Villains and Writers: Why is it so hard to be evil?

One of the things I often read on agent and editor blogs is that the antagonist in a manuscript isn’t strong enough. That they are cardboard, nebulous, and somehow not as threatening as they should be. I’ll admit I struggle with my antagonists. Obviously, I am not alone. But why is it so hard?

I think it’s because most of us are decent people. We can’t fathom hurting others or blocking some event that is clearly a good thing for humanity. Sure, we all have our moments of making rude gestures to other drivers, or using words we don’t want our 2-year-old overhearing, or even thinking some very vengeful thoughts. But for most of us it stops there. The darkness we all have inside of us scares us to death.

When I see someone like the Colorado shooter, I cannot fathom his thinking. Sometimes with bad guys, you can see where they’re coming from, see how they are damaged emotionally, see how they think what they’re doing is the right thing. But by all accounts, this shooter had everything going for him. And yet he killed 12 people in cold blood. How do you get inside the head of someone like that? How do you write someone like that believably?

The key, as I alluded above, is to know their damage. When writing a villain, we must remember that he has his reasons for doing what he’s doing. And they make sense to him. He is the hero of his own story, and he believes HE is the one doing the right thing.

We as the writer must know the emotional driver behind our bad guy’s thinking, his actions. Only by letting the reader understand this will our bad guy gain the strength he needs to be a gripping antagonist. I think accessing the darkness inside terrifies a lot of writers. We don’t like to think it’s inside us. And once we unleash it for a book, can we put the genie back in the bottle?

While you may discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself during this process, writing the antagonist doesn’t need to be so gut-wrenching a process.

I have found some guidance by using Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Maass walks you through the antagonist’s world. Outline the story from the bad guy’s POV. Justify his actions using literature, mythology, law. Justify them in such a way that for just a moment your hero can actually AGREE with the villain. In other words, don’t just understand WHAT the bad guy does in your story, but understand WHY.

How do you approach your antagonists? Do you ever scare yourself?


  1. As story receivers (readers and viewers) it’s easy to keep the dark side of a story at a distance. That’s out there and I’m safely in here. But as writers, we have to jump in up to our necks. I’m reminded of a scene from David Bellavia’s memoir “House to House” in which he had to lead his soldiers into a reconnaissance mission by swimming through a cesspool. Not too many people are going to volunteer for that mission, and if you’re a writer, wouldn’t you rather spend your time writing about going to the circus? (I’m just asking. It’s not a rhetorical question.) I think our relationship to the dark side is a very complex issue. Jonathan Maberry and Janice Bashman wrote a book about the dark side, Wanted Undead or Alive by the way. if you’re having trouble getting into the dark side, try reading a book about it. 🙂

  2. I have given one-man panels on this subject and am often asked to discuss how I get into the mind of a killer. Even if you do not do the multiple point of view book, you still must KNOW this character and his bedrock character for sure….what is at rock bottom. To do that you must do the same as you do with your hero….spend a lot of time, and I mean a LOT of time inside his evil head; you need to bathe with him, towel off as he does, eat the foods he eats, not literally but figuratively LIVE with him, sleep with him or her as in the worst female villain in all crime literature – my Laurelie Blodgett in my Final Edge. Think of him or her as half the equation for a showdown. You do not pit Matt Dillon against a wimp or a weak sister.

    Long ago an agent assistant hit on the problem of one of my early works…I was not giving my bad guy enough of my attention or pages in the book.

    Everything in the blog here is correct but I would also add that your lead, featured character like my Dr. Jessica Coran or Det. Lucas Stonecoat have to be fully realized by you, the author, and so time spent is hugely important…the time you spend with them which often means time away from your real life and real family. Another item – every major character is not an island unto himself. It takes a village or at least a WEB of characters surrounding that one at the center tor craft a full blown character like a villain or a hero. I think in terms of concentric circles, characters close in and far out on the web around you central characters help greatly to define who he or she is.

    Good luck finding your evil factory.


    • Rob –

      Thanks for the insight! It sounds like there are a lot of writers who can benefit from your expertise. Finding the evil can be disturbing – but theraputic, too!


  3. Kerry, I have a terrible time with my antagonists. In fact just yesterday the critique I got at writer’s group – most of it involved my antagonist. In my mind, the villain is out for blood and thrives on it, and I tend to forget the part that’s damaged and hurt. I have to redo a chapter and handle my villain better. I’ve got to remember that there is a little good in every villain and a little bad in every hero. Your insights helped.
    Barbara of the Balloons

  4. Kerry, great post! I love writing dark characters. I embrace the dark side. heh heh. I love giving them angst and something that makes us sympathetic towards them and yet very afraid. I hope it makes them compelling! I think if we can understand why a bad guy does what he does – it makes it that more chilling knowing we can empathize with what he does in a way.

    • Good point, Donna. I always think the scariest bad guys are the ones that I find relatable – because then you wonder if you, in a similar situation, could do such terrible things as well.

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