Storytelling

Six Ways to Make Your Villain Likable

Penguin from Gotham

In Gotham, Oswald Cobblepot is sadistic yet adorable.

Do you need your audience to like a character who kicks dogs, swindles orphans, or is just a big jerk? You have a variety of options to choose from, and the more you choose, the more likable your character will become. To bestow your threatening antagonist with a touch of humanity, use one or two methods on this list. To create a lovable protagonist that does unspeakable evil, pull out all the stops by using every one of these.

1. Make Them Cool and Competent

Darth Vader

It’s hard to hate a villain with style. If your villain has a knock-out costume, crazy cool gadgets, and memorable one-liners, your audience will hope they stick around. Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and Joker are all villains that became popular because of their unique and memorable flair.

Just don’t ruin it by making them a bumbling failure. If your villain has poor excuses for leaving the hero alive, if their lackeys turn on them, or if they simply fail one objective after another, they won’t look so cool anymore. Darth Vader is cool partly because he defeats two important heroes and captures the rest of Team Good. Instead, the Star Wars prequels have a series of villains that look cool but accomplish nothing, making them ultimately forgettable.

These traits work especially well if your immoral character is an antagonist. Antagonists should usually be more powerful than protagonists, and you don’t have to worry about feeding them too much candy. A touch of cool factor can also make a protagonist likable, but don’t overdo it.

2. Help Your Audience Understand Them

Frank Underwood from House of Cards

The more your audience can hear your villain think, the more likely they are to identify with them or feel like their friend. For example, the series House of Cards has a villain protagonist, Frank Underwood. During the show, he turns to the camera and explains his devious plans. The audience feels special because they’re in on his dark secrets.

If you have the opportunity to make the villain your viewpoint character, that can go a long way. Otherwise, you can use your other characters to build rapport. Maybe your hero wants to understand your villain, so they spend a lot of time figuring them out. Maybe they’re old friends, and the hero explains to their sidekicks how the villains thinks. Or maybe the villain is a shadowy version of your hero and has taken a dark path that the hero almost took themselves.

Showing where your villain is coming from will demystify them. That makes this tactic great for protagonists or villains that become a protagonist, but less great when you want to preserve a sense of mystery or keep the threat this character poses high.

3. Bestow Them With Moral Strengths

Spike and Drusilla with heads together

Just because your villain dismembers people doesn’t mean they can’t strive to keep their word, give money to the poor, or maintain a loving relationship. Take Spike and Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They’re blood sucking fiends, but they genuinely love each other. After they piece together a demon bent on destroying the world, it tells them how disgusted it is by their affection.

Many villains have cats or other pets, but they always relate to them in a comically sinister manner: “Yes, precious, soon you will feed on the blood of the innocent!” Instead of a sinister-looking predator, give them cute and fluffy guinea pigs to pamper in the same ways your hero would.

Moral strengths are especially appropriate for well-intentioned extremists. If your character thinks they are doing the right thing, show how they reinforce that belief by being charitable or championing a good cause.

4. Create a Tragic Backstory

Young Magneto reaches out in anguish as a man holds him back

Audiences will excuse a lot of misbehavior when they know the perpetrator is suffering. Describe the painful past that has led this character to villainy. For instance, the villain Magneto from X-Men was imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II. After being so harshly persecuted, no one is surprised that he uses extreme methods to protect mutants.

Illustrating painful circumstances will build sympathy for your immoral character, making them harder to hate. Demonstrating how those circumstances changed their personality or made them desperate will help your audience understand them better. A dark backstory can also provide a great mystery for your heroes to piece together.

If your villain is filled with an unquenchable thirst for blood, giving them an incredibly harsh backstory is your best bet for keeping them in the audience’s good graces. That makes this a great technique for slashers. It was used to good effect in the 1992 film Candyman, wherein the menace is the ghost of a black man who was murdered horribly by a mob for being in a relationship with a white woman. Many horror stories like Candyman use the villain’s tragic backstory to build atmosphere.

5. Give Them Justifiable Motivation

Iroh comforts Zuko shortly after the banishment

Why characters make harmful choices is more important than what choices they make. If your audience can imagine doing the same thing given the same circumstances, you have a winner. Take Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. His father burned a scar into his face then banished him when he was only thirteen. He desperately wants his father’s approval, and he’ll only get it if he kidnaps the hero.

A solid motivation is a great way to build rapport with villains that think the end justifies the means, but it can also be used when they know they’re the bad guy. Most people understand the need for revenge in extreme circumstances. That’s true even when revenge doesn’t help anyone. However, your character’s actions must be a good way to achieve the ends they want, or their revenge must be proportional to the pain inflicted on them. You’d be hard-pressed to convince your audience that destroying the world to rebuild from its ashes is a smart idea. If your character takes revenge on someone’s innocent descendants, they won’t be more likable for it. For instance, in the 2009 Star Trek, the villain Nero is angry with Spock for trying to save his home planet and failing. Somehow he thinks destroying Spock’s home planet is an appropriate punishment. Even when Nero talks about his dead wife, he just sounds petty.

If you’re using gray morality instead of good and evil, providing justifiable motivation will greatly enhance your story. Show your audience the surprising benefits of the villain’s terrible actions.

6. Make Them an Underdog

Penguin smiling in dorky outfit

Everyone likes to cheer for the underdog, even when their uphill battle is driven by selfish desire. Pitiful circumstances are powerful sympathy builders, even for the most despicable villains. This is one reason why Penguin from the show Gotham is popular. He takes joy in killing people, sometimes with no more provocation than being called “Penguin.” Yet time and time again, he gets in trouble. Then he barely avoids death to return and work his way back up the food chain.

Villains that are underdogs aren’t very threatening, but some stories call for just that. You might want to introduce a scrappy villain that doesn’t become a threat until the next book. Show them claw their way up past bigots and bullies, and by the time they become the big bad, your audience will already be attached to them. If you already have a big bad, another less threatening villain can create interesting complications.

Most of all, this is effective for villain protagonists. If your main character is a bad guy, or if your character is dark but redeemable, making them an underdog will go a long way. Protagonists also need bigger challenges to face than antagonists; putting them in a tight spot will help you maintain tension in your story.


Not every villain has to be likable; some stories work better if they’re terrifying. But eventually, most villains will lose their fear factor anyway. When they do, making them more sympathetic will ensure that they stay a fan favorite.

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Comments

  1. Yora

    These six things are also all good ways to make heroes likeable.

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s very true, though heroes don’t need these particular traits as much. You can give your hero a tragic backstory or not and they’ll still be plenty likable, whereas a villain may really need one to excuse their bad behavior. For heroes, I might emphasize giving them relatable flaws and endearing quirks, because that’s where they are more likely to be lacking.

  2. Yashi

    Take BBC’s Sherlock’s Moriarty for example. We can’t help but love him. “Did you miss me?”. I miss him.

    • Cay Reet

      Against my expectations when he first came on screen, I do miss him, too.

  3. Em

    Did you mean:
    1. Loki
    2. Loki
    3. Loki
    4. Loki
    5. Loki
    6. Loki

    Suddenly I understand why he became so popular.

  4. Dan

    The point about the underdog made me think of the Undisputed movies and their format. In the first, the goodie fights the baddie, but in the second, the baddie becomes the protagonist and fights another baddie, and in the third, the previous baddie becomes the protagonist and fights someone else. It feels like a coherent chain in the same universe, a succession of the same goal transferred between different people, so each character becomes an underdog on a redemptive path. I found that very compelling to watch over multiple movies. In the same way, I think after Rocky 2 and 3, Rocky has become too big and too popular, and loses big and has to start over and becomes an underdog again, and that renewed the film. Now Creed seems a new franchise in that universe, again a succession of mission through a different character I love that in a story, in any medium.

  5. M

    Actually there’s a lot to be said for NOT giving a villain a tragic backstory. It’s a bit overdone, and it’s not that realistic. Most real life villains are the spoiled children of privilege after all, they never needed to learn empathy, so they don’t have it.

  6. BG

    In all fairness, bad guys of the Star Wars prequels were never meant to succeed. Dooku and the separatists often failed because they are being used as pawns in Palpatine’s long term plans. Any small victories they managed to achieve were orchestrated by the Sith lord, and so were their defeats. They were meant to be forgettable. That’s why they were all killed off by Episode III.

  7. Cay Reet

    Weirdly enough, this article came up on the header just today, after I’d finished reading a novel with does surprisingly well establishing a classic villain, Professor Moriarty himself, not as a hero, but as a villain who is, to a degree, likeable.

    The novel in question is “Moriarty: A Novel” by Anthony Horowitz and it starts, interestingly enough, in Meiringen directly after Holmes and Moriarty supposedly fell into the Reichenbach Falls.’Supposedly’ not only because we as the modern readers know, of course, that Holmes didn’t die at the Falls. The first-person POV character tells us we may call him ‘Frederic Chase’ and claims to be a member of the Pinkerton agency. He meets up with a Scotland Yard inspector when trying to get a look at the body of Moriarty, which has been fished out below the Falls. Athelney Jones, an inspector who has been seen, among other stories, in “The Sign of Four”, has come to Switzerland to see what has happened and to identify the body which has been pulled from the water. He and Chase team up, following a man who is ready to step into the shoes of Moriarty, an American crime lord who has come to London to, apparently, work with Moriarty. For most of the story we follow those two as the rustley up people working for that crime lord and do their best to identify him. We follow them through dangerous situations and while they build a friendship.

    SPOILER STARTS HERE, DO NOT READ ON, IF YOU WANT TO READ THE NOVEL UNDISTURBED.

    THE BIG TWIST IS DISCUSSED HERE.

    When everything seems to unfold for a rather anti-climactic end, with the man being brought to Scotland Yard for questioning, things take a turn in a different direction. A teenaged boy who has turned up before – clearly in some criminal’s employ and rather dangerous – creates a hold-up for the Black Maria (the police cart with the American inside), Jones aims at him – and ‘Chase’ shoots Jones with an ‘I’m sorry’. Frederic Chase doesn’t exist, hence the ‘you can call me Frederic Chase’ at the beginning. The man whom we have followed through London, the man who was almost tortured to death and killed in other ways several times, is no Pinkerton agent. He’s none other than the Napoleon of Crime himself.
    That day at the Falls, Holmes wasn’t the only survivor, Moriarty had planned on a faked death from the beginning. That explains, as it were, Moran’s job in the whole affair – the boulders weren’t there to kill Holmes, but to distract him, so he wouldn’t see his enemy drag himself from the water further down and get into hiding. Which answers the question why, with a marksman in tow, Moriarty would physically try to take down Holmes when a bullet would do the job much safer. It was never about killing Holmes, it was about letting the American butting in on Moriarty’s work believe that his enemy was dead, so Moriarty would be able to work from the shadows and gain the upper hand. With Deveraux (the American in question) now in his hands, he kills Jones (he really regrets it, but it’s inevitable), and makes his getaway to America – with his organisation in England destroyed, he will now repay his own treatment and take control of Deveraux’s own organisation.

    In a breach of the fourth wall, Moriarty explains himself just as the twist is reached – explaining how he, a mathematician and the son of two good citizens himself, became a criminal mastermind. In short: he was drawn into it when a student he tutored (after he’d lost his chair for an undefined scandal) asked for help and he realized how stupid most criminals were. How more they could do with more organisation behind them. Organisation which, of course, a mathematician on genius level could provide. That’s it. No tragic story about him being forced into the life of a criminal. Simply a way to make more money with less work and putting all his talents to use.

    The story also makes Moriarty more likeable by giving us a very unlikeable second villain (Deveraux) who has forced his way into the underworld through brutality and torture, has subdued the criminals, and takes far more of their earnings than Moriarty ever did (John Clay, who is in the novel, speaks of 50% in opposition to the 20% he had to pay Moriarty) without providing help (Moriarty had paid bail or a defendant for the criminals and introduced them to others they needed to meet). In other words, the novel never claims Moriarty is misunderstood or a good man – he never claims it himself, either -, but he’s a good deal better than his replacement. Couple that with his honest regret over Jones’ death (he does try to warn the inspector off, especially after learning Jones has a family) and his general behaviour before the twist, and it works out well.

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