What Makes a Good Bad Guy? by Ronald W. Adams

KeylimeThumb2Getting your readers to hate the bad guy is much easier than getting them to sympathize with them.  True, you may want to give your villain some redeeming qualities, but if your character does something truly loathsome, your readers will never forget.

Some of the most memorable villains will often cause their victims to suffer in either their body or mind.  Think about some of the most notorious bad guys, and you’ll see what I mean.  Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest used degradation and humiliation to make her patients less than human. Jamie Gomb in Silence of the Lambs kidnapped and held his victims hostage before removing pieces of their skin. You get the picture.  They were bullies and sadists, and they use their power to torment their victims. 

On the other hand, murder is nowhere near as powerful a tool in defining the villain and making the readers hate him.  Bullying can never be justified enough to make the sadistic character sympathetic, murder can often be explained away in a manner that the assassin can be a hero.  A good rule of thumb is that murder and other violent crimes will only make a character villainous if the acts are performed for purely selfish reasons.  Motives make the all the difference in determining the villain’s proper place on the moral spectrum.  A con man can be a hero, as opposed to a cold blooded killer.

We are truly terrified by those who have an altered view of reality than we do.  The villain who shows himself insane cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bargained with. While mental health experts may not like it, the criminal who is dangerously insane leaves the hero one alternative: to stop him.  But remember one thing about your character, whether or not he is insane:  Everybody is the hero of their own story.  So even the villain believes there is something heroic in their actions from their point of view.  I know. Crazy, right?

I would also recommend that your bad guy be a mirror for your hero. Think Holmes and Moriarty, Starling and Lecter, even Luke Skywalker and Dart Vader.  Each villain reflects aspects of the good guy, defining both as they progress towards the final confrontation. The hero is defined as much by the evil of their foe as they are by their own nobility.  A good bad guy enhances the hero’s story and gives us something cheer for.

I hope these ideas will help you as you begin your writing, and give you some guidance as to what makes a good bad guy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Ronald W. Adams, author of Lake Effect and the upcoming Key Lime Squeeze, was born and raised in Randolph, Massachusetts, but has called western New York home for more than 30 years. The Lake Erie shores served as his inspiration for the first of his Joe Banks PI series novels, Lake Effect. Key Lime Squeeze has our hero Banks hot on the trail of a runaway husband that everyone wants to find, but nobody wants alive.

Ron credits his wife, Trish, and his two children, for being his biggest source of inspiration, and his parents for hanging out with a cast of characters he couldn’t invent in his wildest imagination.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   guidance as to what makes a good bad guy.


2 responses to “What Makes a Good Bad Guy? by Ronald W. Adams

  1. This is very insightful. I’m supposed to talk about villains this week at a mystery group and your list reflects many villains I’d listed and helps me think of some other ideas.

  2. Great article. I agree wholeheartedly that simply being a murderer doesn’t make a bad guy bad enough. On a personal note, although I live in Montana now, I spent most of my life in Attleboro, MA – a stone’s throw from Randolph!

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