Originally published on May 14, 2014 @ 3:09 pm
Disclosure: Some of the links on this post are affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you click a link and purchase something I have recommended. While clicking these links won't cost you any extra money, they will help me keep this site up and running and keep it ad-free! Please check out my disclosure policy for more details. Thank you for your support!
Is writing evil characters really that hard? (Don't shoot me, this is completely rhetorical. The answer is yes, but they don't really have to be).
Here is my problem with a lot of fiction stories: the main character is flawless. And I do mean flawless. And the antagonist is just one big walking flaw of evil glop.
They are almost always some goody-goody-letter-of-the-law-absolutely-beautiful people who can never knowingly do anything wrong. It's seriously just about always Good versus Evil – and the Good is too good and the Evil is too evil.
Writing a good character is hard, I get it. Writing evil characters, especially evil characters that people will still like enough to want to continue reading the book, is even harder.
I mean, come on. You cannot tell me that evil beings don't know how to do good things, or that they can't love anything, or that you can never see any good in them ever.
If you ask me, sometimes evil beings even love more than their good counterparts. Just take a look at Anakin Skywalker. He didn't evolve into Darth Vader and then become evil. He was absolutely capable of love — a deep, true love that consumed him in its passion. And this love directly led to evil acts. Not because he was being tricked or manipulated (although he was), and not because he didn't know better (although he should have). But because he loved too much.
And to me, that would be the ultimate evil. Someone like Darth Vader who had nothing else to lose because he had already lost (err… destroyed) everything he loved. Unlike Darth Plagueis or Lord of the Rings' Melkor, both of whom are portrayed as being evil and seeking conquest throughout their entire existence. They never had anything to lose to begin with because they never loved anything.
They're like fires — just burning through everything, good or bad, with no real motivation spurring them on. There's no passion or love, no hatred…just burning.
There are, and have been, a lot of evil people in this world. Some far more sinister than others. So you would think that writing evil characters would be a breeze — I mean, just look at the sheer volume of muses available to us!
Which leads me to my next point – the bad guy doesn't always have to be so bad. Take a look at some of the past presidential elections to see what it looks like when you have to truly choose between the lesser of two evils.
Sometimes, it's not always so easy to define the “bad guy.”
Sometimes, the bad guy isn't even all that bad.
3 Tips for Writing Evil Characters
Their motivation must be relatable to good people.
Taking over the world is fine and all, but as a motivation goes, it's kind of weak.
I mean, unless the evil character in question is literally a God, if their motivation is to rule the world, well, who is going to help them do that? Even if they do get to live when all is said and done (and they never get to live, the evil character always double crosses his or her minions – so that's not even a solid foundation).
Does it have to be a noble motivator? No. It can be as noble as true love or as selfish as revenge. The trick, though, is to make the motivation something that good people will understand — so they might say “I can see why he does this” or even “he's taking it too far, but I can see where he's coming from.”
Because if they can see where the villain is coming from, they can understand the people and the minions helping them. And they can relate to that part of the story.
Hey, they might even begin to question whether or not they could be pushed that far over the line themselves.
If you're going to use a diagnosis, please get it right.
I get it, not everyone is a train psychiatrist, psychologist, or family therapist. Not everyone is going to know the difference between certain mental health ailments, disorders, or how such ailments might drive their villain's actions.
Far too often, people just want to call a villain psychotic. Or they mix up a sociopath with a psychopath. Or they call it Borderline Personality Disorder when they really mean Bipolar Disorder.
And I'm not saying that these mistakes will necessarily ruin the book or your characters. But your words have power. And most of the people who are living with these conditions A) are probably not criminals, B) are probably not evil, and C) are already being marginalized by the population at large who misunderstand and mischaracterize them.
And besides, if they are evil, it's probably not because of the condition.
Do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy of the desk reference to the DSM. It small, portable, and filled with all sorts of good information in easy-to-understand terminology. If you want your evil character to have a behavioral or psychological condition, this will be one of the best ways you can help ensure your accuracy on that condition and make sure you are portraying it in a way that does him or her justice (no pun intended).
Remember that your evil characters are people, too.
And people change.
They evolve and grow through the story.
Unfortunately, evil characters don't seem to be given that same luxury. They start with one frame of mind and progress through the entire story without wavering even once all the way through to the end when they are finally vanquished.
Meanwhile, the hero of the story usually changes tremendously — from loner to team player to leader. Or from a lack of confidence to believing in hime or her self. They change, they grow. And as they grow, the friends and sidekicks they pick up along the way also grow.
Evil characters are people, too. And the more they follow their nefarious plans, the more they interact with their minions and the heroes, the more they are going to be affected by everything.
Not only that, but evil characters are heroes in their own stories and in the stories of their minions and countless supporters. And as heroes, it's important to see how the plot of your story or novel is affecting them and forcing them to grow.
Evil Characters Should Have Redeemable Qualities, Even if they Never Get Redemption
One of the most powerful scenes in Star Wars happened when Luke took Vader's helmet off so that Anakin could see his son for the first time with his own eyes.
No one could understand why for three movies Darth Vader raged, force-choking subordinates and threatening to destroy planets with his Death Star. For three movies, no one could understand why he killed Obi-Wan Kenobi. Or why he killed Luke's father. Or why he would serve at the side of the Emperor.
And finding out he was Luke's father? That just threw even more chaos into the mix. That just meant he was even more evil than we had all originally surmised.
But then he killed the Emperor and said those magic words: “Just for once… Let me look on you with my own eyes.”
And for that minute, no one cared about what he did. Was he going to get redemption? No. Was Luke going to save him so he could fly off and live happily ever after?
There was no redeeming Darth Vader for what he did, not really.
But for that second, there was a redeemable quality about him. He looked pained and heartbroken and people felt for him.
Did you enjoy this article? Here are some more posts on writing you may like:
- The Trick to Finding Time to Write
- Writing Evil Characters
- Self-Editing: The Other Side of Writing
- Stop Saying Writing Fantasy is Easy
- How Reading will Improve your Writing… one of the worst writing cliches out there
Writing Evil Characters FAQ
How do you make a likeable villain?
1. Make your villains competent. They shouldn't be bungling themselves into defeat, and it should look possible for them to win even if they aren't supposed to.
2. Give them a sense of morals. They might be serial killers, but do they stand up against animal cruelty?
3. Demystify your villain. It's harder to relate to a villain if you don't understand them.
4. Take out the shock of their behavior by creating a tragic backstory. Your audience doesn't have to agree with your villain's choices, but they should at least understand where they started.
5. Give them a real motivation. Good intentions entrench motivations, so what positive thing (or seemingly positive thing) are they seeking to achieve?
What makes someone a villain?
According to the Dictionary, a villain is (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.
What makes a great antagonist?
A strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something that does not coincide, and in fact may even oppose, with the main character's goals. The antagonist does not always have to be a villain, but it is common to see them as the villain in stories where the main character is the hero.
Can a protagonist be a villain?
Absolutely. Making your main character a villain can be fun and may give your story a new perspective all together. Just be sure the audience can still relate and identify with your villain (to keep them cheering).