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Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness

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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 them. 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. If a more sympathetic villain is paired with a more despicable villain in a work, they are a Sympathetic Villain, Despicable Villain Foil duo.

Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness

The sliding scale is roughly as follows:

Most Sympathetic (the antagonist becomes virtually indistinguishable from the good guys)

Dividing line between nominal heroes and villains

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)

Least Sympathetic (the audience will completely side against the antagonist)

Permanently Unsympathetic (character becomes completely irredeemable)

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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    Variable Position 

    Permutation factors 

Sympathy Effect

Hatred Effect

  • 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. However, it can sometimes be subverted if the villain is sufficiently disturbed by what is happening to them provided the villain isn't too far down the scale to begin with, or if the villain's ugliness was what led to their Then Let Me Be Evil moment.
  • Having the villain tell the hero I Lied, or any of its subtropes (Did You Actually Believe...?, You Said You Would Let Them Go, etc.) will almost invariably push them down to the level of Hate Sink if they weren't there already, due to their betrayal of the hero's trust.
  • Any instances of Karma Houdini below the center line run a huge risk of accidentally transforming a 'normal' villain into someone even more despised.
  • 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

    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, or even be everywhere on the scale in the same story. The latter, however, is more rare. Placing a villain in the role of protagonist can make for an interesting story, but writers generally shy away from portraying them as entirely irredeemable evil bastards by introducing some redeeming traits or a Sympathetic P.O.V. to balance out their evil acts. This way the audience is comfortable enough to continue to follow them instead of constantly squirming in their seats from the protagonist's boundless heinousness.
  • Similarly, a Designated Hero is almost always technically a protagonist rather than an antagonist, but can themself fall anywhere from Anti-Villain (usually of the Utopia Justifies the Means type) to Complete Monster — though the latter is so rare that no examples have been documented (the one previously documented example was later decided to have been insufficiently heinous).
  • 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.
  • Likewise the Non-Malicious Monster only borders on being an antagonist; since a normal animal has no understanding of its actions or their consequences, it cannot be held either morally accountable for them or knowingly antagonistic.
  • 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.
  • The Asshole Victim (and its child trope, Who Murdered the Asshole) often, given that his place in the story is to become a corpse, usually doesn't directly qualify for the scale because the antagonistic role was towards someone else and not the protagonists. That being said, the Asshole Victim fills many of the functional requirements of an Antagonist, so many of the above tropes and permutation factors will apply to him.
  • Ambiguously Evil characters can't really be placed until more is known about them, since it's deliberately kept vague how evil, if at all, they are. The most you can say is they are rarely complete monsters.