Q&A

Is My Villain Who Feeds Off Negative Emotions Problematic?

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In my story, the main antagonist is a being that feeds off of negative emotions. However, I don’t want to make it seem like everyone has to be happy at all times or that it is not okay to feel upset, angry, etc. I want to make it so that the being feeds off of negative emotions that have lingered for a while – things that have festered and built. I also want to make it so that positive emotions aren’t just “happy.” Instead of just negative emotions and being happy, would stuff like that be okay? Thank you!!!

-Pearl

Hi Pearl,

From what you’ve said, I’m guessing there’s a lot you’re trying to do in this story that I don’t know about. However, in itself, just having a villain that feeds on negative emotions won’t send the message that it’s not okay to have negative emotions – just like having vampires in a story doesn’t mean blood is bad.

What matters is how you depict this process and what you show is the solution to this threat. If your characters are trying to defeat the villain by being happy through sheer willpower, that definitely has problems. That’s probably not healthy or possible, and it would probably make some people feel stigmatized. However, if your villain is causing tragedy after tragedy to grow stronger and your heroes are trying to save people or make the world a better place so there’s less negative energy to feed off of, that’s probably fine. I just wouldn’t have them put pressure on any particular person to be happy. Some people are not in a place where they can be happy, and they need to be accepted as they are.

If your goal is to construct a magical reason why your characters needs to air their grievances or otherwise sort themselves out, that’s going to be tricky. It’s common in stories for characters to be put in situations where they have to grow as people in order to accomplish what they need to – but that’s different than telling people they have to not hold a grudge anymore because the grudge itself is feeding the bad guy. The former is driven by the characters and what they want to accomplish, while the latter is a controlling and invasive requirement imposed on them by the outside world. If compelling characters to work through issues is your goal, I would rework it a bit. It’s common for villains to use unresolved emotional issues in mental or social attacks against the heroes. These attacks often force heroes to confront their issues, and once the issues are resolved, the villain loses power over them. The key is to let each character resolve things in their own way, and not tell anyone how they should feel.

I hope that covers what you need.

Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    If your antagonist kills a whole bunch of depressed people, that has the same issue as targeting any other marginalized group, especially if the heroes do not have that trait

    If you DO decide to have a MC who is depressed, always afraid, or otherwise constantly feeling negative emotions, please be accurate in your description. I would recommend MAJOR research, especially if you do not face such issues personally

    If the antagonist CURES the depression or other issue, that could be a problem. If facing the antagonist causes the character in denial to ADMIT to themself they have a problem, and they seek professional help, if it exists in your world, that can be okay, though therapy itself usually takes too long for it to be a “cure” that makes the MC immune to the antagonist. Again, research

    • Pearl

      Thank you so much for the help! I’ll make sure to look out for things like this.

  2. Cay Reet

    You could also be more specific with what negative emotions your villain feeds of. Is it fear? Pain? Anger? Hate? Because if you’re specifically doing an enemy who feeds of, say, anger, then the best way to get them down would be for the hero (who might have an anger problem to make things more interesting), to control themselves well enough not to let the anger bubble up during the fight. If it’s fear and you have a hero who tends to be afraid quickly, they have to learn how to deal with that fear. Same goes for hate (although I admit that pain is a difficult one to use like that, because, unlike the others, it has a physical component).

    Making ‘happiness’ the cure isn’t the way if you’re being more specific, either. A lot of people, for instance, think that depression means feeling sad all the time, but if you’ve got a severe case of depression, feeling sad would be a step up, because you feel nothing at all. The more depressed you get, the more muted your feelings become and the less you feel overall. It’s not about being happy all the time (which is an impossible goal to reach), but about feeling things at all. If you villain feeds of depression, they’re not feeding off feelings, but the lack of them (or draw them out of their victims, like the Dementors in HP).

    • Dave L

      > but if you’ve got a severe case of depression, feeling sad would be a step up,

      YES! Cay Reet is EXACTLY correct!

    • Pearl

      Now that I think about it, it would be a lot better to focus on one or two negative emotions instead of a wide range. However, I’m having trouble picking what. I’ve narrowed it down to three: fear, anger, and hate, but the more I think about it, they’re all connected. I feel as if all negative emotions can be connected, somehow. I’m not sure how to approach any of this. If you fear someone, you might be angry at them too, for one reason or another – even if that reason is made up. If you get angry at them, you eventually grow to hate them. Am I overthinking this, or…?

      • Cay Reet

        All emotions can be connected somehow, so, yes, you might be overthinking this a bit.

        Think of it this way:
        Fear-based means that the villain will try to find out what the hero fears, so they can create a suitable situation and feed off the hero’s fears. Fear can make us very passive and can make it very hard for the hero to face off the villain at all. The hero has to overcome the fear (for whatever they fear) to have a chance against the villain.
        Anger-based means that your hero will most likely have a tendency toward getting angry quickly. That will make it a weakness the villain can use to get to them. While you’re angry, you do not always think about what you do, which means a very strategic-minded villain could use that in order to gain and advantage over the hero and the hero must learn to control themselves better.
        Hate-based means that the villain must find something the hero really hates (and we do not really hate that easily) and use it. The villain may also try to create dissent between a lot of people to feed of them starting to hate each other. In such a case, the hero’s work wouldn’t be to change themselves, but to appeal to all those people and get them to change their opinion, which is much harder.

        Generally speaking, fear, anger, and hate are not all that closely connected. Most of the time, you will not start to get angry at something or someone you fear – anger leads to attacks and you do not attack that which you really fear. Hatred goes way beyond anger. You don’t have to be angry at someone or something to hate them. Hatred is something which is often taught – if two groups are at war with each other for a long time, children will be taught to blindly hate members of the other groups without ever having met one of them.

        If you want the villain to generally feed off a negative emotion, hate might prove to be the best. You can create hatred for another group rather easily, if you can work on a populace for a certain time. (Humans seem to have a built-in ‘us vs. them’ gene.) Fear is also easy to use, as It from Stephen King’s novel of the same name proves. Every human fears something and if you can use that against them, you can feed off them very well. Anger might be the hardest to do, because it’s a relatively fleeting emotion – people usually aren’t angry for a long time.

        • Pearl

          If I used fear and insecurity as my focus, is there any way I could make it seem… less cliche? In addition, many of my characters fear things that aren’t physical (abandonment, failure). How would I get the villain to prey on those characters?

          • Cay Reet

            You could give the villain the skill to get into the minds of their victims and make them believe what they fear is happening. That would be much easier for more physical fears as well. Who has the time to gather 2000 spiders or find a full set of clowns just to scare one person, after all? Just make them think their greatest fear is right there, then drink all that tasty fear right out of them.

        • Pearl

          How would I make them believe that something that isn’t tangible is happening? Like, what if their fear is death, or failure, etc?

          • Cay Reet

            Mind over matter – if the skill of your villain is strong enough, they can make them believe it without something happening, give them visions or suchlike, for instance. They see failure when none is happening. They believe themselves close to death, even though they’re healthy.

            For humans, the mind has great influence over the body and to get an emotion out of someone, the illusion is enough. That’s why people love it when they have the illusion of danger – a bit of fear, of a thrill, but not too much, hence there’s things like rollercoasters or haunted houses (the ones at fairs or in theme parks, I mean).

            If you villain can, once they know what a person fears, make them think that whatever they fear is happening, that’s enough to feast on the emotion. There’s no need for it to really happen – humans can be afraid of something which isn’t really happening.

      • Joey J.

        An interesting Idea: You could have a team of villains who are each keyed to a specific emotion, and have each have a thematically linked power set. One who feeds off of fear, who could specialize in illusion, deception, and manipulation. One who feeds off of anger, who could be a front-line heavy hitter. And the leader could be the one who feeds off of sadness, directing his cronies to make the world a worse place so as to feed their power.

        You could also give the main characters emotion based powers as well. Either based on positive emotions, or perhaps you could have them as having the same broad power sets as the villains, but using them for good. You could even have the climax be the main cast splitting up to face their respective counterparts one-on-one. It practically writes itself.

        Come to think of it, one could build an entire magic system out of this- Look at this page for details.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrasting_and_categorization_of_emotions#Plutchik.27s_wheel_of_emotions

        A comic series, ‘Die’ by Kieron Gillen, did something similar, with one of the protagonists being a ‘Sorrow Knight’, basically a paladin who gets his magic from sadness, both his own and those of others. There is an order of Paladins for each of the eight emotions. A highly recommended series, if you can find it anywhere.

    • Elga

      “The more depressed you get, the more muted your feelings become and the less you feel overall.”
      Not necessary. I had atypical depression and feel a lot of emotions during that time. It was like your skin is removed and any touch feels like knock-out. I stop feel most of emotions after I started treatment and it was a huge relief!

  3. Dvärghundspossen

    Wasn’t there some Marvel villain who specifically fed on bigotted hate, or did I just imagine that? (The odds are I didn’t just imagine it, since superheroes have been around for so long that everything conceptually possible has happened in both Marvel and DC at this point.)

    • Dave L

      The Hate-Monger. Who was Adolf Hitler (later revealed to be a clone). Seriously

      Other Marvel characters used the same name and theme

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Thanks, Dave, that’s the guy I was thinking of! I remember the Fantastic Four fought him.

  4. Yog-Sothoth42

    I think it would be interesting for a person to draw from someone’s intentions about emotions. Say if hate is your emotion to draw from it may interest or surprise people if the villain was able to draw from someone who was happy because the person took great joy from a rival or hated figure’s pain or suffering. This would help you get some variety and send a message to readers.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    The post reminded me of an episode of Danny Phantom that had a villain of the week like this. She preyed on high school kids’ insecurities to maintain her youth, telling them things like “yes, girls, looks really are everything” or “your football career at this school will be the peak of your life and you’re doomed to a life working at a gas station/living on the street.” She was also planning to murder a student at a rally to create more misery.

    The protagonist was also targeted, which impacted his ability to fight the villain. What snapped him out of it enough to figure out exactly what was going on and take down the villain’s lackey was his sister letting him know that she was there if he needed to talk.

    The show hasn’t aged very well, but that episode is still pretty good. Especially the ending.

  6. Arturo Serrano

    One thing I love about Miraculous Ladybug is that Hawk Moth’s victims are *never* blamed because their emotions were used for evil. It’s always the victim’s friends who apologize for having ignored their feelings or mistreated them.

  7. Richard

    There’s that Original Star Trek episode, “Day of the Dove”, where an alien life form caused the Enterprise crew and some Klingons to fight each other hand-to-hand in order to feed off their anger and hatred….

    I can also imagine a villain who, with a well-timed comment or two, causes his opponents to fall into a state of angst, despair, or self-doubt in order to weaken them (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”). The villain wouldn’t actually be “feeding” off the negative emotions, but would benefit from them.

    And it would be a perfectly villainous thing to do…..

    • Cay Reet

      Intrigue work is pretty much along the lines of causing the right kinds of feelings to push people apart or drive them into the right direction, so they will act the way you need it.

  8. Leon

    I wanted to recommend a Spawn book I read twenty years ago, but I can’t remember the title. The Hellspawn lurks in the shadows of an apartment building, feeding on the misery the characters cause themselves through their respective Sins, until they all die in a fire (it’s a proper representation of why the seven deadly sins are deadly – no religious nonsense, just harmful behaviors and their consequences).

    Strangely, I can’t find the book on the internet despite the protagonist being a transsexual, lesbian, serial killer, police detective who can’t remember her childhood (or her mother turning her into a girl) and doesn’t realize that the killer she is hunting is herself.

    If anybody can name the book, that would be great.

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