5 Types of Evil Characters

Bad guys can make a story great. Evil people make terrible neighbors but riveting characters.

Do stories need evil characters? After the "Joker" shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, I wondered if in writing about evil people, we risk glorifying evil, and encouraging rather than discouraging horrible acts. I know some writers don't see themselves as having any moral obligation in their writing, but I see writing fiction as a profoundly moral act. Imagination and spirituality are linked at the hip; you cannot imagine something without engaging both your empathy and your ethics. How we imagine the world impacts how we live in the world.

But this does mean we should only write about good people, who always do the right thing and have happy endings? No fricken' way. Because that has nothing whatsoever to do with our struggle as human beings to be ethical or empathetic. We struggle all the time to be better people in a world filled with truly horrid people -- like the shooter in Colorado. Fiction didn't make that man mad or violent. Fiction is the weapon of the imagination the rest of us need to know how to deal with people like that.

Wasn't it funny (in a sad way) how after the shooting the Left came out and demanded greater gun control and the Right came out and demanded more censorship? I try to avoid politics on this blog, but for the record, I'm going to say: they are both wrong. You don't stop bad people by disarming innocent people, and you don't stop bad people by pretending they don't exist and not allowing fiction to portray them.

Well, now that I've probably offended everyone, let's get on to the types of evil characters, what makes them different and what they have in common. You will recognize some common tropes, but make no mistake. These people exist in the real world too.

I didn't always think so, by the way. I used to believe that evil people existed only in fiction, and maybe were created by fiction. Then I lived a bit, traveled a bit, and met a few torturers and serial killers face to face. They exist.

1. Minions R Us 
This guy doesn't mean to do evil. He just works for Evil Inc. He was "just following orders." He's the guy who was in the Milgram experiment and kept pressing "Torture" even though he felt bad about it, because, well, that's what the man in charge told him to do. The big problem for Minions is that they might not deserve to die, but they are probably going to come between the Hero and the Big Bad, and so the Hero has no choice but to mow them down or at best, shove them, hard, out of the way.

Faceless bureaucracies thrive on this kind of minion. They love to enforce stupid rules, just because they can. They don't force the rules because the rules are stupid, although it seems that way, but they haven't stopped to think about the larger picture. We've all met countless people like this. Maybe we've even been in this position. I know that I've been in the position before of having to enforce rules I thought privately were idiotic, perhaps even dangerous. And I admit it -- I did it.

2. Thug and Thieves 
These guys may also be minions, but they aren't so hot at following orders, unless the Big Bad puts the fear of smackery in them. These are the kind of guys, who, when they capture the Hero or Heroine, have to be held back from hurting them prematurely. Remember the orcs arguing about whether they could eat just the legs of the hobbits?

Most bad guys don't think of themselves as bad guys, but thugs often do. They like to think of themselves as totally bad ass, and even as evil. It's not that they don't have a moral system. They do, and it's a simple one: "What's good for me is good. What's bad for me is bad."

I worked in a homeless shelter once where a thief was stealing things from the other residents. Even underwear. We set a trap and caught the girl. I tried to find out why she had stolen the money. Was she desperate, on drugs, what was the deal? Actually, no. She took the stuff because she felt like it. (She actually stole another girl's underwear and wore it because she liked the design!) I tried to apply the Golden Rule, "But how would you feel if they took your things?" She explained that would be wrong, because it would upset her. But couldn't she see that it upset other people when she took their things? Nope. Other people were asking to be robbed by "allowing" her to easily take their money and things (out of their locked boxes). Besides, they should understand that it made her feel better to have their things; they should be glad to make her happy. If they didn't, they were being mean and unfair to her.

Two year olds also reason this way. Most, thankfully, outgrow it. But some people don't.

3. Crazy Mummy Fracking Wacko
This bad guy is just whacked. Maybe it would be more fair to say that this person is sick, not evil, because his brain just doesn't work right. He hears voices. The voices tell him to do bad things. If we had the ability to lock this person up and administer the right drugs, perhaps we could help him, but right now he's running free and the voices are telling him to kill small kids and use their skulls as party balloons. He's smart and cunning and he has got to be stopped.

There's an interesting book called My Brother Ron that argues we haven't done the mentally ill a favor by deinstitutionalizing them. The Kindle ebook is only $1.49, and it's an interesting read.

4.  Well Meaning Tool
This isn't really a bad guy. But this fellow is no mere Minion either. The Well-Meaning Tool is busy paving the road to hell with Good Intentions. Lenin used to call these guys Useful Idiots. He'd invite a stream of idealistic, intelligent people to come see the Worker's Paradise, at time when millions of people were dying in gulags and from collectivization-imposed famine, and wine and dine them and show them a few model villages, and send them home to rave about how well Communism worked. Alas, even a century later, a lot of these Well Meaning Tools still teach at our universities.

I don't mean to just pick on Communists (however richly they deserve it, given their record as History's greatest mass murderers) because Well Meaning Tools can exist anywhere and anytime that good intentions outweigh common sense. 

At a more personal level, think about the kid who is constantly bullied in school. Day after day, the same big kids pick on him, push and shove him, hit him, give him wedgies, hold his head down in the toilet. One day, he fights back and gives one bully a black eye. Then, and only then, does a teacher appear out of nowhere and suspend the bullied kid because of the school's strict, "No bullying" policy. Yes, it makes so much sense to punish a kid for fighting back. The teachers and principals who enforce stupid policies in a stupid way are Well Meaning Tools.

Well Meaning Tools aren't evil but they (inadvertently) give evil a pass.

Your hero himself, at times, may end up being a Well-Meaning Tool. What is the difference between a hero and tool, in the end? The hero or a "good guy" character, will ultimately be able to ask, "Are my actions having the effect I think they are?" But a tool never checks back in with reality.

5. Tyrant
In my book (literally, in my books, The Unfinished Song), the worst bad of all is the tyrant. He may be like the wacko in that he has his own reality, he may be a thug in that he defines morality as what's good for him, and he may be a tool in that he does all this in the name of a Great Good. But he has one thing in greater proportion than all other baddies: power and persuasion. He inspires and he compels.

Now I think it is important not to forget the first part. A truly dangerous tyrant is charismatic as he is powerful. Classically, the devil tempts and seduces and entraps. What this means is that the tyrant not only has a plausible argument in his own mind that he is good, but he manages to convince others of this as well.

There's some creepy guy in Finland who calls himself an Eco-Fascist. In the name of environmentalism, he wants to murder billions of human beings, and set up a world fascist state to keep the remaining few million people on the earth as low tech slave farmers. You know, to lower the carbon footprint. He justifies all this in the name of a great good, saving the earth from pollution.

Of course, his vile philosophy is a reversal of why most people care about the environment in the first place: we want to leave a clean and vibrant and ecologically diverse world for our descendents to enjoy. But any good idea can be twisted to become evil, and so can this one. Wouldn't the world be better off without humans -- at least all the billions who oppose MY personal dictatorship? Well, duh, of course. I can't believe you didn't see that!

The scary thing is that guys like this can gain fanatic followers. They gather a bevy of Tools and Thugs and Wackos and Minions, the Well-Meaning Tools on the Good Guy side give them a middle European state, and and next thing you know, they're invading Poland. Don't think it could happen again? Don't be a Well Meaning Tool!

But maybe we can stop it from happening again, and one way we can do that is by warning about it in literature. Literature is like a prolonged thought experiment. When your story involves heroes trying to defeat bad guys, that's not just because it's mindless pulp fiction, it's a serious question: how does one defeat bad guys?

In stories where the bad guys are simplistic and easily defeated, the answer will be just as simplistic and unrealistic. Not a good thought experiment.

Here's a Three Step Process for Writing Villains:

1.Think about people whom you've met in your own life, and people whom you've read about in the news and in history books. (I'm a strong advocate for reading real history. It will boggle your mind. Most fiction villains are tame by comparison with actual historical figures.)

2. Imagine the world from their point of view. What justifications did they give for their behavior? Most people are pretty forthcoming about their reasons for doing things. The trick is to take them at their word. For instance, if someone says, "I decided to blow myself up because a Green Four-Headed Angel told me to" don't dismiss that and say, "It must be because he was poor and desperate." Really consider what it would be like to live in a world where green four-headed angels spoke to you personally, and told you to do things. You'd likely find it quite inspirational too.

In other words, don't assume everyone thinks like you. Listen to them, and take their world view seriously. You will find that it might be quite different than yours, and that their actions "make sense" in that world.

3. Follow the consequences. In real life, people's beliefs and actions have consequences. In fiction, it should be the same. If your bad guys or your good guys believe things that are crazy or wrong or self-serving, it has consequences, and those should unfold naturally in the plot of the story.


AE Marling said…
I feel it's helpful to view every story as a tragedy from the antagonist's perspective. Give them reasons for what they do, give them room to change and grow. But they don't take those opportunities. They continue, they don't become better people, and that's why they ultimately fall to the hero.