Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.



Filed under Antagonists

5 responses to “Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

  1. CCKoepp

    Yes, bad guys do need to be bad. I find “likable” bad guys and “antihero” ‘good guys’ equally irksome. The bad guy does need to have a reason for doing what they do, and a good guy can and should have weaknesses and faults. No doubt about that. If the good guys do evil without consequence (internal or external), that’s a problem.

  2. Good point about the anti-hero, Cindy. It’s hard to cheer on a guy why is more scumbag than hero. 😉 Though, as you noted, they have to be—in fact, ought not be—perfect.

    I think it’s interesting, as I think about it now, that it’s flaws that make characters seem realistic, not strong qualities. Flaws and understandable, credible motivation.

    But in the end, I simply don’t want to like the guy who is hurting the hero or his friends or his nation or the world. The greater issue, beyond what I want or don’t want, however, is that a truly evil antagonist serves as a greater foil to the hero. I think it ratchets tension higher.

    It’s kind of how I felt in the early Harry Potter books and movies about Draco Malfoy. He was too proud and too much a bully and too condescending, so I wanted him very much to fail. In the later books when he is seen in a more sympathetic light, he was no longer the chief antagonist Harry had to deal with.

    Thanks for expanding the discussion, Cindy.


  3. Jacqueline Pepper

    I have a question. Every hero has a goal and something keeping him from it. Can the hero fail at the goal? Maybe some other good things happened but in the end he was just a second too late to meet his original goal. Does that work in a story? How would a reader feel?

  4. Good question, Jacqueline. Yes, a hero can fail, though this type of story isn’t one readers often leave feeling satisfied with. Shakespeare’s tragedies almost all have the hero fail in the end. Think Romeo and Juliet. Their great goal was to be together, to marry no matter what their families thought. In the end, they both died.

    Those stories can be heartbreaking.

    I didn’t read Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, but I understand that had an unhappy ending, though I think the heroine accomplished her goal. A lot of fans didn’t like it. Some did.

    I think the key to making that kind of story work might be to give the hero awareness that his goal wasn’t perhaps as important as he thought, that there is something greater he can accomplish through or because of the failure. It’s like a football player who loses his high school league title, but as a result realizes he wants more than to succeed at the high school level: he wants a shot at playing in college and the NFL.

    Or perhaps a Christian, a student wants to get a certain job. She takes all the right classes in college, gets good grades, has good references, interns in the company a year, and gets passed over. As a result, she realizes the goal was always her goal, not God’s.

    In other words, the character may fail to attain the external goal, but the inward need is met. I think those stories can work very well and would be well received by readers. But if the hero simply fails and learns nothing, there’s really no character development, so the story feels like it went nowhere. It becomes a “these things happened to him and then he died” story. Sort of pointless.

    Hope that helps.


  5. Jacqueline Pepper

    Thank you Rebecca! That helps a lot! I read Divergent and I loved the ending. I thought it fit the character development. But I typically like sad, bittersweet, and unpredictable endings. Thank you for your help!

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