Everyone loves a hero… OR DO THEY? Sometimes, you need a character that just hates the hero’s guts. Perhaps the hero lives in a utopian magical school and you need to generate some tension, or maybe you want to spice up a political conflict with personal drama. Either way, what you need is a hero hater, and that’s our topic this week. We discuss why hero haters are useful, why they’re so often contrived, and how they can be better handled. Plus, some Zuko discourse, as is tradition.
Generously transcribed by Space Pineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: We have some unfortunate news. There’s a rival podcast out to get us. We’re not exactly sure why… They aren’t regressive or even fan ragers. They just must be jealous of how awesome we are.
Oren: Maybe they hate us because of who our parents were.
Chris: But nonetheless, this is a very popular podcast, so we’re underdogs.
Wes: Sympathize with us.
Chris: They’re called the Miscreants podcast.
Chris: So this week, we’re talking about hero haters, which are characters or even entire groups of people who have an intense personal dislike of the hero, usually for pretty contrived reasons. It doesn’t have to be a contrived reason, but more often than not.
Oren: Here I was going around thinking that we defined a hero hater as having a contrived reason, and now I find out there’s whole depths to them that I didn’t know about.
Chris: They can have a useful role. So I think there’s a lot of conversation to be had about, how do we accomplish the same things but without something that comes off as super silly?
Oren: If we’re defining it as someone who has an intense personal dislike of your hero, that’s definitely something you’re gonna want to use and have it make sense, right? That’s gonna be a big part of your story and it will be very emotional, and if the reason is contrived people are gonna notice.
Chris: Unless that’s just what they really want.
Oren: There are certain wish fulfillment elements of like, that person hates me for no reason. I have none of the traits that might actually inspire hatred because I don’t wanna have those. So I guess they hate me for being too perfect.
Wes: I don’t know. When we see it in media, it’s like, is your first thought “oh man, that person just hates that person for no reason,” or is it, “that person really hates that person. There must be a reason.” Maybe more people are just kind of waiting on it to show up in some backstory episode before that character dies inevitably.
Chris: If it’s presented as a mystery in some way, then that might be possible. A lot of times when I see it there can even be an explanation, the explanation is just not very good.
Wes: Right. Like, “oh you’re from Alderaan. I don’t like people from Alderaan.”
Oren: Or “you’re an elf and I’m from Numenor,” as we talked about last episode.
Wes: I know your people gave us a homeland, but I don’t care.
Chris: So let’s talk about why hero haters are so popular. Obviously, they’re useful for storytellers because they create conflict. If you have a setting that doesn’t have that much inherent conflict to it, bringing in some sort of personal rivalry can be useful. If you had a utopian setting or if you have a magic school that’s supposed to be safe, that can be useful to have a rivalry happen there.
Oren: It can also just add an emotional dimension to a conflict. Avatar is great, but it’s greater because Zuko has a personal vendetta against Aang. And if Zuko was just very detached and didn’t actually care about Aang at all, that dimension wouldn’t be there.
Chris: In that case, I don’t know if Zuko has a personal dislike of Aang so much as he has a personal reason to hunt Aang down.
Wes: And it’s not Aang, it’s the Avatar.
Oren: I would argue that one grows from the other. He doesn’t know Aang at first. I would argue that after a couple of interactions, he doesn’t like Aang because Aang keeps showing him up. Also is frustrating to fight because Aang keeps avoiding him and not giving him the head-on confrontation that he clearly wants. I would argue that there is a personal element to it, but it does start with a divide along a more political or war-type scenario, as opposed to Zuko just deciding he hates Aang one day.
Chris: And most hero haters just immediately, as soon as they’re introduced in the story, have a very strong personal dislike.
Wes: Well, I’m just wondering about, independent of when he learns more about Aang, the intense focus and dislike stems from “this is the thing that’s in my way to what I want, need, or feel I deserve,” and I feel like that hate for heroes can come in when somebody thinks that you’re in a position that you don’t deserve. The hero doesn’t deserve this, the hero didn’t earn this. I got passed up for promotion, or this position should be mine, and that person doesn’t need to have a personality for them to hate them if they just think that they are an obstacle to their own advancement.
Oren: You can do a little bit of mixing and matching. You can have personality clashes that exacerbate a reason why two people wouldn’t like each other. I worked with a guy who absolutely hated me, will not say his name on the off chance he’s listening to this podcast.
Chris: He hated you, but now he listens to your podcast.
Wes: Yeah, well, we can offer him a heaping cup of depression.
Oren: He absolutely hated me because during break, I would talk to other people about movies and critique them, and I critiqued some of the movies he liked. To be clear, he was in the wrong here, objectively, but that does make sense. You can see why, if you hear your co-worker talking shit about a movie you really love, how that could lead to an intense dislike, even though the level to which he took it was pretty absurd. Now, if you wanted to you, could combine that with, if we were both going after the same position, that would be, now there’s personal drama and a financial stake involved. And that fortunately never happened. We worked in completely different parts of the building, but that’s the sort of thing that you can work into your story. But it wasn’t just like I walked into the break room one day and he was like, “I hate that guy.” There was a reason why this happened. It doesn’t mean that he was in the right, it’s more convincing that way because you can see that the personality clash of “I love to critique movies” and “he doesn’t like it, he thinks it’s disrespectful.”
Chris: Another reason why hero haters are so popular is to make heroes look like they’re sympathetic underdogs, especially if the hero is not otherwise in a sympathetic position. A certain boy wizard is an excellent example. If you have a character that is, for instance, famous and widely admired and you want to make him look like an underdog, you just pull up people who have just an irrational personal dislike of your character from the beginning so that you can turn things around and make him feel sympathetic instead.
Oren: Sometimes this manifests as “the angry randos,” as I like to call it, the classic scene that was made fun of in the beloved webcomic Once Upon a Trope, where the hero walks into a bar and a bunch of people are like, “we don’t like you.”
Chris: “We don’t serve your kind.”
Oren: They do it with Geralt once, and a bunch of randos are gonna fight a Witcher. It’s like, how brave do you think random bar people are? My favorite example of that was from a piece of War Machine fiction where this guy who’s literally called the Butcher of Kardev, who is six foot two and wears giant power armor walks into a bar with his huge magic axe and his 20 ton war robot parked outside. He’s also a high-level wizard. Some guys at the bar are like, “oh, it’s you,” and they all stand up to engage him in fisticuffs. What is going on in this story? (laughs)
Chris: The strange one is that it’s often used to give heroes candy. It can be an expression of jealousy, and related to that, common fantasy seems to be to take a beloved character and make it so that everyone doubts them or tears them down or hates them, so that that main character can show all of these people up or show them how cool they are. It’s weirdly common and I’ve seen it in various places, like Janeway, for instance, has episodes in Voyager where she has to go against the entire rest of the crew who doubts her. Now, that’s partly because she’s a leader character, and once again, she doesn’t have a reason to be a sympathetic underdog, so everybody’s turned against her to try to make her in that way, but that kind of people in the Team Good, for instance, just randomly saying mean things about somebody can be a way of making their target look good.
Oren: Sheridan from Babylon 5 does that and is so similar to Janeway, it’s kind of eerie. He’ll have crew members randomly like, “no that’s not how it works, Captain Sheridan, you’re wrong,” and then he’ll have to be like, “actually, I was right the whole time.” Often it’s very contrived, and you guys clearly rewrote the script so that he would be right. That’s what happened here.
Wes: That’s because everyone loves a good “I told you so.”
Oren: I mean, people do love that. People desperately want to tell other people that they told them so. There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment there, and I’m not saying you can’t ever do it. Be aware of what you’re doing when you write that scene especially if you have to use other members of Team Good to do it. Very often, you’re just making them look bad in the process.
Chris: You don’t want to make the rest of Team Good seem like jerks who are jealous of your favorite character. It doesn’t go over very well. But building up that kind of sense of grievance, I can go beyond sympathy to anger, just so that your character can show everybody up, is clearly a popular pattern.
Oren: When we’re talking about a nemesis-type character, I think it just kind of comes down to the fact that writers want an emotionally charged conflict, but creating the context for it is sometimes kind of difficult, so instead they just are like, this character hates you now. It’s less obvious that by not having a good reason, they have created a contrived scenario, then it would be if they just didn’t do that, and then they would realize they have no emotional involvement in whatever this conflict is. River from the Raksura (by Martha Wells) books is kind of like that. Moon shows up and River’s like, I hate you because you’re a cool consort and I’m just a warrior, which is a lower class. But Moon doesn’t want any of the things that River has, because River is into the mean queen and Moon only wants the nice queen. They’re not really in conflict over anything, and so what it ends up feeling like, is that River is being portrayed as bad for wanting to rise above his station of being in the class structure. It’s not the impression that I think the author wanted to give, but that’s what it kind of feels like.
Chris: The Raksura books definitely create a hierarchy of people that’s a little creepy.
Oren: And then you have something like Bakugo from My Hero Academia, where the writers clearly wanted there to be a character who starts off as a nemesis and then, over the course of the show, becomes more and more friendly to the protagonist until eventually they’re friends. And that’s a perfectly cool story if you have a good setup for it, but it feels really weird in My Hero. On the one hand, it’s believable that Deku would be bullied for not having any powers in a world where everyone has powers, but Bakugo is so extreme with it that it just feels kind of contrived. You notice that, after episode one or two, they just tuned it down behind the scenes, because they realized they’d gone a little too far.
Chris: Once you make the hero haters’ reasons less contrived and more reasonable, it starts to become much more realistic for them to hate the hero less as the story goes on, because usually the hero is a relatively nice person, at least with some exceptions. (laughs) So in many cases, you’ll have the hero hater end up even becoming a friend, and then sometimes you have to introduce new hero haters to fill the hero hater role, like in Murderbot (by Martha Wells). Murderbot continually introduces hero haters from book to book so that Murderbot always has a hero hater around to make Murderbot a little bit of an underdog and create some social drama. Those books, of course, their reason is that Murderbot is a security construct, and they’re actually pretty dangerous in the setting, making our hero haters a little bit more reasonable, but they still have prejudice against Murderbot for being a construct. In the course of the story, they naturally learn that, okay, Murderbot is not gonna just murder everybody. They’re fine. And then, in the next book, we bring out another one.
Oren: Or sometimes, twist, they turn out to be bad, and Murderbot murders them. (laughs) And I mean, with any enemies-to-friends or enemies-to-lovers or whatever it is, any kind of enemy-to-not-enemy-type story, you just gotta be careful of how evil you make them at the beginning. You can make them realistically a terrible person and hate the protagonist for realistically terrible reasons, but is that really what you want if you want them to be friends later? Very often, you’ll find that either it’s unsatisfying to the audience, because it’s like, “well, that person was horrible, now we’re being friends with them,” or it’ll just be kind of unbelievable. Owl House had that problem. Luz’s girlfriend Amity, when she’s first introduced, she’s really awful. You could argue whether or not she’s realistic, but then when they want her to be friends, she basically just becomes a new person. I mean, I’m glad she’s a better person now, but that was a little bit contrived.
Chris: The show often doesn’t put in the time to make them grow as a person, especially if they’re not the main character. Giving them a whole arc where they re-examine their behavior, etc., may feel out of reach, so this is like, suddenly they’re on the hero side now. Not one of my favorites.
Oren: And you have to think about, how much do you need to drive them to do something right? Lilith, also from the Owl House, had this problem. Although in Lilith, it was in backstory, so it wasn’t as obvious, but Lilith doesn’t like Eda because of sibling rivalry, basically, but this is supposed to motivate Lilith to put this really horrible curse on Eda. I just didn’t really believe it. I was like, she just doesn’t hate Eda enough to do that.
Chris: So, to summarize the two big problems with hero haters that generally have to be solved, their reasons for disliking the hero were overly silly or contrived, or just a big stretch, kind of like the “I hated your father so now I automatically hate you.” Whenever we do the “I hated your father” thing, the family never actually did anything bad, so even that feels like a stretch. The “I hate you because you’re too nice or too cool” goes back again to the candy thing where the writers really liked the hero, so they don’t want to give the hero haters any legitimate grievances, to the point where they want the hero’s parents to also be perfect. We can’t even make their family have done something wrong. The other issue is, if they’re just cartoonishly antagonistic, to the point where, again with Amity, where are we supposed to go from here? They’re just really evil. They can either have a sudden turnaround, or they just come off as contrived.
Oren: Either contrived or unsatisfying. Sometimes you can just fix that with distance. One of the reasons why Nancy’s Steve is now so much more appealing in Stranger Things 4, is that it’s been like four years since he was horrible to her. He’s also done a lot of work on himself and it’s basically a different person now. Time has gone by. A little less like “you’re with this guy who was being horrible to you three weeks ago.”
Chris: Should we talk about what you can do to create antagonists who have personal grudges against your character that aren’t super contrived?
Oren: (sarcastically) What if they were an oppressed mage?
Chris: Yeah, that’s a very popular one.
Oren: I’ve solved it.
Chris: Just change them into a construct. You’re good. Like MurderBot.
Oren: If you have time, you can employ the escalation of differences. Depends on, when do you need the hero hater to hate the hero? They could start off having a moderate dislike of each other, because one of them likes to critique movies and the other doesn’t. Because of that, they get into a bigger disagreement. They say hurtful things at each other, and that’s harder to forgive. And then, because they don’t like each other, they take opposite sides in some office workplace fight or something, and then now, they really hate each other.
Chris: I would say it’s easier to do it in reverse, where they have something important that they’re competing over, and then it becomes personal. You could even do something where they’re friends. They end up wanting the same thing, they think they can have a friendly competition with each other, but turns out they can’t. Just because writers have so much trouble making people have personality clashes with each other without making it come off as really forced and contrived. It’s possible. I have a post with ideas that people really liked, but it’s a little trickier to write. So, it’s easier if you focus on some mutually exclusive interest, like they’re competing for something, and then let that get out of hand instead.
Oren: You can also just have them come from some kind of opposing value systems, depending on what the context of your story is. If your story is a political drama, you can have two characters who have to work together despite being from different political parties. You want to be careful there, because some political parties are legitimately different, and then some are just evil. Don’t make excuses for the evil ones, but you can have people who are not inherently bad who have serious political disagreements. One of them is an anarcho-syndicalist, and the other is a council communist. They fight crime.
Chris: If your hero breaks the rules, you can use an investigator character who is a big stickler for the law, even in situations where it would be more practical to break the rules. So that’s a good way to create somebody who provides some of that conflict, and that can also turn into a personal grudge. But there’s a reason behind it.
Oren: What about rivalries of “I’m gonna be the best at this,” “no, I’m gonna be the best at this”?
Chris: I think those are fun. I just definitely feel lower stakes, so they’re great for a magical school, for instance, or a teen drama, but I think if our stakes got too high, that wouldn’t work as well.
Oren: Yeah, at that point, it would be like, why are you guys arguing about who’s gonna be captain of the soccer team?
Chris: Suspicion is really great. Selwyn in Legendborn, for instance, starts as a hero hater, and then, of course, he becomes the broody boy love interest. But he starts by being really suspicious of the main character and thinking she’s a spy.
Oren: He does have reason to think that, it should be noted. He doesn’t just pull that out of the air, right?
Chris: Yeah, but he’s so dogged about it, it feels personal. It doesn’t always have to be for strictly personal reasons to create the same effect, but generally, a hero hater is just very persistent and emotional about their dislike of the hero. If you have a character, for instance, who’s suspicious of the hero, and then the leaders are not listening to them, but they have legitimate reasons to be suspicious, that will develop into a grievance, and then they’ll resent the hero even more because of that. Take those more external reasons for dislike and then make it more personal.
Wes: I was thinking about Teen Wolf, when Scott gets his powers and Jackson’s like, what is happening? He just gets so upset and mad which, there’s good reason for it, and he hates Scott passionately for this unfounded success. And suddenly, he’s the star of the lacrosse team, and I thought that was done quite well. It’s just like, I get it.
Chris: Now, you have to be careful to make sure that your hero hater isn’t right.
Wes: Well, yes.
Chris: So, in Little Witch Academia, we’ve talked about this before, but the main character Akko is just the worst. She’s supposed to be one of those peppy characters who, even though she’s really bad at magic, has just believed in herself and believed she’ll be the best. But what we see, and this is clearly an intentional character arc on her part, is that she wants to be super awesome at magic but she doesn’t want to put any work, so she’s constantly slacking off and not doing work, causing problems because of that, and wanting to be the best and not put any work to become the best, which is not sympathetic.
Oren: It’s very odd. I don’t really know to what extent this is an intentional contradiction and how much of it is just, “well, we thought it would be funny,” is that her motivation is she keeps saying she wants to be the best witch. She’s constantly saying that, and yet any time she has any opportunity to actually learn magic, she skips out on it and then will try to cheat to win some magic contest. How much of this is on purpose? Is this supposed to be a weird contradiction that she has?
Chris: I think it’s supposed to be her character arc, and that she’s supposed to grow into it because she has this kind of fantastical idea of how fun and cool it is to be a witch that doesn’t involve any of the actual hard work of doing it. She’s supposed to grow into it. The problem is, of course, that we need to like her before she grows as a person. If somebody watches it and just instantly identifies with her, it might not be an issue, but otherwise, she’s not a great main character for that reason. Writers do make that mistake quite a bit, and sometimes it’s them mirroring their own personal journeys. They’re like, “oh, when I was young, I was always slacking off, and then I learned not to slack, off and now I want to write a character that goes through that,” but they don’t give the character other traits that make them likable to balance it out. Diana in Little Witch Academia is the hero hater but she has a good reason. And she’s supposed to be snobby, but she also clearly just is a person who’s put in the hard work and knows what she’s doing. If she dislikes Akko, she’s basically right, because Akko is slacking off and causing trouble.
Oren: Can be a problem if, for example, people watching the show desperately wish it was about the other character. Why can’t the show be about Diana? She seems cool.
Chris: In Andor, and there may be a few spoilers for the few episodes that have come out, I do really like how they’re doing Syril.
Oren: I’m impressed that you can remember that character’s name.
Chris: Oh yeah, totally off the top of my head. I didn’t look it up at all, no.
Oren: I love Andor but just like I loved Rogue One, I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.
Chris: So, the disadvantage of this character is that he really is, much of the time, on his own plot line. Right now, he’s just kind of stranded, doing his own thing and not really related to everything else, but that’s a plotting issue. But as a character, I like the way that they set him up to have a personal grudge with Cassian. He is an investigator who is just very bright-eyed, and he’s gonna do his best, and even though he’s actually kind of a guard in an impressive corporate system, he believes in it wholeheartedly, and so he’s very dogged and he won’t give up, but when Cassian gets the better of him, that completely embarrasses him and he loses his job, and all those other things. That gives him a very strong reason to be a hero hater and have a personal grudge. We’ve yet to see this story actually turn around and capitalize that, but it could happen soon.
Oren: I don’t think this is worth having several scenes that are just him off by himself, but I am looking forward to the inevitable “you ruined my life” “I don’t even know who you are.”
Wes: Yup. That’s a good example, because we don’t know how it will end. Do you think there’s a sweet spot in terms of satisfaction for how to resolve these hero hater arcs? Is joining Team Good the optimal thing? Like Syril, are we gonna get the most satisfaction if he realizes that the corporate empire is bad and he joins them, or is it just enough for them to maybe help each other pass the neutrality, and then the former hero hater kind of moves on? I know it depends on the story, but it feels like, if somebody comes on strong hatin’, the writers are gonna flip ‘em.
Chris: I think it’s how well received the characters and how the audience feels about them. If we have somebody that is a hero hater but we understand, because their hero hate is somewhat reasonable, they have a good reason and we understand them and we actually get to like them somewhat, probably a lot more satisfying if they end up switching sides so that we can keep them around. Also, sometimes they have great chemistry with a hero. Have that kind of antagonistic chemistry, and even after they switch sides, they have the trace of antagonism left that actually really brings the interactions on Team Good to life. Those are cases where I think it’s really beneficial to turn them around, but if they’re more exaggerated or cartoonish and they’re just plain old antagonistic, sometimes you just need to defeat them.
Oren: I’m not really sure where we’re going with this Syril character in Andor. He seems to be going through a down-in-the-dumps sympathy-building storyline, whereas before, he was the poster boy for these crappy corporate cops, and there was nothing really sympathetic about him. I’m not sure where we’re going with this guy now, honestly.
Chris: Maybe he’s Zuko.
Oren: He could be. He’s not really cool enough to be Zuko. That was one of the things about Andor that’s really interesting, is because Andor is just one guy. We could afford to make his antagonists also kind of incompetent and still be threatening. So that’s what separates this guy from Zuko, is that Zuko is a badass, and this dude folded like a cheap suit the moment he actually had to deal with someone who was shooting back. I like Andor enough that I’ll give it some slack and see where it’s going, unlike every other show, which I judge immediately.
Chris: Okay, that’s it for this episode. If the Mythcreants podcast has helped you with a creative project, please support us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: Before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Callie Macleod, then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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