Why is it so hard to write really, horribly, truly evil characters?


I was just reading an interesting post by KT Literary about villains–the merits of the truly evil vs. the understandable, possibly redeemable evil, and which is easiest to write about.  From the comments, it looks like most people (including myself) have trouble writing about completely 100% no redeemable characteristics evil characters, which got me wondering why.  Here’s my best guess:

Truly evil characters have no good qualities.  They are doing everything for their own selfishness, or greed, or malice.  They don’t love anyone, and they don’t want anyone’s love.  These are the true villains, characters like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, Duke Roger from the Alanna series, and It from A Wrinkle in Time (to name a few YA examples).  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that truly evil villains like these are fun, and almost admirable, at least from a story viewpoint.  You can joyfully hate them and root for the protagonist whole-heartedly without any twinges of guilt, like you might have when faced with those wishy-washy good intentions villains.

However, from a writer viewpoint, these characters are hard to create because they are hard to understand.  As soon as you understand someone’s motives, you can usually see some sort of good in their original intentions, or some tragic background that warped them and set them on the dark and ugly path they are now traversing.  As a writer, it’s your job to understand your characters, to figure out their backstory and motivations so that they become three-dimensional, and as real as ink and paper can make them.  And once you understand your characters, how can you find them evil without realizing why they’ve become this way?

This is why most really evil characters aren’t necessarily given a lot of backstory, because it’s hard to see that and not find something good or sympathetic in the character.  The exception would be Lord Voldemort, who is given a sad past and a lot of backstory and yet is entirely unsympathetic–there’s nothing good in him and there never was.  Otherwise, I think if you’ll look at most villains, the ones with backstory and clear motives beyond the purely self-serving are always shades of gray, and the pure black are almost mysteries to the reader, existing only as the villain they are and not giving the reader a glimpse into who they used to be, or why they really want the destruction of the world/protagonist/etc.

And in personal news, the police found our car.  Yay! Surprisingly, nothing was stolen, which is unfortunate, actually, cause there’s a whole lot of crap in that car…but I’m very thankful to have it back!!

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 8:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think you nailed it. An evil character is evil precisely because you can’t relate to them, whereas the purpose of fleshing out a character is so that readers can understand and relate to them, which is just the opposite.

    Evil characters work best in stories which aren’t so focused on creating fully three-dimensional characters, which is why most of them are found in the fantasy genre, where countless demons, mad gods, and dark lords exist solely to serve as antagonists to be overcome.

    I think evil characters really work well in the horror genre. If you’ve read any of HP Lovecraft’s books, you’ll know what I mean. He creates monsters so alien and incomprehensible that they become horror personified, sacrificing well-developed antagonists in exchange for the mind-numbing terror of the unknown.

    • The mind-numbing terror of the unknown, huh? Nice! I actually haven’t read any HP Lovecraft, surprisingly, but I keep meaning to–maybe when I’ve decided I no longer need to sleep. 😉 I also agree with you that there’s probably nothing scarier than the unknown, whether it be a situation or person, which is why the characters that are incomprehensible are the most terrifying, evil villains.

  2. I love this topic. I recently completed a novel with an evil character. The difference again, we could sympathize—to a point—but that also depends on the reader. I love him. His evil ways are enticing and thrill me, but others might not feel the same. I do love a evil villain though.

    Great blog by the way!

    • Thanks, Angela! Honestly, there have been many times where the villain has been my favorite character in a book. There’s something almost freeing about watching a character pursue their darkest instincts. I don’t know if anyone else feels that way, or if that’s something I should just keep to myself… ; )

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