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.
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?
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.