Evil Characters (and how to breed them)

Because in the end you want the bad guy to die not because he’s evil, but because he’s such a damn cliché.

Bad guys these days always seem to share the same DNA: Troubled past, point to prove, fallen hero with twisted principles, good guy going through a bad day, or simply sick bastard looking for revenge. You’ve seen them all and they all do the same dance and make the same mistakes. Of course they need to reveal their plot and complex background, otherwise how would we know how deeply torn and dark their souls were, just before the hero took advantage of their backstory moment to kick their asses straight to hell?

The truth is it was a DIY accident.

True. Heath Ledger’s Joker was off the record. The character’s unpredictability and ever-changing made-up tale of how he got that scarred smile was thrilling.
For the first twenty minutes, at least.
Then you realize he’s the good guy going through a really bad day, trying to prove the point that everybody goes all killy if you find their breaking point, and he’s still wasting time talking shit to his victims, so cliché all over again.
True, a damn good instance of the cliché, but a cliché nonetheless.

The problem is, we need bad guys, don’t we? Without the antagonist our hero would not accomplish much. It is entirely possible to write a story with no antagonist, but it usually doesn’t end well for the hero. Either the hero falls and turns to evil and then all the forces of good become his enemy and ultimate doom, or the protagonist must face some unknown force of nature, in which case there may be other, multiple (dumb) antagonists who make the hero’s plight even more difficult (read: less boring).
We need villains, but we can’t afford to have them win, so they always have that design flaw don’t they?
The hero is flawed too, of course, but somehow their flaw does not get in their way or, unexpectedly (every single time) turns into their greatest strength.

The villain’s flaw… What if he had none? Could we handle a bad guy who simply goes on with his own evil to-do list, and just doesn’t have time to explain shit to anyone?

Our hero: “There you are Mr. Villain! I will stop your plan, whatever it is. My friends will be here in a mo-“

Mr. Villain: *shoots hero, stuffs him with explosives.*

Hero’s friends, a moment later: “Oh no! Hero is down! You bastard!” *they rush to hero’s body* “Why did you do this?”

Mr. Villain: *toggles detonator* “A’ight. Back to work.”

Not many modern stories could afford a real villain. We seem to like our flawed, broken heroes so much we’d rather dumb down their enemies than have a protagonist we, lowly humans, cannot relate to. Although that is entirely understandable, it is really a sign of our times. We are currently experiencing a period of astoundingly low self-esteem. To the point that we need to believe that we can overcome any bad guy even though our caped savior has PTSD, an alcohol problem and crippling daddy issues.

You know who I’m talking about.

At the end of the day I believe we need to educate our readers to look up to a better, more capable hero, or at least one who can rely on strong partners (and possibly a shitload of luck) and put them against a seriously reallistic villain. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done. I’m saying I can’t come up with a decent example right now. But I can blame my crippling writer’s block.

Don’t forget to check out my other articles on writing as well as the many other goodies here on ilahey.com. Oh and please consider subscribing. it took me ages to set up the damn newsletter system.

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