Character Development,  Craft,  Uncategorized

Eighteen Ways To Write An Emotionally Abusive Villain



Let’s say you want to write a villain who doesn’t wear black, doesn’t have a weapon and doesn’t do all the things that typical baddies do.You want an emotionally abusive villain.

Emotionally abusive villains are scarier than the Darth Vader types, in my humble opinion. They can play with a person’s mind, trick them into thinking that they are safe, twist their reality and torture their soul. In real life and in real literature  emotionally abusive villains have been responsible for all kinds of evil.

Often emotional abusers are subtle.

They don’t go for the obvious name calling. Instead they want to be see as following the letter of the law. They’ll look good, but inside be crawling with nastiness.

Eighteen Ways To Write An Emotionally Abusive Villain

This list is an idea of how you can make your antagonist more evil. You probably have met people like this. (I’m sorry. Here’s a hug.)

They interrupt. Many people interrupt, but abusers interrupt because they hold contempt for the speaker. Their words are the most important and they don’t care who knows it. Your emotionally abusive villain should interrupt constantly.

They take someone’s exact words and throws them back at them. In an argument, an abuser will use anything they can to confuse or frustrate the speaker. Your emotionally abusive villain should always be listening for secret words that they can throw back in your protagonist’s face.

Makes assumptions about your motives. Your emotionally abusive villain should have a twisted sense of reality: they’ll believe that everyone is just as evil as he is.

“It is not the the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.”
Aisha Mirza

Drones on for hours about problems, talking in circles, wearing you down so you will agree just to get them to stop. Abusers are often illogical and love the sound of their own voice. Your emotionally abusive villain should tie your protagonist up into a web of words that are confusing and baffling.

Redefines words to make them mean what they want them to mean. Abusers believe that they are the authority on certain issues and they will make sure that you are educated. Your emotionally abusive villain should believe in their own “superior” intelligence and demonstrate it at every chance.

One-ups you at every opportunity. Abusers love putting you down. They can outdo nearly everything about your life because the want to be the best. Your emotionally abusive villain should look for chances to show off and then pout if they don’t get one.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

Blames you for things that are out of your control. Abusers don’t see that you accidentally fell down the stairs and broke your ankle. Abusers claim it was your klutziness that did it. Your emotionally abusive villain should take advantage of your protagonists bad luck and make them feel as bad as they can.

Exercises financial control over you. An abuser will want to have a joint checking account with you. They will want to know how much things cost. They don’t mind loaning you money if they can use the loan to manipulate you later.

Subtly attacks the things you love, like your spouse or your pets. Abusers will sneer at the things that you have the most affection for because they don’t love at all. They really are jealous of the things you’ve opened your heart to. Your emotionally abusive villain should have nothing nice to say about anything.

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
Henry James

Ignores your excitement about your passions or preferences. An abuser will often react passively to your good news or your next opportunity. They withhold affection and excitement on purpose because they know they can control you. Your emotionally abusive villain should be cold. Ice cold.

Mocks or makes fun of you, even in little things. An abuser often uses every opportunity to tease you or point out your flaws. “Oh, your toes have always been so fat!” Or, “are you going to spill the soda this time like you did last time?” Your emotionally abusive villain should think that this is what a good sense of humor is and accuse the protagonist of not having one.

Makes a big fuss over little favors. Abusers will never want you to forget that it was they that had the bus fare, or they were the ones that bought lunch that day, or if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have umbrellas! This is all they’ve got, so they milk it for all it’s worth. Your emotionally abusive villain should remind everyone around them how they saved the day! THEY ARE THE HEROES!

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Claims that they will “always be there for you” but then balks when you do need them. Abusers must be seen as the hero, even though they rarely give selflessly. Your emotionally abusive villain should find plenty of excuses not to actually help out others when they have a need, but if there is an audience  . . .

Has an manipulative attachment to gifts. They are used as a reminder later, or they are to remind you that they owe you, or they are to help you get over your anger, or they are to used to control you. Villains like this may demand that their gifts be displayed prominently. They may keep score of who gave you what so that they can be ahead and “win.” Your emotionally abusive villain should never give a gift that isn’t used for an ulterior motive.

Disrespects your belongings, such as selling things without asking. They may assume that they can take something that was once a gift from them to you. They may treat an item of yours carelessly. Your emotionally abusive villain should never respect the property of others.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Denies promises that they kept. Abusers have no trouble making promises because it makes them look good, but they have a lot of trouble with inconvenience. Don’t trust them to keep their word. Your emotionally abusive villain should deny everything if someone reminds them of promises they’ve made.

Claims that you make things up. Abusers often claim that your imagination can’t be trusted. An abuser may also questions your reality. This is gaslighting and consistent, long term behavior like this can have brutal effects on a victim’s emotional state. This is one of the most insidious forms of emotional abuse and victims have been known to take their own lives simply because they don’t trust their own reality.

Withholds money or information because they like having the power. Abusers are incredibly stingy and will only give if they think that it is in their best interest. They will not give because it is the right thing to do. They give because they want power, regardless of what it is they are giving. Your emotionally abusive villain should work very hard to remain secretive and stingy.

Pits you against other people around you. Abusers deliberately seek out the weak and easy to manipulate. If they have an enemy, and they always have an enemy, they will orchestrate drama on purpose just to cause trouble.  Your emotionally abusive villain should always be looking for an empath to take advantage of.

So, I’m really glad I can recognize the emotional abusers in my life. These type of people are no fun at all to know in real life. But in fiction, they can be a great antagonist.

What else can you add to this list to make an emotionally abusive villain real?


I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.


  • Julia

    OH MY GOD! Thank you for this!!! I’ve been writing a short story but had no idea how to write an abusive character. This helped me A LOT! Thanks!!

    • V

      Me too. Every word of it. I’m so impressed by the inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout the article, kept my head on straight reading this.

  • Jessamine

    Wow. Nearly all of that described my brother, unfortunately. Great article.
    They’ll play with the victim’s fears, too. If the victim is afraid of darkness, for example, they’ll certainly turn the lights out on them, and try to scare them in the dark. If you’re terrified of worms, they’ll leave some on your bed. If you’re afraid of the ones you love the most dying, they’ll make jokes of it. And so on. Don’t forget the character’s fears and phobias. They will play on these for all they’re worth, usually just for amusement.
    And yes, they’ll try to destroy the victim’s confidence in their skills or talents. For example, I’m a musician, a late intermediate/early advanced pianist, an early intermediate violinist, a beginner lutenist, and an occasional composer. We’d been having an argument about music. He was losing the argument, because he didn’t understand simple concepts in music. I stated something along the lines of, “I’m the musician. I’m being trained specifically in music, I think I should know.” He replied something like this, but a bit more harshly, “It’s nice and all that you play the piano a bit, but you aren’t a star.” Which I obviously know, and will fully admit to. But again, they try to destroy the victim’s self-confidence, and they do this in any way they can, subtle or extreme. I do not play the piano “a bit,” I’m nearly an advanced student. While he abandoned his instrument, I’ve nearly mastered one, and I’m continuing to learn two others. But they want to get to the victim in any way they can. He uses music against me all of the time.
    Another point I thought of, which you touched on briefly, is that they wear a mask in public. People will come up and proclaim how SWEET this person is, how wonderful they are, because of the mask the emotional abuser clings to. Yet only the ones who they reveal themselves to know the truth.
    This is also effective when the victim is questionning their own reality. Were they just overreacting? Maybe the person was just having a bad day. Should they apologize for their response? Maybe it wasn’t even as bad as they’d thought is was, in the moment, or did they even remember it correctly? Did they simply imagine the entire thing?
    They’ll also praise the victim behind their backs, pretending to be proud of their qualities, or of their skills or achievements. This is simply to play up their reputation for kindness and such.
    If there’s a mentally strong victim of emotional abuse, they’ll try to ignore what the person says. They’ll repeat something like, “I’m not getting sucked into this!” Alas, the emotional abuser will simply find other ways to get to them. Some characters will block out the person’s attempts, some may even play the same game, but others may fall for it.
    They will also complain about others, EXCEPT for the people who praise them. If they think someone is more intellectual than they are, or “different” from the “average” person, they have as little to do with this person as possible. They complain about everything they do, even though it’s really not something worth complaining about.
    “Drones on for hours about problems, talking in circles, wearing you down so you will agree just to get them to stop. Abusers are often illogical and love the sound of their own voice. Your emotionally abusive villain should tie your protagonist up into a web of words that are confusing and baffling.”
    I know someone who has a mother like this. Her dog was ill, they weren’t sure if they’d have to have him out down or if they could help him, and everyone was devastated. The mother called, “Are you taking me to cribb?” “No, Mom.” “Why not?” “Because I’m not up for it.” “Don’t you want to come with me?” And so on. A while later, she called again. “I’m coming over to use your computer to go on my Facebook page.” “No.” “Why not?” She pestered her daughter until she gave in. Then it was, “I want your daughter to paint my nails.” Though she was in tears the entire time, she gave in, because if she didn’t, she’d be on “the list.”
    “The list” comprises of people who have supposedly “wronged” these types, however small their “crime.” They don’t speak to them for several months or years. They spread rumours about those on it, things they’ve never done, but it doesn’t matter. Had a car accident? Automatically, you were either texting, drunk, or high. Talking to a man when you’re a married woman? Must be having an affair with him. They spread these lies, telling them to any who will listen.
    And yes, they don’t respect the victim’s property. They don’t have any issues with going through someone else’s belongings, hiding important objects as a “joke.” Yet if someone else did this to them? That person has heck to pay.
    In regards to the other comments about narcissism, this can also relate to bipolar. I know a woman who’s daughter is bipolar, who matches all of these points. The woman is the one who repeats aloud, “I’m not getting sucked into this!” She’s one of the strongest and most intelligent people I know.
    Something to remember when writing these types of characters is that inside, they have little or no self-esteem (though they put on a mask proclaiming about how great they are). They may have depression, or anxiety. But they don’t accept help from therapists, because they’re scared of seeming “mentally ill” or “wrong” to others, thus breaking the mask they’ve put on in half. Although they may not accept much-needed professional help, they’ll threaten suicide just for attention.
    Parents of this type of person might also blame themselves. “Where did I go wrong? What didn’t I do? What DID I do?” Even though it ISN’T their fault, they blame themselves.
    Oh, and if the victim is infatuated with someone? They’ll torment them relentlessly, complain to the object of their infatuation about them, and will undoubtedly tell the person the victim likes them, just to cause tension and embarrassment for both parties.
    They are like a storm. You walk on eggshells all of the time, not wanting to break the ice. Yet the storm comes regardless, and over any small thing. Lost a favorite CD of this person’s? Didn’t pick up their preferred juice?
    One more thing: if the character is sensitive to loud noises, this person will definitely turn the stereo up as loud as possible. When the character asks them to turn it down, they’ll yell about how selfish the victim is, how they can’t have fun. Again, this can leave the victim questionning themselves. Perhaps they are selfish, and shouldn’t react so negatively? Maybe they really can’t have any fun. Meanwhile, exactly WHO has the music turned up louder than they should, with no regard for anyone else?

    You did excellent with this post! Everything is accurate. I really enjoyed reading it. Sometimes emotional abusers aren’t quite captured correctly in novels, but you captured everything about these people.
    I actually don’t think I’ve read a book with a well-written antagonist who uses emotional tactics rather than physical, except for “Starfish,” a YA novel about a young artistically skilled girl named Kiko, who has social anxiety, an emotionally abusing mother, and a perverted uncle. It was a really well-written character-driven novel, with a lot of messages.
    Sorry for the long comment. It’s also a bit jumbled, though I promise I did try to organize it! 😉

  • Varina Plonski

    Holy wow. I’ve encountered people like this, including in my own family. I just – somehow I just never put it together like this. Wow.

    They say, “write what you know.” Now I have to put what I know into use. GREAT article!