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An antagonist can be classed on three orthogonal parameters:
- How much danger they, or their plans, pose.
- How effective they are.
- How much the audience is supposed to hate them.
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.
An interesting feature of this is that the more evil a villain is the less vile he may appear to be, compared to other villains in the story, the logic being that a truly Despicable villain is someone we hate and revile, while a truly Evil villain is dangerous and to be feared- we care less about what happens to him and are satisfied that something does, if only to end his reign of terror.
The sliding scale is roughly as follows:
- Hero Antagonists
- Anti Villains
- Those Forced Into Evil
- Necessarily Evil
- Non-Malicious Monster
- Obliviously Evil
- Harmless Villain
- Worthy Opponent
- The Hero with an F In Good needs to stay around here or above to remain plausible as a good guy.
- The Minion with an F In Evil usually goes here.
- Noble Demon
- If you're going to Bait the Dog, the reveal of the villain's actual alignment needs to be at this level or below to get the proper 'punch'.
- Punch Clock Villain usually goes about here.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds
- Ordinary Villainy
- The Villainous Harlequin rarely goes below this point.
- Any instances of Karma Houdini below this point run a huge risk of accidentally transforming a 'normal' villain into someone as despised as a Complete Monster.
- In order to induce the Mood Whiplash needed to qualify a villain for Vile Villain Saccharine Show status, they need to be at this evil or below.
- Hate Sink usually falls here in terms of vileness, even without being a true antagonist.
- Put Them All Out of My Misery usually settles about here.
- 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.
- Smug Snake
- Nietzsche Wannabe (the villainous variety)
- Obviously Evil
- Bigger Bad (such as God of Evil) needs to be at or below this point to be taken credibly as a source of all evil (unless they're on a Sugar Bowl or such where 'all evil' means that they want to cancel Christmas), though because of their tendency of being an Orcus on His Throne even the reality-destroying Eldritch Abomination might come across less vile than the ordinary Big Bad.
- Characters likely to cross the Moral Event Horizon
- Any antagonist who has already crossed the Moral Event Horizon:
- With few exceptions, any villain serious that Dystopia Justifies the Means is a Complete Monster, though the reverse is not true; even serial rapists, Omnicidal Maniacs, and people who play very loud, annoying music on the bus won't take it that far. This is usually reserved as a motivation for Bigger Bads and the God of Evil when they decide to take off the kid gloves.
- Complete Monster - By definition, the least sympathetic character possible. Note that not all characters who cross the Moral Event Horizon are necessarily Complete Monsters.
Tropes that 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:
- 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 excepted, of course, as are mooks seen committing atrocities like mass murder and rape with a smile on their face.
- Card Carrying Villains can be anything from Anti-Villain to Complete Monster.
- 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 probably a bit higher on the scale than he would otherwise be. Similarly with Evil Is Cool and related tropes.
- Those Two Bad Guys and the Quirky Miniboss Squad can be anything from Harmless Villains to Complete Monsters.
- 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.
- A Laughably Evil villain can gain sympathy despite being close to the "bad" end of the scale.
- 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.
- An Omnicidal Maniac can be as high as Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, all the way down to Complete Monsterdom.
- 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.
- 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 Visionary Villain can be of any degree of vileness, but always has a provocative goal and plans to achieve them.
- Affably Evil characters average out near the bottom of Anti-Villain territory, but can be anything from a Hero with an F In Good to a Complete Monster with gentlemanly manners.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 wimpified otherwise Complete Monsters such as Black Mage and Hannibal Lecter.
- 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.
- 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 twisted things are.
- 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.
- Shows with Black and Grey Morality tend to reduce the vileness of Hero Antagonists or Anti Villains; it's just hard to get worked up over a villain's plan to carve his face into the side of a mountain when the hero has to regularly resort to machine-gunning robbers in broad daylight.
- Likewise, shows with Grey and White Morality rarely have more than one or two instances (usually the Big Bad) where the antagonists stray below Well-Intentioned Extremist.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Depending on their level of intelligence and malice, a Psychopathic Manchild can range from Obliviously Evil to a Complete Monster