits in common.
- Ineffectiveness. They aren’t bad people. They mean well and try to do good, but their efforts rarely pan out. That might be because they aren’t skilled enough or because they didn’t prepare sufficiently.
- Repetitive jokes. The characters should make the same poor jokes, tell the same stories over and over again, and otherwise show very little complexity of character. If annoying Uncle Bob’s routine is to pinch the adult character’s cheeks and offer treats in a baby voice, don’t let him appear without trying to do that.*
- Chipperness. Your protagonist should be irritated with the grating character; otherwise your audience won’t have an outlet for their own dislike. However, never let your protagonist be a jerk to a kind gimmick character, and avoid making the gimmick character feel too hurt or sad. If the audience feels sorry for them, they’ll be difficult to hate.
During his early appearances in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby hits himself with nearby objects and cries “Bad Dobby!” in an obnoxiously loud voice. This routine gets old quickly. To transition him away from being an annoying pest, Rowling builds sympathy for his plight. Harry Potter threatens to strangle him, and Dobby explains that he receives death threats regularly from his masters.
5. Make the Heroic Character Unintentionally Disrespectful
Given a few extra flaws, the heroic character can express accidental rudeness or even bigotry that will raise the audience’s hackles. Start by putting your heroic character in a more powerful, or at least equal, position compared to the protagonist. It will be more infuriating if the protagonist can’t correct the abrasive behavior when they first meet the hated hero. Unintentional disrespect can manifest in several ways.
- The heroic character could continually forget or overlook the protagonist. When they do remember, they could mess up the protagonist’s name or other crucial details. Perhaps the heroic character is a leader who always gives the protagonist mundane, low-risk tasks because the leader only pays attention to their favorite agents.
- The heroic character might aim microaggressions at the protagonist. Perhaps they give compliments that are not real compliments, such as saying the protagonist is clean, well-behaved, well-spoken, or anything else that suggests incredibly low expectations. They might also make a series of assumptions about the protagonist based on stereotypes, such as where the protagonist comes from or whether they were raised in poverty. The heroic character could violate personal boundaries by touching the protagonist’s hair or patting them on the head or shoulders.
- The heroic character could continually misinterpret or exaggerate what the protagonist says, and then quote their new, distorted version to other people. Perhaps the protagonist tells the heroic character it’s okay to go to war if the safety of the citadel is threatened. The heroic character could forget their “if” clause and tell everyone the protagonist is endorsing war.
Toward the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Captain Hammer gives what he thinks is an uplifting speech. This speech shows astounding insensitivity to homeless people, comparing them to the dog Lassie.
Don’t let the animosity you’ve nurtured be destroyed by likable traits. Feel free to give the hated hero a reputation for kindness, but don’t show them being kind in a scene. This will make their heroics feel like hype. Then you can put them back in the audience’s good graces whenever you’d like. Just take them down a peg and bring their noble qualities into the spotlight.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.