Evil characters

I just received a review for “A Face on Cydonia”, and one of the things that really pleased me was the reviewer’s comment about one of the characters: “totally despicable, a truly loathsome character with not one redeeming quality”. Don’t you like it when you succeed in something?

How do you write an evil character? The problem should be, you don’t have the experience at being one, and for most of us, we do not know one, so what to do? The problem is, someone running around in your novel just being evil is all very well, but that is merely a piece of cardboard. For a mystery crime story, that is probably fine because the character is “off-screen”. It is, after all, a mystery, and it is easier to have the guilty party being unknown than, say, the detective. Accordingly, the bad guy can run around doing bad things, and the detective will know about the bad things, but he will not know much more until almost the end, when a few inspired guesses might add something to the character. Another possibly easy one is the biography. Now, the author has to write about how the evil character developed, but in this case the author has a “friend” – if it is a biography, the facts were there for him. For example, there is a biography of Stalin and here the facts speak for themselves. Stalin has to be thought of as bad, after all he probably was responsible for more deaths than most. Here the author’s problem is, what are the facts? That can be overcome by research. But suppose you want the bad guy to be an integral part of the story. Now what?

Why write in a bad character? Well, to start with, have you heard actors who play them discuss their parts? Most of them say acting the bad guy is fun. So is writing about them, at least up to a point. But like anything else, there is work to be done to succeed.

In “A Face on Cydonia” I created a bad character, and what I did was to start with a young man who wanted to go places, but he did not have the ability to get there. He was reasonably “nice” to start with, although his ambition gave a flaw. What happened next is that he faced a series of situations where he had to choose, and each time his ambition did the choosing. The problem then was that as he got deeper and more involved, he had to take advantage of opportunities to do even worse things. Another point to consider is that when you write your hero, everybody says you should give him/her flaws. Nobody is perfect. The same operates in reverse even more so. It is imperative that the bad guy has some moments where he seems quite reasonable, the reason being you want to generate a little sympathy for him so that when his behaviour reverts, the reader feels more distaste. If you run continuous evil, the reader gets used to it. Another way to get around that problem is to run streams and switch to something different periodically. Just as in music you cannot sit indefinitely on a climax, while writing you must not wallow in the trough indefinitely. There has to be relief.

So, in A Face on Cydonia I start with a character you could possibly sympathize with, and then let him get progressively deeper into the mire. Because you might have had some sympathy to begin with, as the character gets worse, the reader’s initial sympathy goes to the opposite extreme.

Back to the review. Something else that really pleased me was that besides praising the book, the reviewer saw what I was trying to achieve. A reviewer that actually understands the book he is reading is a gem, and in this case, I strongly recommend this reviewer’s opinions, and the reader of this blog might like to try out some of his other reviews. If you want to see what I mean, go to http://www.ebookanoid.com/?p=10939, and when you finish, try out some of his other reviews.


4 thoughts on “Evil characters

  1. I believe it’s more difficult to create an evil character than one who is almost completely puritanical because there’s the tendency towards overt stereotyping. Developing a fictional individual who is truly loathsome may be fun, but some writers get carried away with such trivialities as physical attributes. Not everyone who has warts or crooked teeth and smells bad is necessarily wicked. If you examine some of history’s worst serial killers, they’re often physically attractive and quite charming; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to commit heinous crimes with seeming impunity.

    • Good points. Even worse can be the choice of name. It is important not to flag any character traits in advance, evil or good. This really is a case where you have to show, not tell. Further, I think if you want to do it properly, since nobody is born evil, you need to show how they got that way. Actually, the same may apply for good as well.

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