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?

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