What exactly makes a character despicable? Is it how they were raised? The impact of some kind of trauma or are they just despicable because they can be? I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot during my own writing journey, trying to tackle the challenge of creating a sympathetic despicable character. Several questions arise in taking on this challenge such as the level of despicable I am able to achieve while still causing my readers to think about how my character became despicable in the first place. Am I depending too much on stereotypes to explain the reasoning behind this character or am I just imagining that this character is despicable?

I’ve experimented with dialogue and description, given my despicable character the motivation to be disliked by the reader but have not explored the “why” behind it all until recently during a story exchange with a fellow writer. In her email she asked how to portray male characters so they don’t just fade into the background as the despicable figure casting a shadow over her female protagonist? I’m adding flourish to the question so I’m not directly calling her out but if she does read this post she should know she helped me with my own dilemma and I am grateful to her. I proceeded to explain that we all have different backgrounds, everyone gaining knowledge about something that no one else will ever be able to take away from us. Whether its descaling a fish and feeding their heads to stray cats, wandering the streets at night to watch the sunrise from Penns Landing or learning how to cast a fishing line just right so the pesky turtle that invaded your grandmother’s pond doesn’t eat the worm before the catfish do.

Then I thought, why can’t the same be said for the despicable character? Why not, instead of focusing on how despicable they are, show my reader why they are despicable? What is the story behind the villain? What unique experiences impacted their life that they are permanently traumatized?

I created this image with the help of Livecollage and Pinterest, displaying my three despicable characters which I will deconstruct for you all. Above we have the soldier, the jazz musician and the runaway mother (I know its a man but I loved the image too much to scroll past it). In other words we have a potential hero, an artist and a mother all of which are despicable in their own right but also come from very different and unique backgrounds.

  • The Soldier:
    • If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I am working on a novel, the first part taking place during WWII from the point of view of a Japanese Immigrant named Kazuo. In the internment camps he will meet a soldier who will challenge him, bossing him around and treating him poorly. What I want my reader to realize is that the soldier’s actions are based in historical fact. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor, sending a shock wave of fear throughout the US. What may be seen as mistreatment should also be read as caution and a soldier following orders. He is racist because he is afraid of another attack and paranoid because he is constantly surrounded by the same people who share the appearance of those that attacked his country. He is a patriot and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of his home even if that means keeping the Japanese in line through racial slurs. Strike fear in your enemy before they realize you are the one who is afraid. These two characters are separated for a time, my plan being to reunite them in Japan where the home advantage is switched. My protagonist has a choice. Will he become the despicable character towards the soldier? Neutral, more focused on surviving than enacting any sort of revenge? Will he drown the soldier in kindness? All I know is that the last option will definitely NOT be happening.
  • The Jazz Musician
    • The novel spans over decades, following the life of Kazuo and his love interest, Esther who finds herself raising her grandsons in Massachusetts during the 1960s. Enter another despicable character, the father of Esther’s grandchildren who was once a promising Jazz musician until everything went wrong. I won’t reveal too much about what happens but this is where I had to be wary of stereotypes. The appearance of an African-American father is seldom in several novels I’ve read and even when they are present, they are often abusive or can’t be bothered with the children. Just like there are plenty of novels and short stories that have a strong, African-American father figure, there is also the fact that this occurrence is based on truth. Not all fathers are present and not all fathers are loving. So why is the father figure for my two characters the way he is? Because he drinks, but why does he drink? It’s not for the simple fact that he likes alcohol is it? No, it’s because he made a mistake. He got drunk during his wedding night which led to his wife hating him. Hateful wife belittles him which makes him feel terrible. That and playing at small venues isn’t bringing in enough money plus his wife hides the fact that she is pregnant until something happens to the baby. But is the baby even his? What I’m doing here is providing my reader all the painful facts regarding my characters life to show why he drinks, why he is miserable and why he chooses to ignore his children. This is all done (hopefully) in a short story I just finished  and of course there are several more reasons behind my characters despicable actions but my goal is to draw empathy for this character before the reader just looks at him with disgust. In doing so, I’m providing the evidence that my character is human, that he was dealt a terrible hand which will effect him and his children for the rest of their lives.
  • The Runaway Mother
    • I’m all for equal rights and treatment of women which means if I’m going to have despicable male characters I have to have despicable female characters. Plus, despicable mothers, sisters, wives, aunts and friends do exist. Gender is separate from how good or bad your character is. Opposite of the struggling father I have the caged mother, not in an abusive way but, like her husband, made some bad choices leading to this situation. I also didn’t want my female character to be weak, instead naive in an attempt to prove to her mother she is capable of taking care of herself when in fact, she ends up being miserable. So what makes her despicable? A choice. My mentor challenged me to push my characters into a corner, so much so that they risk losing everything. My characters motivation? Her freedom.
      And what is she willing to lose?Everything.She runs away which, to some readers, is the cowards way out, leaving a bitter taste in their mouths. But it is the fact that she abandons her children with a father she knows is unfit to raise them which makes her despicable. Now, not only is she the runaway mother but she is also the uncaring mother. Should she still be worthy of the title of mother at all?

There are other major and minor despicable characters in the works, some being despicable based on historical accuracy and the paranoia present while others are despicable because of their past. What I want is to have despicable characters present in my writing, giving a nod as to why my readers should dislike them. I want these villains to still tug on my readers heartstrings, drawing moments of empathy before continuing to be an obstacle for the protagonist. Or, it would be great if my reader loved to hate them.

What I refuse to do is have the crazed, ballistic soldier hating my protagonist because the rest of his troop does, the absent African-American father because that’s just the way things are and the runaway mother leave in order to prepare a better life for her children.

My soldier is a hero and a villain, one who bravely acts because he is afraid what might happen if he doesn’t. He is paranoid that the man standing across from him with the same face at the enemy is just waiting for the right moment to strike.

My father is absent because he is beat down, exhausted from the terrible life he has led and no longer looks forward to the future. Because of the darkness that lies ahead, he lashes out.

My mother runs because she is selfish, tired of looking after others and wanting, just for a moment, to know what it means to be happy. Though she wishes her sons all the happiness in the world, she knows she is not the one to give it to them.

Each of them are human, all struggling to survive and trying to overcome the mistakes they’ve made.


What makes your characters despicable?