A Good Villain is Hard to Find: Writing Complicated “Bad Guys”

Why Writing a Good “Bad Guy” is Good For You 🙂

Most beginning writers, and even quite a few experienced ones, tend to fall back onto black and white notions of good and evil when writing antagonists. These “bad guys” are characters who do horrible, despicable, no good, very bad things to your protagonist and it can be very easy to want to punish them on the page. After all, your characters are your darlings, the people who live in your head 24/7, and though it may sound downright unhinged to all the non-writers out there, it can be very tempting to “protect” one set of imaginary people from another set you’ve created. So you begin to subconsciously write less and less powerful antagonists. I can hear you now: “But my bad guy has all the power; he’s the straight, rich, white-guy CEO of a multi-national corporation who beats his children and cheats on his wife and clubs baby seals and when my protagonist uses her cunning wit to expose his evil plan to steal indigenous land to build an oil refinery, everyone is so grateful!” Obviously, I’m exaggerating and I am quite sure that your bad guy is way more interesting than the imaginary Greenpeace arch nemesis I just created above, but I think you get my point.

Why is my boorish CEO so boring? Because he is so universally and cartoonishly bad. The truth is that pure, unadulterated evil is actually very easy for readers to dismiss. If your readers can look at a character, stamp a big, fat “bad guy” sign on his forehead and move on, then you have missed an opportunity to engage with them on a deeper level. The best antagonists are the ones that make you squirm with their humanity, the ones who make you think “there but for the grace of God go I.”  If your readers cannot on some level relate to the motivations of the antagonist–even if they wholeheartedly disagree with his actions–then you have missed the boat on creating a complex foil for your protagonist.

Shakespeare was a master at creating the complicated bad guy, especially in his later plays. If you’ve not read “The Tempest,” or haven’t read it since high school, it is worth another look for the character of Caliban. Caliban is the half-man, half-monster enslaved by Prospero. He is my favorite character in all of Shakespeare because he is both brutal and poetic. He is also the precursor (or brother, depending on how you chart the timeline) to the many half-humans, half-monsters so prevalent in our popular mythologies (werewolves, vampires, zombies, etc). Many Shakespeare scholars argue that Caliban represents Shakespeare’s final thoughts on the nature of good and evil and that Shakespeare chose to imbue Caliban with so many human characteristics to remind us that evil and brutality are not solely the provenance of monsters, but also of men.

Another master of the complexity of human evil and ugliness is Toni Morrison. I could point you at any one of her novels to illustrate my point,  but if you’ve not read any of them you should start at the beginning with The Bluest Eye, which is still my favorite. I don’t want to give too much away or commit the very sin of oversimplification I am attempting to warn against here so I won’t say much except that this book helped me to understand for the first time the way in which institutional and societal oppression and violence can be internalized and then reenacted within families. I am remembering particularly the scene towards the end of the novel where Morrison writes from Cholly Breedlove’s point of view as he rapes his own daughter. It is an incredible piece of writing because Morrison does not flinch; and because she doesn’t over-simplify or demonize, we are left with the stunning pain of the scene and its endless reverberations. Morrison could have written the scene from the daughter’s perspective as so many other writers might have done, but what would have been lost in that choice is the haunting truth of the cyclical nature of violence, abuse, and internalized oppression.

I particularly love Flannery O’Connor’s evocations of evil because they so often come in unexpected or surprising forms. In one of O’Connor’s best known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we initially believe that evil comes in the guise of the Misfit, an escaped convict who murders a grandmother and her family in cold blood. By the end of the story, however,  O’Connor reveals the murdered grandmother’s sins of false piety and superficiality to be as much among those sins which require redemption as the murders the Misfit commits. Now, O’Connor wrote from a very specific Catholic moral framework in which all humans come into life tainted and flawed by Original Sin but can be saved by divine Grace, which levels the playing field a bit in terms of who is “good” and “evil,” but even if her views hold no appeal to you she is worth studying for her take no prisoners approach to her characters.

Ready to take your two-dimensional bad guys out of the drawer and breathe some life into them? Here are a few points to remember when creating believable antagonists:

  1. Almost everyone desires to be “good” within their own belief system or moral order. Their good may not look like yours, it may not even look like a rational system,  but most people act from a desire to follow their own internal sense of good. No matter how wrong, deluded, or mean, your antagonist believes him/herself to be trying to be good on some level.
  2. Most people think they are right. Your antagonist would not be bombing abortion clinics on page 24 if he secretly deep down knew he was wrong or that he would have a change of heart on page 287 after meeting a kind young doctor. He thinks he is right. Don’t shortchange your antagonist’s views or beliefs because you think they are wrong or because you know how the plot ends.
  3. Don’t assume characters who disagree with you politically are stupid. It is much more interesting/dangerous/scary to assume the opposite.
  4. Even the meanest sons-a-bitches alive have a favorite food, TV show, song, sports team, etc. How does it change the way you relate to your antagonist if you make his favorite movie yours or if she cooks the comfort food your mom always made you when you were sick?
  5. Make your antagonist good at something completely unrelated to his function in the story. Maybe he is an excellent gardener or dancer or juggler or bird caller. You can’t be evil 24/7. Give the dude a hobby.
  6. Is there a physical motion you do when you are nervous or excited or scared? Do you bite your fingernails, tap your feet, smoke, drink, hum? Why not give your antagonist one of your tics? Or your husband’s? Or your mother’s? Transposing a gesture of someone to whom you feel sympathetic will deepen your ties to your antagonist and help you get inside his/her head.
  7. Still feeling stuck? Examine the reason you’ve chosen this antagonist. Are you writing about an abusive father because that is what is necessary for your story or because your father was abusive? Is the sister-in-law character in your book staying flat because she is subconsciously modeled on your passive aggressive co-worker and you can’t find an ounce of empathy for her right now? Sometimes we choose our antagonists because they represent people or issues or ideas we need to work out in our real lives. We all know writing can be great therapy, but sometimes your fiction will tell you if you are trying to force your emotional issues onto a character or situation where they don’t belong. So if you are really struggling take a step back and ask a trusted friend or reader to let you know if a character feels too laden with emotional baggage that is exogenous to the plot or the story itself.
  8. Writing is often brutal emotional work so have the guts to go to the dark places and write about the person you could have been if…if you lost that job, if your wife left you for him, if you could get away with “it.” If you are unwilling to explore the shameful, the squeamish, the sickly, the scary, your reader will only go on half a journey with you. As far as I’m concerned writing is too hard to only go halfway.
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