On Writing Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

One of the things I am asked most often on writing panels and workshops is how to create intriguing bad guys. What they are really asking me, I've come to understand, is how to create antagonists as interesting to the reader as the hero. An effective protagonist needs to have a worthy antagonist. The antagonist needs to present our hero with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle such that the audience can reasonably expect failure and be impressed with the virtues of the hero once he or she overcomes them.

This antagonist can come in all shapes and sizes depending on the plot of your story. According to current narrative theory, there are only six basic conflicts in Western literature:

  • Man v. Man 
  • Man v. Self 
  • Man v. Society
  • Man v. Nature 
  • Man v. God 
  • Man v. Monster*

If your antagonist is Society, Nature, or God, your antagonist is pretty much set for you. You need only tweak the characteristics that are germane to your plot. If your antagonist is also the protagonists, again the work is already done. However, if your antagonist falls in any other category, creating a compelling antagonist can require particular care lest the character devolve into a two-dimensional caricature.

Think of the most effective antagonists in literature and film.

These are the ones that Spring to mind for me:

Darth Vader

The Joker

Lord Voldemort

Hannibal Lecter

Mr. Edward Hyde

Professor Moriarty
While most people would agree that these are among the greatest villains in the Western canon, many would say that they have one thing in common that explains their stature as the best of English baddies.

Through a Mirror Darkly

Each of these antagonists in some way acts as a dark mirror of their respective protagonist. Darth Vader, for example, represents the worst-case scenario should Luke Skywalker go of the rails.  The Joker represents unrestrained id to Batman's overly constricted superego. Voldemort was a promising young wizard, abandoned by his family and raised in orphanage until his acceptance to Hogwarts. He is quite literally mirror image of Harry Potter: actually orphaned and raised in neglect by his extended family, but also a promising young wizard when he is accepted at Hogwarts.

Similarly, Hannibal Lecter represents the darkest murderous desires of both his protagonists: Will Graham in Red Dragon and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Edward Hyde, too, is quite literally every negative emotion of Dr. Henry Jekyll partitioned off and given human form. Professor James Moriarty, the so-called Napoleon of Crime, is every bit Sherlock Holmes' intellectual equal and represents what would happen if Holmes were to turn his talents to crime instead of justice.

This mirroring effect creates a dynamic tension between antagonist and protagonist that closely mirrors the tension found in a Man v. Self conflict. The protagonist's triumph then becomes a metaphor for a triumph of their own shortcomings and fatal flaws. Now, I am not saying that this quality is unimportant in creating effective villains. I am saying though, that there is another quality shared by the most memorable antagonists that I find much more important.

We Can Be Heroes

When I am asked how to write compelling bad guys, my go-to answer is simple: When you are writing your antagonist, remember that he or she is the protagonist of his or her own story. When I write about Red Marten in Guns of the Waste Land, for instance, I have to remind myself that he doesn't know he's the villain. As far as he is concerned, his duty is to save his people, the Aticota tribe from annihilation, even if that means destroying every settler in Texas. When I write for Marten, then, Ardiss and Percy and Gary Wayne are the antagonists, the bad guys.

The same holds true for the villains above. Darth Vader is trying to bring peace and order to the galaxy, through the iron fist authoritarianism, true, but his goals are, for him, pure ones. The Joker sees chaos as the ultimate freedom, forcing people to confront their own desires directly instead of sublimating them in the name of a faked order and rigid control. Similarly, Hannibal Lecter wants only for Will and Clarice, whom he sees as his erstwhile "patients," to embrace the whole of their psyches instead of constantly sublimating what they want to do in order to do what they think they must (also he really hates rudeness). Voldemort sees himself as purifying magic after it has become watered down by allowing the wizard children of mundane humanity too much leeway. Edward Hyde is literally doing what he was created to do: He acts upon all of Jekyll's negative emotions so that the good doctor doesn't have to. Professor Moriarty, at least in my head-canon, is simply trying to make ends meet as best he can considering that public college professors don't make enough to feed church-mice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that every villain's goals are objectively noble and pure, just that they are subjectively noble and pure for them. If done well, even the most vile of bad guys can be at least somewhat sympathetic, and as a result, much more effective than simply anthropomorphizing Dr. Seuss' Grinch. As Atticus Finch would say, I have to walk in their shoes for a while. As Ed Gein would say, I have to put on their skins.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1957
Indeed, when done well, this technique can make even Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield, a fascinating and somewhat sympathetic character. If done incredibly well, the line between protagonist and antagonist can become so nebulous as to be nonexistent. This has, in fact, already been done with Gein:

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1961
Norman Bates was a fictionalized version of Gein. While he's often considered one of the first slasher villains, I dare you to watch all four films and/or the recent television reimagining, Bates Motel and not walk away feeling that the actual serial killer was the true protagonist and the most tragic victim.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 2013-2017
So that's it, my secret for writing good bad guys. When I write my villains, I have to pretend that their goals are also mine and write their story accordingly. It's really the only way to do an antagonist well. If you do that, everything else falls into place.

* The linked article includes Man v. Machine and Man v. Fate/Supernatural, but I prefer the Monster category, as it includes supernatural monsters such as vampires, ghosts, and werewolves as well as technological "monsters" such as A.I., robots, and clones. I include God as a separate category since a god falls somewhere between the natural and supernatural worlds and thus should represent a new category.


This is really interesting and as a mystery writer I have written one novel where the antagonist is a bit like this, although not as powerful as these examples, and one where a point of view character committed the crime, but he wasn't a mirror image of anyone as far as I can tell. I think this article may inform the way I approach some future novel though.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Lev. That really is the master key: the villain not knowing he's the villain. I've just started rewatching The Americans, in which two Russian spies living in the U.S. murder no few innocent Americans who get in their way. We get to know these two well...and understand their values and beliefs so clearly...that it's hard to see them as villains. Indeed, they us as the bad guys out to destroy their beloved Motherland.

As a matter of fact, we don't really mind at all when an American film hero or spy performs murders Others in the call of duty.
Jan Needle said…
Fascinating stuff, Lev. And remember - even Hitler loved his dog!
Chris Longmuir said…
Interesting, I must bear that in mind for future villains. When I write my villains I always keep in mind that they are people, and like most people (heroes included) they have good traits as well as bad traits, it's not black and white, it's varying shades of grey. For example, my Tony in the Dundee
Crime Series, a villain if there ever was one, is a family man who loves his wife and his daughter. I suppose there are some people who do not have any redeeming qualities but I suspect they are in the minority and it makes it more believable if they do have some saving graces.

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