How to write better bad guys

DelActivisto

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My main target for my book is YA. But, I think most young people (especially people who read) can handle bad guys who aren't necessarily those caricatures of evil found in books like Lord of the Rings. They're just pure, distilled evil. Which is actuality, doesn't really exist if you think about it. There's usually a reason people do everything. A lot of times, what is evil is something that simply doesn't vibe with commonly accepted social norms. For instance, gayness was commonly viewed as evil (and arguably still is by those less tolerant in modern society). Modern ethics are different - in democratic society, we grant people their freedom to do as they will provided it doesn't harm others.

Anyway, initially I wrote my bad guy as a crazy, maniacally laughing sinister bad dude. Unfortunately, this isn't very realistic, which is my main goal. I was going for a Hitler guy. This led me to read some of his speeches - he was eloquent, contained, concise. But speeches are controlled. It's easy to come across however you want.

How Mad was Hitler?

So I guess I'd like this to be a discussion about how to craft an evil character... not necessarily advice to me, although I'll learn something from whatever you post, I'm sure! And maybe other threads here have discussed the matter - feel free to link those if you know where they are.

For me, my goal to to write a "deep and complex" evil person, whose evil is personified as an intense desire for control, world domination, and perfection. Perhaps this person had parent issues, an abusive father or mother. Yes, that's a cliche, but it is quite real and does serious mental damage on a very regular basis. And these evil people believe that their way is the best, and unlike a healthy person who lives my an individual moral code, these people believe that the world will only be better when their moral code is enforced upon the world. In my case, this person also happens to be a brilliant magician, so, there's always that to help along the way.
 

Cathbad

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Personally, I've grown tired of the completely and obvious villain. Even the most evil of people don't go far, being so obvious.

In fact, most people who we now consider evil actually thought they were doing what was right/necessary. Hitler was a beloved person in his own country. An evil man s never 100% evil - they will have a lighter side. Perhaps they're tender and loving to their family. Perhaps they do "evil" in response to a perceived wrong.

Unfortunately, in most novels, the bad guy is continually and endlessly engaged in evil/bad behavior.

My suggestion would be to make your evil character... "human". With all the faults and good things thereof. Perhaps not beloved by all; perhaps even a bully - but with some redeeming qualities. We all have them.
 

EJDeBrun

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I wrote about this recently on my blog but to reiterate here, I think that a villain has to have strong convictions. They have to truly believe that what they are doing is right. And they have to be intelligent about it. Whether they're "good" or "bad" doesn't really matter so much as... people who believe that the ends justifies the means almost always destroy things on the way. And if the hero is one of those people in the path of destruction well...

So yes. I think to build a better villain you have to really build up his or hers beliefs.
 

DelActivisto

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Personally, I've grown tired of the completely and obvious villain. Even the most evil of people don't go far, being so obvious.

In fact, most people who we now consider evil actually thought they were doing what was right/necessary. Hitler was a beloved person in his own country. An evil man s never 100% evil - they will have a lighter side. Perhaps they're tender and loving to their family. Perhaps they do "evil" in response to a perceived wrong.

Unfortunately, in most novels, the bad guy is continually and endlessly engaged in evil/bad behavior.

My suggestion would be to make your evil character... "human". With all the faults and good things thereof. Perhaps not beloved by all; perhaps even a bully - but with some redeeming qualities. We all have them.

Exactly. Take Harry Potter for instance. For some reason, Voldemort pursued Harry Potter relentlessly, tirelessly, hunting him down at every possible moment. It gets kind of old. Then again, some people really do fixate that completely.

For Hitler, I'm sure he had some slightly redeeming qualities. I'm not sure what they are, but being able to speak eloquently could be one of them. He's one of the few people we can agree basically qualify as actually evil.

The word "evil" is itself problematic, I think. It conjures up notions of fable simplicity - the devil is evil, God is good; Frodo is good, Sauron is evil. So what we might consider evil - stealing, plundering other's material goods, taking their lives against their will (especially innocents), harming, maiming, brutalizing others, and removing other's freedoms.

I wrote about this recently on my blog but to reiterate here, I think that a villain has to have strong convictions. They have to truly believe that what they are doing is right. And they have to be intelligent about it. Whether they're "good" or "bad" doesn't really matter so much as... people who believe that the ends justifies the means almost always destroy things on the way. And if the hero is one of those people in the path of destruction well...

So yes. I think to build a better villain you have to really build up his or hers beliefs.

I agree. I'm wondering how complex a villain a YA novel can handle? But I think my question insults people's intelligence. Young people are surprisingly insightful.
 

EJDeBrun

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Exactly. Take Harry Potter for instance. For some reason, Voldemort pursued Harry Potter relentlessly, tirelessly, hunting him down at every possible moment. It gets kind of old. Then again, some people really do fixate that completely.

For Hitler, I'm sure he had some slightly redeeming qualities. I'm not sure what they are, but being able to speak eloquently could be one of them. He's one of the few people we can agree basically qualify as actually evil.

The word "evil" is itself problematic, I think. It conjures up notions of fable simplicity - the devil is evil, God is good; Frodo is good, Sauron is evil. So what we might consider evil - stealing, plundering other's material goods, taking their lives against their will (especially innocents), harming, maiming, brutalizing others, and removing other's freedoms.



I agree. I'm wondering how complex a villain a YA novel can handle? But I think my question insults people's intelligence. Young people are surprisingly insightful.

I don't think villains are anything anyone has to hold back on across genres. It's not about what they can handle. I mean Hunger Games is some grim stuff. HP starts off with murder. I actually think the more overwhelming the villain, the more sympathetic readers are with the protagonists in YA because young people are used to feeling powerless in this world where adults make up the rules for them. So I actually think you get more over the top villains in YA than you do in literary or just plain Sci-FI/Fantasy. Mainly because as adults we KNOW there are two sides to things. And there are complicated things to explore.

That's slightly off topic. I think if you have a compelling villain people love to hate, it doesn't matter what genre you're writing for. It's how you present him that will determine that.
 
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DelActivisto

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And often much more patient than us old-fogies. Perhaps they will appreciate that complexity.

Perhaps, perhaps not. These days, us young people tend to be glued to smart phones and TV. (insert standard anti-tech invalid social progress rant here.) On the internet it's especially bad. I've read several articles that suggest blog posts now need to

have

lots

of

white

space,
and no indentations, just a few sentences per paragraph, because we don't want to overwhelm the reader. ARGH!

Fortunately that rules are still the same for novels, I suppose.

I don't think villains are anything anyone has to hold back on across genres. It's not about what they can handle. I mean Hunger Games is some grim stuff. HP starts off with murder. I actually think the more overwhelming the villain, the more sympathetic readers are with the protagonists in YA because young people are used to feeling powerless in this world where adults make up the rules for them. So I actually think you get more over the top villains in YA than you do in literary or just plain Sci-FI/Fantasy. Mainly because as adults we KNOW there are two sides to things. And there are complicated things to explore.

That's slightly off topic. I think if you have a compelling villain people love to hate, it doesn't matter what genre you're writing for. It's how you present him that will determine that.

I've been contemplating blurring the line between the good guy and bad guy, just a tad. Have the good guy occasionally do something ethically questionable and the bad guy do something normally thought of as good. Maybe the bad guy has a kid he likes. Or a park he wants to save. And maybe the good guy pulls the trigger when he shouldn't, or advocates for unethical methods of gaining access to something to fight the bad guy. Since most people are rarely 100% good or evil, and it also depends on ones ethics and preferences what is actually "good" and "evil."

Why can't the villain also be "loved"?

That's an interesting question. Get the reader to sympathize with both sides. This could be somewhat confusing, but what you could play with would be making the reader feel that, yes, the bag guy really must still die, but it's a crying shame he got so messed up he couldn't have actually been a force of good and peace. Because that happens too.
 

Cathbad

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That's an interesting question. Get the reader to sympathize with both sides. This could be somewhat confusing, but what you could play with would be making the reader feel that, yes, the bag guy really must still die, but it's a crying shame he got so messed up he couldn't have actually been a force of good and peace. Because that happens too.

Love it!
 

Phyrebrat

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I think it's actually rather simple.

As a writer you have created each character and as such must know them. The more clothed in character traits they are, the better rendered they are and more authentic they'll be.

Humour, irony, cynicism can temper a Big Bad, making them relatable; that's what we're really talking about here, isn't it.

For the childhood abuse to work as a reason for their 'badness' (which I don't really agree with) it has to carry with it something more than a trigger.

Stress, low self-esteem, prejudice, desire for betterment - these are all far more authentic motivators and so long as they're acting from a place of genuine reaction or action to those kind of things, you'll have a more faceted character.

Stress etc in itself would make a poor drama for an audience though; it's how your character channels or directs that.

For me, fear of loss and resent at being 'othered' is the biggest motivator in terms of causing a character to make dubious choices.

pH
 

Vladd67

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D FENS in Falling down comes to mind as a villain who is surprised to realise he is the bad guy, his acts up until the final confrontation show him to be a villain but he just doesn't see it that way.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Just get in deep, as with any character, and have empathy. No one is truly evil (although I can think of one character of mine who probably is) and, when they are, there is often a reason for it. Even when not - a sociopath, perhaps - they can still have traits to like. Hannibal the Cannibal is a great example of that.

So, I guess, forget about them being evil or not - because that will drive how you want to represent them - but instead get into their mindset and get to know them.
 

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As a writer you have created each character and as such must know them. The more clothed in character traits they are, the better rendered they are and more authentic they'll be.

And get to know, even understand, your villain. If you're not rooting for your villain at some level, I don't think it works as well. A couple of the first ones I wrote got 'favourable' feedback from readers as being truly nasty villains, but I wrote them as a determined leader dedicated to defending his kind from "lesser people" and his chief "hench-being" who was there with his merry band of barbarians to make sure his people were at the top of the "lesser people" tree when the war was over. Yes, I put them both in the ground where they belonged, but I got to like both of them on some level - monsters with passion who cared about their own.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it depends what the book requires. Sauron, at least in LOTR, was an evil spirit because that's what the story needed. He's essentially the Devil of Middle-Earth. Had he been a man, or had human characteristics, the story would have been very different. And, arguably, the role of the powerful but corrupted human was filled by Saruman and Wormtongue. For what it's worth, I think it would be very rare to find a fantasy novel without some sort of humanised villain: putting a face to the villainy allows the readers to get more involved. Whatever works for the story, really.

It probably is possible to have an entirely evil human villain (at least to the reader). I've met a couple of people who, whilst not evil, seemed incapable of acting from good reasons, and I can think of a public figure whose every single deed seems to come from low, squalid motives. It's possible to imagine someone like that doing good, but only for publicity reasons, or as an unintended consequence. Personally, I wouldn't go into the villain's upbringing, as that feels a bit too easy an answer for his villainy. Insecurity works pretty well!

One of the strengths of the Sauron-type villain is that they can have a kind of magnificence that a human can't. For all the parades, the life of a tyrant is a pretty base one, usually devoted to indulging his whims and delusions and requiring people to tell him how clever he is. When Sauron says that he will destroy Middle Earth, you know he won't be stuffing himself with cake and forcing himself on the elves along the way. Which is unrealistic, but more impressive.
 

Ihe

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I'm wondering how complex a villain a YA novel can handle? But I think my question insults people's intelligence. Young people are surprisingly insightful.

They are indeed, but one must also think of their motivation when they pick up a book. That demographic in particular goes through some turbulent internal conflicts, so I find most YA's true main focus will not be the external conflict (antagonist), but the internal one (coming of age, romance, discovery)--although there are always exceptions. But overall, I feel the villains in YA are not as important to the grand scheme of things as in other genres. They still play a big part in moving the story along, but usually they won't be the main focus of the YA reader.

When moulding conflict, the theme should glue all the pieces together. Successful and lasting adversaries usually are a reflection of the story's theme (think of the differing uses/concepts of fear by Batman, the Scarecrow, and Ra's al Ghul in the first movie) and probably a twisted reflection of the protagonist as well (think Batman's order vs Joker's chaos--sorry, I've been re-watching the Dark Knight trilogy and these are all the examples my mind can come up with right now :D--solid movies those were, from a storytelling standpoint, by the way). And that's the problem with purely evil villains: pure evil, like sociopaths, can sometimes be independent of theme because they lack motives to tie them thematically to the plot, and therefore the conflict loses impact. To be honest, the more personal the villain gets with the MC, the better it is for me as a reader. For me, Sauron is not a good villain (despite being the "evil" in the very broad theme "good vs evil"), he's just a plot device to motivate our MCs' journey, and there's nothing wrong with that because there is plenty of other more immediate conflicts to be resolved along the way, but he isn't a compelling villain as a character. Tbh, I don't think LOTR has any good character villains (Saruman just a little, maybe?). Antagonists are oversimplified, melding them all into a formless mass of evil.

If we're talking YA, the main baddie will probably be an adult, because teens :cautious:. But if you think about the problems with peers teens go through (bullying, peer-pressure, mockery, love triangles, etc.), another teen I think is actually a better main antagonist, living the same context and problems as the MC, albeit with different interpretations/reactions. When the adults are the villains, they fall into the Sauron effect of a formless blob of indistinct evil, and since adults move in "another dimension", it's harder to tie them to the story's theme, and they just become an excuse for the MC to go from point A to point B. A more compelling antagonist would be someone more easily tied to theme, and so another teen as a villain, I think, is a much better idea (although adults sometimes work if done right, I know). Then again, that depends on what you want the MC (and the reader) to focus on: internal conflict, or external.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I think - judging by what my YA agent had me do with Inish Carraig - that teens actually respond well to a YA villain.

Gary McDowell - who menaces Josey so creepily - was not in the original version but was added because Molly felt a YA antagonist would strengthen its appeal. And he was so creepy and awful he had to stay and his dad became secondary....
 

goldhawk

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All external conflict in a story is about the protagonist dealing with a perceived injustice. That is why antagonists are label evil; they cause the protagonist to think an injustice has been done to him or those he cares about.

To craft a meaningful, as opposed to realistic, antagonist you must first decide what injustice will happen in your story. To make your antagonist realistic, the reason for he to commit this injustice must be realistic. This does not mean the reason has to be rational. Humans are emotional and their actions are more often driven by emotions rather than logic. The reason could be because of the antagonist's fear or hatred or anger. It has to be a human motivation.

And for the sake of completion, the internal conflict is about the protagonist dealing with an identity crisis.
 

Vaz

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In terms of writing great villains, and I hate to recommend a TV series because Literature is a whole other beast, but, I've just stumbled upon the incredible Breaking Bad. This show completely flips Hero and Villian roles. Never before have I rooted for the villian (Walt) and wanted to see one if the Hero's fail (Hank.) If you've never watched it and you want to see how to do villians, watch it. (Take notes too!)

v
 

Ihe

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I think - judging by what my YA agent had me do with Inish Carraig - that teens actually respond well to a YA villain.
Of course, a main antagonist is almost always necessary one way or another, a hate-sink of sorts, to better direct the reader's animosity.

@Jo Zebedee, I'm curious on your thoughts as to what the inclusion of your villain modified/added to the conflict (if there's a spoiler-free answer)?

And for the sake of completion, the internal conflict is about the protagonist dealing with an identity crisis.
I'd argue everything has to do with identity, even the external conflicts, as identities are threatened by any conflict, and clash with settings/other identities, change, or are reaffirmed. For me, it's a bit of a cycle (external>internal=external results; internal>external=internal results). Internal conflicts generate external conflicts (ie: "I refuse to change in order to fit the status quo [or I'm having doubts about it]>externalisation=those who uphold the status quo force me to make a decision) and vice-versa (ie: the antagonist forces invade my status quo for whatever reason>internalization=I must change in order to protect my status quo, or change my interpretations on what my status quo is as a result of the conflict), and they're both sides of the same coin. With the examples in my previous post I was just being more specific.
 

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