Storytelling is impossible without characters. Characters are an integral part of a story as they progress the plot and give the audience something to relate to. The relatability of a character or their plight is what keeps viewers enthralled and what storytellers rely on when they write a new piece. Add in gorgeous costuming, amazing cinematography, and an interesting setting, and you are guaranteed a recipe for success.
Likable characters keep fans wanting more, causing studios to create sequels and spin-offs, like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Loki, that center around those standout characters. Some directors though, including Martin Scorsese, make darker character-centered films that focus on the characters’ authentic and unique stories, where the characters aren’t necessarily ‘likable.’
Films are meant to imitate life and in life, we sometimes come across people we may dislike. This is the same with films, most times we find ourselves not liking a certain character, but this does not mean that character does not have their place in the story. This character doesn’t need to be liked, they just need to have a purpose. All characters in a story should have something they want or need, thus giving them a reason to be there.
A Good Antagonist
Typically, the most disliked character is the antagonist. The antagonist is always getting in the way of the protagonist’s goal and is typically the easiest to dislike. They are causing a problem for our hero, but that does mean we necessarily dislike them. A good story should take us on a journey and a good villain keeps that journey from stalling.
Wrestling is a good way to look at the basics of storytelling. In wrestling, we have our baby-faced good guy, the wrestler who wins over the crowd. Everyone is cheering for a good face. WWE legend John Cena is one of the most beloved faces in the industry, having granted over 650 wishes for Make-A-Wish and become a nice-guy figure, the kind of archetypal protagonist wrestling, like cinema, utilizes.
On the opposing side, we have our heel, the bad guy. One of the best heels to ever do it was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who, like Cena, was able to make the jump from wrestling to Hollywood. A good heel thrives on the crowd booing them and can steal the show with their speeches and antics. This makes for an excellent villain. Although we root against them and they may have done terrible things, we cannot help but love them. We look forward to a story that will include them. In some stories, our villains end up being better characters than our heroes.
Some stories give us antagonists that aren’t necessarily likable, but we understand them. They are justified in their actions, and we may even relate to them in some way. We may not agree with their methods, but we understand how they got to that point. We can see this clearly in the #ThanosWasRight sentiment. A justifiable or compassionate villain can even be likable. On the contrary, one of the most disliked characters in television history was Joffrey from Game of Thrones. We loved to hate him and rejoiced at his final scene. This character was pure evil and was never justified in anything he did.
His mother Cersei, played by the incredible Lena Headey, received just as much hate. But the thing about Cersei is, although she was terrible, she was justified in everything she did. From the first season, in a conversation with Ned Stark, we find out why she acted so horribly. Did her past justify her actions? Not necessarily, but we did understand why she did them. Some people even connected with the struggle Cersei had gone through and the lengths she would go for her children. Lena Headey never won an Emmy, leaving fans perplexed as to why she was snubbed, because her ‘villain’ is so morally dynamic. Antagonists like Cersei tend to be some of the best characters because if we were to stand in their shoes, it is hard not to say we may not make the same choices.
And Than There’s Umbridge
And then there is Dolores Umbridge, the worst villain to ever come out of the Harry Potter franchise. Dolores Umbridge, played by the amazing Imelda Staunton, made her first appearance in the fifth installment of the franchise, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Fans absolutely hated the headmistress, and she is still a topic of discussion.
Dolores Umbridge is arguably the best villain to ever appear because she is so universally disliked. There are no reasons to defend her because there are no justifications behind her actions. We do not see any redeemable qualities in the character. Dolores Umbridge is the epitome of pure evil.
The reason Umbridge works so well is that everyone knows someone like her. Everyone knows someone who seems to enjoy nothing more than filling the world with misery. As anyone who has worked in retail or customer service would know, people like Umbridge are terrifying. Although she is hidden behind a pink hat and a smile, her vile veins are filled with hatred.
A newer character that is receiving similar hate is Jason Carver (Mason Dye) from Stranger Things. Although Carver has some justification, it is weak at best. He appears to be nothing more than a bully hiding behind his popularity. Carver, like Umbridge, use their position and power to do nothing more than wreak havoc and instill fear in those around them. Although horrible characters, they are important to their stories.
Our goal as writers is to make even the most fantastical world feel grounded and real. One of the best ways to do that is by having well-rounded and multidimensional characters, but an antagonizing dark horse will always stand out among the rest. Their ability to be universally unlikable keeps them a topic of constant conversation and reminds us of the people we do not want to be. In a way, unlikable parts in films and television are a caricature of the people in our society that we strive to be better than. The same is to be said for our heroes who rely on these characters to promote their growth throughout their journey, making these unlikable and unrelatable characters an integral part of any story.