Characters: The Bad Guys

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During all the many years in which I was an editor and publisher, what did I hope for when I picked up a manuscript? I wanted to fall in love, to be swept up as quickly as possible into the life of a character so interesting that I couldn’t bear to shut the manuscript in a desk overnight.”

Sol Stein, On Writing

 

After my research post looking at reasons why people stop reading a book, poor characterisation ranked top. I come across many articles looking at protagonists, but few to do with the bad guys, and a poorly characterised villain is just as off-putting as a poorly characterised hero. In this short article, you’ll read a few simple ways to make your bad guys of pure evil more compelling, and your conflicted antagonists more intriguing.

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Understanding your villain

When we read we seek to gain new perspectives, to experience things we could never do, or feel emotions we’re unaccustomed to. With an antagonist, you can whisk your readers away to new and original places and guide them on a tour of pure evil.

A good starting point when creating an antagonist is to ask yourself questions. In doing so you can determine where on the spectrum of evil they lie. Are their villainous ways inherent or are they just dabbling in a bit of badness? 

Not every bad guy is just some evil megalomaniac. You have conflicted villains too, ones who blur the line between right and wrong. Let’s take a look at villains of pure evil first.

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Villains of pure evil

When designing a truly evil villain, bad behaviour alone is insufficient to characterise. More must be shown to convince the reader the antagonist is truly evil. Have they been corrupted to their core? Has something happened in their past to make them that way? Are they sadists, deriving pleasure from inflicting pain? Let’s look at a couple of well-known examples.

Darth Vader – promoter of the Dark Side. Destroys planets to ensure he gets what he wants. In earlier years wiped out Jedi school, killing everyone including children. The Dark Side has corrupted him, turned him evil to his core. 

Gollum – always seeking to foil Frodo’s plans and reclaim the ring for himself. His hatred for the “filthy hobbitses” runs deep. Like Vader, Gollum has been corrupted, his nature fundamentally changed.

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Master editor Sol Stein says in his book, On Writing, that it should be extremely difficult for a villain of pure evil to be re-educated or re-conditioned into a nicer person. Frodo tried that with Gollum and lost a few fingers for his efforts—he still managed to finish Bilbo’s book, though. Anyone ever question that? Note that both examples above experienced something in their lives which fundamentally altered their being.

So how can you characterise such utter bastards?

  1. Physical mannerisms. Think of creepy, involuntary habits such as a twitching eye, pulling hairs out of eyebrows or a moustache or beard, earlobe tugging, lip chewing. Habitual mannerisms tend to work best—it’s the repetitive nature which grates on readers.
  2. Ask yourself how your antagonist behaves toward people he’s never met before. Some villains come across as pleasant and affable. Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad is a good example of such a villain. He makes donations to charities and has a good relationship with the D.E.A., the very people trying to catch him. Under the surface he’s a ruthless criminal. We can look to real-life nutcases too. Jimmy Saville for example, a once loved children’s entertainer and TV presenter, turned out to be a serial paedophile. You can go the opposite way too and have your antagonist discourteous, arrogant, or sadistic. Only this week I was watching Black Beauty with my nan and found myself on the edge of my seat as the Squire lashed at Beauty with his whip. These are all characteristics which help your reader form their attitude toward the antagonist.
  3. Does your antagonist do something frequently that others do occasionally? Sol Stein gives the examples of a character blowing their nose every few minutes despite not being sick, a forehead slick with sweat when the temperature is cool, persistent coughing or clearing of the throat, or bobbing a leg when sat down cross-legged.

 

When introducing these features into your story, it’s important not to just tell the reader about them. The best writers demonstrate the behaviour so the reader can draw their own conclusions. While this next example doesn’t characterise a villain, it’s a good example of how to show instead of tell:

“Bran’s father sat solemnly on his horse, long brown hair stirring in the wind … he had a grim cast to his grey eyes this day, and he seemed not at all the man who would sit before the fire in the evening and talk softly of the age of heroes and the children of the forest.” A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

We know Ned Stark (whom Bran is describing) is acting differently today, different to the man that Bran knows so well. And it reveals there’s more to Ned Stark than a man who just delivers the king’s justice.

Here are a few quick tips on showing instead of telling:

  1. Use physical attributes, such as appearance. How do they stand or walk for example? There are many ways a person can move across a room—amble, dash, scurry—and words such as these can help characterise.
  2. Consider clothing or the manner of the clothing worn. Stein recommends focusing on one often unusual item that stands out above all. So, for example, wearing a duffel coat in the summer, or a character who puts no effort into their appearance. What does this say about them?
  3. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms, such as those we’ve described above.
  4. Through actions.
  5. In dialogue. How does your antagonist speak? Think of the words they use, the way they structure sentences, any accents they have. Dialogue is an excellent way to characterise.
  6. Use the five senses. Stein gives an example:

“I put my right hand out to shake the man’s rain-wet palm. The skin seemed flaked, reptilian.”

‘Flaked’ and ‘reptilian’ give strong images in the mind of the reader. We can almost imagine his slick, slimy hand.

“Things have gotten out of hand”

We see many villains who didn’t start life as an evil prick but rather dipped their toes into unsavoury things, only to be drawn deeper into the evil underworld. Before they can do anything to change things, it’s too late.

The conflicted villain makes for an intriguing read. A good example I came across recently was in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Empire in Black and Gold in which the main antagonist begins to doubt himself and the empire he’s served devoutly his whole life. This kind of conflict blurs the lines between good and evil and makes us wonder what could happen.

For another example, we can look to everyone’s favourite meth cook, Heisenberg. At the start of Breaking Bad, Walter White isn’t a violent nutter, but a down-to-earth family man. By the end, he’s blowing cars up.

Heisenburg

What about the villains who break free of the evil corrupting them, that see the light and turn toward it? Game of Thrones’ The Hound is a good example of this. [Spoiler alert] He begins as a bad guy, but by the later series/books, he’s seen in a better light, and if anything, a force for good.

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So there’s a few simple things to keep in mind when designing your antagonists. Hopefully, they’ll help you get your evil on!


If you happen to enjoy what you find, why not stay in touch by signing up to my mailing list? Subscribers receive a list of 50 fantasy book reviewers, as well as a copy of This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One, a collection of writing techniques, advice, and guides looking at, amongst others, world-building, writing fight scenes, characterization, plotting, editing, and prose.

2 thoughts on “Characters: The Bad Guys”

  1. Thanks for this one. I’ll definitely be using this one as a reference. My villains are either two dimensional throwaways or I end up humanizing the villain to the point where I cannot bear to leave them a villain.

    Liked by 1 person

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