Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness
An antagonist can be classed on three orthogonal parameters:
This is a method of quantifying that third one.
Note that the below list is a very rough scale; any given character may fall higher or lower on this list depending on context, regardless of what tropes describe him. Many character types are very broad, so the positions below should represent an approximate average; some individual characters are subversions who turn out to be something significantly different from the stereotype of their type of villain.
See also Nominal Hero
, for the bottom end of the Protagonist version of this list. See Likable Villain
for a classification of reasons why
not all villains are vile ones.
Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness
The sliding scale is roughly as follows:
Most Sympathetic (the antagonist becomes virtually indistinguishable from the good guys)
- Hero Antagonists: These fight for good goals with good intentions (usually), but are still antagonists.
Dividing line between nominal heroes and villains
- Anti Villains: Their actions are usually evil or at least morally questionable, but they're either fighting for an admirable goal, really ineffectual as villains, don't want to be evil, have a lot of redeeming values, or some specific reason outside their control for being evil.
- Designated Villain averages out right near the middle of the scale. The disagreement that makes this one YMMV comes from whether they are anti-villains or ordinary villains, which differs from viewer to viewer. They can't be any lower than that, otherwise their "designated" status unambiguously comes across as villain whitewashing by the audience. They also can't be any higher, otherwise their "villainy" will just be a plain Informed Attribute. They can actually get genuinely bad with time, however.
Moderately Sympathetic (above this line and the majority of the audience will start to sympathize with the antagonist; below it and the majority will start to hate them)
- Hate Sink usually falls here in terms of vileness, even without being a true antagonist.
- Jerk with a Heart of Jerk
- Put Them All Out of My Misery usually settles about here.
- Villainy-Free Villain. Even when they're not really all that villainous, they tend to make up for it by being total pricks.
- Any villain who is A Lighter Shade of Black compared to other villains will gain more audience sympathy than their opponents, but must be at least as low as this point to be believable as a shade of black on their own.
- Wild Cards must remain above this point if he or she wants to remain plausible as a good guy (or at least a facsimile thereof) later on.
- Ordinary Villainy: These do evil things for their own benefit (and their villainous allies/minions) or to advance an obviously evil goal. They'll readily Kick the Dog without any real compunction.
Least Sympathetic (the audience will completely side against the antagonist)
Permanently Unsympathetic (character becomes completely irredeemable)
- Complete Monster - By definition, the least sympathetic character possible. The most despicable of the bunch, and their only goal is to perpetuate evil. Note that not all characters who cross the Moral Event Horizon are necessarily Complete Monsters; they must have no redeeming values; any of the tropes on the "dividing line" can make them more sympathetic even if they can't be redeemed.
- With few exceptions, any serious villain that believes Dystopia Justifies the Means is a Complete Monster, though the reverse is not true; even Omnicidal Maniacs won't take it that far. This is usually reserved as a motivation for Bigger Bads and the God of Evil.
- Villains that commit wanton and heinous evil acts simply For the Evulz. Most will qualify for Complete Monsters.
- Always Chaotic Evil races are nearly always pure sadistic evil by definition. Most individual members could qualify as a Complete Monster (as groups can't be Complete Monsters, which requires consciousness), although subversions or deconstructions are becoming more common, which pushes those examples out of this territory.
Tropes that can't be readily classified on the scale
These tropes are orthogonal to this Scale, have too variable a position to be located specifically, or are position changing without having a particular position to call its own.
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- Due to Good Lawyers, Good Clients, even if the Amoral Attorney is perfectly law-abiding and ethical they often end up being an accidental proxy for their client's vileness if they get justice for anyone on the Ordinary Villain scale or below. Outside of that though it's rare for an Amoral Attorney to personally do the deeds that would even skirt the Moral Event Horizon—they tend to bend the law, not break it.
- While a Babysitter from Hell's rap sheet leads off with "Would Hurt a Child," they can range from Complete Monster all the way to the top of the Anti-Villain section.
- If Betty or Veronica is the protagonist, the other will often be the antagonist. Can go anywhere from The Rival to Complete Monster, depending on how driven she is.
- Big Bad is one of those tropes that can fall almost anywhere on the scale. Very, very rarely are they actually Hero Antagonists though, so they usually vary from very sympathetic Anti Villains to utterly depraved Complete Monsters.
- Card Carrying Villains can be anything from Anti-Villain to (usually) Complete Monster. The more sympathetic they are, the more it comes across as an Informed Attribute, however.
- A Knight of Cerebus almost never strays above Noble Demon in order to provide the sufficient seriousness needed for their Mood Whiplash—curiously, the only exception to this are Sadist Shows that embrace their Black and Grey Morality which will often have a Hero Antagonist available as one to highlight just how crapsack things are.
- A Knight Templar can either be higher or lower on the scale, depending on how deluded or extreme they are. In particularly dark stories, a Moral Event Horizon is very likely, but in more idealistic works, they may be Anti Villains.
- Entities that are Made of Evil can be anything from ordinary villains to Complete Monsters. It all depends on whether they are free to make their own moral choices, or if the setting explicitly makes it clear that they're bound by their nature to do evil (a trait common to many Anthropomorphic Personifications and some Gods in regards to their fields of responsibility).
- Mad Scientists go from Anti-Villain to Complete Monster, otherwise they'd just be The Professor or the Eccentric Mentor.
- Given that the Magnificent Bastard is more about style, Magnificent Bastards can fall anywhere above the Moral Event Horizon on this scale, although, again, since he's all about style, the Bastard in question is likely higher on the scale than he would otherwise be.
- Mooks can fit anywhere along this scale, but rarely make it all the way to the bottom, since they don't usually represent a serious threat. Elite Mooks accepted, of course, as are mooks seen committing atrocities like mass murder and genocide with a smile.
- An Omnicidal Maniac can be as high as Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, all the way down to Complete Monsterdom.
- The Opposing Sports Team can be anywhere from the very top to the very bottom, though it's rare for them to go below Smug Snake status in less comedic stories.
- Depending on their level of intelligence and malice, a Psychopathic Manchild can range from Ambiguous Innocence to a Complete Monster.
- Satan is such an iconic character that the Prince of Darkness's portrayal varies so widely that he's even become the hero in some stories, while others depict him as the worst villain of all time, or anywhere in between.
- The Sociopathic Soldier varies significantly because of all the Internal Subtropes. The jingoistic asshole is usually an ordinary villain if they're not just products of their environment, the Psycho for Hire types are mostly Complete Monster candidates, the involuntary conscript is at the bottom of Anti Villainy, while the Shellshocked Veteran is more of a Tragic Villain.
- Those Two Bad Guys and the Quirky Miniboss Squad can be anything from Harmless Villains to Complete Monsters.
- A Token Evil Teammate, if they're the kind that cause trouble, hover around the middle of the scale. Too high up makes their evilness an Informed Attribute, too low can induce some serious Moral Dissonance as to why the heroes put up with such a bastard.
- A Visionary Villain can be of any degree of vileness, but always has a provocative goal and plans to achieve them.
- Adaptational Villainy, if particularely forced or excessive will reduce the vileness for people familiar with the source work, who tend to see it as character demonization. Ditto with Historical Villain Upgrade.
- Any antagonist with Arson, Murder, and Admiration in his resume is probably on the Sillier side of the Sliding Scale of Silliness Versus Seriousness, and thus probably pulled upward on the scale. Of course, Beware the Silly Ones can apply in this case.
- Black And Black Morality (aka Evil Versus Evil) reduces the overall vileness of the worst villains because everyone in the story is disgustingly evil, but the audience may just become too apathetic at the bleakness of the setting instead.
- Even Evil Has Standards can pull upwards on the scale, though anyone below the Moral Event Horizon will (usually) come across as a Hypocrite for attempting this. They slide halfway back down again if it's revealed as Pragmatic Villainy instead.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones also pulls characters upwards. They can still cross the Moral Event Horizon, but if they display genuine love for someone, they are excluded from being a Complete Monster by definition, who don't have any redeeming qualities at all.
- Evil Is Sexy villains have the tendency to draw attention away from their crimes because the audience becomes fixated on their beauty rather than their evil. Even Complete Monsters will sometimes get the Draco in Leather Pants treatment because of this.
- The more Evil Virtues a villain has, the more the audience admires them in spite of their depravity. Even the worst Complete Monsters tend to have at least one of them despite being completely irredeemable in all other respects.
- Family Values Villain is something of a combination between the Even Evil Has Standards and Even Evil Has Loved Ones, with the same effect as those two. (Although hypocrisy can pull them right back down again.)
- A good Freudian Excuse may pull a villain upward on the scale, but Complete Monsterdom, by definition, means that no Freudian Excuse can absolve them; sometimes the villain is savvy enough to have an excuse and not care about it as well.
- A Laughably Evil villain can gain sympathy for at least humouring the audience, despite being close to the "bad" end of the scale.
- Must Make Amends, Villainous BSOD, and My God, What Have I Done? can pull a villain upwards on the scale, though obviously more evil villains tend to be more immune to these effects.
- Offstage Villainy can make even the most wantonly destructive villains more sympathetic than a villain who commits overall fewer but more visible atrocities. The audience will be compelled to hate them more simply due to the rules of perception.
- Beware of using strawmen for blackening your villains; if the audience finds out, they'll often get pushed upwards further than you like, especially if they make an especially good point or their belief system isn't even that bad.
- Villain Decay, if especially humiliating or prolonged, will slowly cause a villain to float up to Harmless Villain if left unchecked; particularly powerful applications of this trope have even decayed otherwise Complete Monsters such as Black Mage and Hannibal Lector.
- Do enough Evil Gloating, and the audience will hate you even more than they otherwise would have for your sheer haughtiness. (Although it should be noted that a stylish enough Evil Gloat pulls towards Magnificent Bastarddom (which may well be up from where you are), and it is only unnecessary cruelty, or repetition of Gloating that pulls downwards.)
- Making a villain an Evil Is Petty bastard who holds trivial grudges is an easy way to make them more vile regardless of their other actions.
- Evil Makes You Ugly / Evil Makes You Monstrous Due to perceptions of Beauty Equals Goodness, villains whose appearance starts to resemble their inner evil by becoming more ugly or more monstrous (or are ugly to begin with, such as a Fat Bastard) will have the audience root against them more than if they were (still) beautiful. A villain who looks like a Bishōnen is more likely to gain the sympathy of at least some audience members even if it's pure Misaimed Fandom, while a decrepit, inhuman-looking villain has much less of a chance of this happening.
- Any instances of Karma Houdini below the center line run a huge risk of accidentally transforming a 'normal' villain into someone as despised as a Complete Monster.
- A Villain with Good Publicity will tend to be lower than they normally would be because of their tendency to get away with their crimes.
- Have the villains demonstrate they have no compunction about their victims and certainly Would Hurt a Child and Would Hit a Girl, and they go down several notches.
Multiple / Both
- Kick the Dog is a standard behavior for Ordinary Villainy and below, while those above it have an increasing chance to be seen with a Pet the Dog moment. Poke the Poodle too much however, and the villain starts sliding up towards Harmless Villain.
- Just the simple passage of time can push a villain up the scale or screaming downwards.
- A villain that is a General Failure, Pointy-Haired Boss, and/or a Stupid Boss makes weaksauce villains more vile and more blackhearted villains less so — malicious stupidity reduces your sympathy but also reduces your threat, pushing you towards the middle.
- If an antagonist is also holding the title of The Scrappy, they can be pushed either upwards or downwards depending on what they're being hated for. Unfortunately even in the 'redeeming' case of this it won't reduce the audience's overall hatred towards them, just the perceived vileness component of that hatred.
- Villainous Incest: This can go either way depending on the form that the incest takes. Almost always used to provide that extra shudder factor to an already depraved villain, it virtually guarantees a crossing of the Moral Event Horizon if it's abusive and/or includes rape (e.g. the villain in Chinatown). If both parties are willing and of more or less equal age and power, it can occasionally cross into Even Evil Has Loved Ones (e.g. two primary characters in Game of Thrones).
Orthogonal to the scale
- The Villain Protagonist technically does not fall on this scale, as he is, by definition, a Protagonist, rather than an Antagonist. Nevertheless, he can likewise fall anywhere from the start of Anti-Villain all the way down to Complete Monster.
- Most Eldritch Abominations cannot really be identified on this scale due to their Blue and Orange Morality, even though they are among the most scary entities used in fiction. Rarely genuinely malevolent, they are more often just indifferent towards humanity, and take no more of an interest in its destruction than one might think of stepping on an ant.
- No Antagonist is completely outside the scale, as the Conflict is caused by either natural events, society, or one's own flaws rather than other characters. Depending on the source, audience reaction can vary from apathynote to disgust at the cause of the protagonist's problems.