Query: do antagonists need redeeming qualities to seem human?

I’ve seen it suggested before that “bad” characters should have some redeeming quality that allows the characters to seem more human and makes the reader able to relate to them. I disagree with this position.

For one thing, there are real-life humans that have no redeeming qualities. Why should fictional characters be any different?

One might say that no one is ALL bad. I can’t say whether or not this is true, but having a redeeming quality is not a prerequisite for being classified as human or even someone others can relate to (as unfortunate as that may be).

Let me further explain this by listing some redeeming qualities your antagonist may have:

  • Can show mercy
  • Speaks kindly to spouse/child/strangers
  • Lends tools to neighbors
  • Loves mom
  • Loves dogs or other animals

Suppose your character doesn’t have any of those qualities. Does this make them 100% evil, through and through? I say probably not, but certainly, they’re no one that I want to get to know.

If your character doesn’t have one of the qualities I listed or something similarly redeeming about their personality, will their repulsive nature turn the reader off of your book completely?

First, let me give you a scenario. Say your character hates dogs, tells his neighbor to f-off when asked about borrowing his hedge-trimmers, and can’t stand how his wife prattles on to him.

Other people do think and act the same way toward one or all of those things in their own lives. So, right there, those people can relate to that character and recognize him as human like themselves. For those that cannot relate to either of those things, I doubt they will stop reading the book. In fact, they may keep reading because your character has qualities they find loathsome, and they can’t wait for him to get what’s coming to him.

Now, if your antagonist is a fully loathsome character, through and through - like he enjoys killing ANYBODY, and he beats his wife, his mother, AND his dog - but you as the writer don’t want your antagonist to be loathed by all readers, then by all means, write in some redeeming qualities for your character. Just be sure you’re staying true to your character’s nature. Your readers will be able to sniff out inauthentic writing.

From my perspective, I’m fine with writing loathsome characters. I say, if they’re loathsome, let them be themselves. Who am I to tell them how to be? After all, it’s just a story