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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

3 Ways to Write a Riveting Bad Guy

A face that only the devil could love
Last Updated 7/3/18

Do you believe that people are good by nature or evil? It is not an easy question to answer in real life. In fiction, I feel that most writers answer that question quite easily though. That's why its typical to see a bad guy who is just that, bad, because that is their nature. There is rarely any reason why they are what they are, they just are. If a reason is given, it is an overused one.

Why does it have to be rare for a bad guy to have some complexity in character? Why do so many writers make villains so evil without a riveting explanation or with no explanation at all? Maybe it is because it is just the easiest thing that comes to them or maybe it is how they answer the question I had asked you in the beginning of this blog. 

Do you remember? Yep, of course. I for one believe that people are not just good or evil, that they have the capacity for both at any given time. It is all about choices. Even Hitler, who is the most widely used example of the personification of evil had saved his Jewish family doctor Eduard Bloch from persecution. What?!

Yes, I know Hitler is a piece of shit, but how we define evil, he should never had saved Bloch. When we think of evil, we think only black and nothing else, certainly no actions that force you to come to terms that it is people that do evil and people can commit other acts as well. Some that are good and some in between. As a writer, you should apply this complexity to your villains.

I feel there are three ways to bring complexity to a bad guy, which in turn creates a riveting character:

1. Think of grey as the color of characters and not black or white

I know I am going about this as art imitates life. For the sake of writing a riveting bad guy why not? People are complex so don't make your characters two dimensional. I know it is hard to put this into perceptive. Try for the sake of your story. People are not just black or white in character. They are both, even if they perform evil more than good. They are still grey. They have the capacity to do more than you think. So get away from the archetypes when creating your villains and give your villains some good qualities. 

2. Make an everyman who commits evil acts 

A good example of this is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What is Breaking Bad? Are you serious?

Walter was easy to follow because of how he was portrayed in the beginning. He was an average guy, okay so he had a genius IQ, but he had a painfully ordinary life. He was a simple human being, not Scarface. Since his life was ordinary he was portrayed as such. When he starts to make his descent into darkness because of the choices he makes, we can't stop following him because we remember how he was before. When he becomes the drug kingpin, tragically for a short while, he still has good qualities. He is compassionate about his family and tries to protect them from the bad choices he makes, even though he fails. He is a complex character for certain.

Now imagine the same show with him portrayed as being bad from the beginning like... Scarface. Do you think the story would have been as popular with audiences? I don't think so. Characters who are bad from the start is overused, it is boring. They are also harder to follow because they are harder to like. Making an  everyman your antagonist is an easier way to get readers to like him or her.

3. Make everyone complex and no one just good or evil

If you love fantasy, you know good and damn well what story I am going to give as an example. Game of Thrones, of course. If you read the Bible long books or watch the TV show you will see many complex characters that are neither good or evil. They do what they have to in order to survive in a harsh world. And that is one of the things that makes the series so popular. You just don't know what the main characters will do next because they are not depicted as just good or evil.

Making no good or evil characters leads to complex character creation and leads to an interesting story. So if you decide to pop in a traditionally good character like what George R.R. Martin did with his character Eddard Stark, you can have fun seeing how they adapt to the other characters and if you are having fun the reader will as well. 

Let's face it, the traditional stories of good versus evil are the equivalent to stick versus dead horse. 


  1. Well put. I am working on a villain. I think I need to make him a little more grey and a little less black. Thanks.

  2. I think a further problem with a purely evil character is that he probably couldn't do much damage, since so much of what makes an individual effective comes out of virtues. If he is never honest, nobody will trust him. If he is never generous, people may be less willing to serve him.

    Your serious bad guy ought to have a collection of virtues sufficient to explain why he is able to do as much damage as he does, as well as whatever characteristics cause him to do damage.

    Also, of course, an antagonist doesn't have to be a villain—both of my novels have antagonists who aren't.

  3. Thanks for the insight, the tips are definitely helpful.

  4. LOVES a bad guy who's super complicated but ridiculously bad!

  5. there is a villian in each one of us and if we are able to tap them into our characters, that would be the ultimate character in my opinion..

  6. I guess we have our work ahead of us. Important point you have made, thanks Andre.

  7. I agree with the choices aspect. In my "First Contact" trilogy I start out with a character that is essentially naive and innocent, but ambitious and lacking ability to match the ambition. As the series progresses, he gets progressively evil as he falls into a deeper hole through bad choices, BUT it is the character flaw (ambition) that drives the choices.