Building Believable Baddies
March 26, 2013
Let’s get the difficult stuff out of the way first.
The world is a very unfair, morally gray place. You can shoot a man in war to defend your homeland and he’ll die crying and clutching pictures of his family. We’ll be disturbed on a fundamental level when we’re forced to acknowledge that our enemies are good people. For soldiers, this frequently results in PTSD–no, it’s not just from the explosions and gunshots and seeing their friends die. PTSD can come from killing people, too.
Humans gravitate toward an ideal black v. white mentality because it’s simple. It’s easier than teaching everyone about cognitive complexity. It’s the way the law works. It’s the way most people want the whole world to work. It’s also a fundamental part of most religions. However, black and white morality is an ideal only attainable in a perfect world. As long as humans are imperfect, an objective moral scale will never be possible because people will always have really good reasons to do really bad things.
Bad guys in fiction often lack really good reasons to do really bad things. This is partly because books are a form of escapism, and many people want to escape to a world better than their own. It’s also partly because this way of writing has been so deeply ingrained into literary tradition that “bad guy” and “antagonist” have become interchangeable.
Writing a bad guy as a human first and a bad guy next is ideal, but it’s not the only way to write a memorable antagonist. A memorable antagonist is one who is interesting and creative. He doesn’t have to be a nice, tolerant guy (or girl) who makes you cry when the protagonist eventually gets around to killing him (or her), though that’s definitely an option (and my personal favorite).
A memorable bad guy can be evil; he merely has to be interesting and creative. The opposite of love is apathy, not hate. If your reader is apathetic toward your villain, you’ve failed. If your reader hates your villain with a boiling passion, you’ve succeeded (see Joffrey in Game of Thrones). If your reader loves your villain, you’ve also succeeded (but if s/he loves your villain and is apathetic toward your hero/ine, you may want to consider reversing the roles).
So how do you make your villains interesting? Easy. Make them human, believable, and unique. There’s a reason Voldemort is memorable while most viewers can’t even recall the villain’s name in Captain America (despite the movie itself being pretty good). In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll jump off published stories and give examples I’m either pulling from my own unfinished works or making up on the spot:
Unmemorable, unbelievable villain: wants to take over the world because his parents abused him as a kid; is bald, dressed in black, and leads armies of faceless henchmen.
Unmemorable, believable villain: kills a man at a bar by accident and spends the rest of the book fleeing from the cop protagonist in order to avoid the death penalty.
Memorable, unbelievable villain: wants to be mayor of a small town, assassinates all other candidates and their families before immediately turning around and leading the town to prosperity without a waver.
Memorable, believable villain: kills a man, enjoys it, and spends a good part of the plot in a moral battle with him or herself while either fleeing from or killing pursuers depending on where his or her mind is at the moment.
I’m half tempted to add “likes dogs and kids” to that last one, because 90% of memorable, believable villains have some sort of traditionally good trait about them. If they don’t, they’re at least creatively designed, e.g. Sauron is a gigantic flaming eye on top of a tower.
Writing prompt #1: Write a hero and a villain, then tell the story from the villain’s perspective.
Writing prompt #2: Write a character who’s someone you’d readily become friends with. Then make him or her the bad guy.