I Am So Evil - The Problem With Devilish Bad Guys

One of my all-time favorite bad guys from literature and/or movies has to be Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Sgt. Hartman is horrible. He's a venomous, sadistic monster, full of hate and language that makes even this Jersey girl blush. He slings racial and homophobic slurs like he's Jackson Pollack, aiming nowhere and everywhere simultaneously, coating every nearby surface with his bile and vitriol. There's nothing to like about him as he barks insults and punches Marine recruits in the gut.

Yet I adore him.

Here's why. Somewhere, deep in that inverted psyche, deep in that terrible heart full of hate and decay, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman believes he's doing something good. He believes he's doing these poor, wretched soldiers a service. He believes that, by insulting them, beating them, berating them, screaming terrible things in their poor, unassuming faces....he's helping them. 

He believes this with a fervency you don't often find in a literary or cinematic antagonist. He believes that he's hardening them, shaping them, molding them into the soldiers they need to be to face the horrors of Vietnam jungles. He believes that by hurting them, he's weeding out the weak, sending them home, saving their lives

Is your bad guy evil simply because they are, or are their motivations and backgrounds something more layered?

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, one of the most vile-mouthed presences ever to set foot on the silver screen, believes that he's a good guy.

That makes him a compelling character. A bad guy who believes he's good.

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, an old friend and I used to love watching scary movies. We watched them all. Old stuff like Halloween, (comparatively) new stuff like The Ring. We loved it.

We also loved slasher flicks like, well, anything Rob Zombie put together. House of 1,000 Corpses was a disgusting favorite. Have you seen it? If so, you'll know why I sometimes suppress an urge to giggle in a high-pitched way and shriek, "Fish Boy!" But I digress... 

Mostly we loved watching these movies to give them the Bad Guy Test. 

At least once per movie, a bad guy would do something so disgusting, so repulsive, and so without actual motivation, that we'd look at each other and burst into belly laughs. It never failed. At the same time, we'd pause and shout, "I! Am! So! Evil!"

Because sometimes, the worst times, really, a movie's antagonist would have absolutely no reason for their dastardly deed. They would simply kill, slay, maim, pillage, etc., to prove their evilness.

They would then fail the Bad Guy Test.

I am so evil, indeed.

It's a question of motivation, really, and it's a question you, as a writer, have to consider when writing your antagonists. Is your bad guy evil simply because they are, or are their motivations and backgrounds something more layered? Something deeper? Does your bad guy believe she's good?

Antagonists who believe they're doing something good, or those with sympathetic qualities, are far and away the most compelling ones, both to read and to write. Those who sow evil for evil's sake become flat and boring. They are tropes with nothing new to offer.

Imagine you're C.S. Lewis, writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Imagine writing a character like the White Witch, who at first glance is perhaps evilness personified. It could be argued that she, with her robes and her scepter and her Turkish Delight, is simply the foil to Aslan. The Devil to his Christ. It's certainly been argued before.

That said, now imagine, while writing her, that she sees beauty in the world she creates. The icy towers; the stone sculptures; the mounds of snow. Certainly there is beauty to be found in an endless winter. Don't we all swoon over pictures of snow-capped mountains and trees laced with ice? 

Now imagine that is what the White Witch is fighting for: a world filled with the beauty she adores. Aslan, Lucy, Susan, Peter, and even Edmund are all fighting to snatch that beauty away from her. 

In her mind, they are the bad guys; she is the good. She isn't trying to destroy the world. She's trying to save it. I firmly believe Lewis knew this as he wrote her. Her motivations shape her ever movement. Her aching need to keep her world as she thinks it needs to be bleeds forth every time she opens her mouth or casts her spells. She is trying to save her world from the menace of a supernatural lion and the children who arrived in a wardrobe.

Such a more compelling story, don't you think, than that of an evil-doer doing evil for evil's sake?

I'm struggling with this right now, while editing the sequel to my novel, Heartless. In the first book, I introduced a group of characters, a shadowy Order out to cause chaos. Their motivation was always clear, to me at least. They're anarchists of old, frustrated with our government's supposed invasion into our lives with their taxing and legislating and regulating and spying. I imagined a campy group from an old-timey screwball TV show, like a Get Smart or a Batman (the 1960s version, not Dark Knight). I imagined them as somewhat fumbling, stumbling onto the formula to control human lives in a way closer to Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein than Mary Shelley's version. But still, at their core, I knew their motivation to be true. They wanted to save the world, but only by destroying it first.

Problem being: I didn't exactly succeed in communicating their motivation. I didn't exactly make them sympathetic in any way, shape, or form. It's a critique I've received in reviews, and in retrospect I believe it's a fair one. I conveyed the Order's bumbling-ness, and their evil-ness, but I never quite conveyed their vision. Their motivations. Too often they were evil for evil's sake.

Heartless was, after all, only the third book I'd written.

Now, as I dive into edits of the sequel, I want to improve my Order. I want to make them layered and complex. I want to explore who they are, without letting them take over the book. To write a complicated group of antagonists, though, is difficult. Trust me: I've written monsters and demons and they're much easier. Much more evil for evil's sake. 

It's a challenge, to be sure. These bad guys, this Order, really think they're doing the right thing. I have to convey that in my story. I have to show their issues with the status quo. I have to show why they need change.

Lucky for me, right now I can see example of this in the world around me. Every time I open Facebook or CNN, I see it: thousands of people rallying behind a man who promises to "Make America Great Again." Thousands of people who believe things in this country are so broken, so wrong, they're willing to entrust a ticking timebomb with the keys to our nuclear arsenal. Thousands of people I don't understand, but who truly believe they're doing the right thing. They believe this as strongly as I believe the opposite. To write a decent Order, I need look no further than the news right now. 

Thank God real life is stranger than fiction. 

It's going to make writing complex antagonists so much easier.

Hopefully I'll succeed. Hopefully I'll pass the Bad Guy Test this time around. Y'all will have to let me know, but not until next summer. Until then, I'll be editing.

But now, it's your turn. Who are your favorite bad guys? Are they pure evil, or are they trying to save the world? Sound off in the comments! I'd love to hear your thoughts! I bet they'll help me out!

Part Number:
Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel August 5, 2016 - 1:02pm

My favorite bad guy is the one who turns the good guy into the bad guy once s/he is defeated. Thus, perpetuating the idea that there will always be bad people in the world.

Like in Full Metal Jacket, since it has been brought up. The sniper at the end, she is the bad guy, but once she is killed by Joker, he becomes the bad guy. Not overt, but to himself. To the audience. We can't help but question his action, we question his actions as if he were the bad guy. We feel that he is the bad guy, or at least I did. But he isn't so bad that we're willing to do anything about it. And therefore, again, bad is able to roam freely in the world.

Then there is the bad guy in Serenity, the bounty hunter, who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people. But he acknowledges that he will never be able to live in that good world because of the bad he has done. There is something very unnerving about that kind of dedication, and understanding of its implications.

Hot shit, Leah. Keep it coming. I'll keep reading.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 5, 2016 - 3:12pm

Thanks, Jose!! I love the idea of a bad guy who maybe isn't....like Rick in Walking Dead, right? Is he still good? Or is he bad? Love this. Thanks!!!

James McArthur's picture
James McArthur from Potato is reading a book August 6, 2016 - 5:44pm

Drill Instructor Hartman isn't a bad guy. He's a drill instructor. Their entire job is to tear their recruits down and build them back up into what they need to be in order to get their job done and come back home. When R. Lee Ermey, the military advisor and later drill instructor Hartman himself, got the script, he was annoyed with how the character was written as being sadistic and pointed out everything wrong with the portrayal to Kubrick. He explained to Kubrick the entire purpose drill instructors and made it very clear they don't do what they do just to be mean. They do it because they have to.


So other than the facts you got wrong, nice article.


Also, Jose, he wasn't a bounty hunter, he was a government agent.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel August 6, 2016 - 7:28pm

I can just picture you drinking a glass of white wine while saying, "He's a drill instructor, hello!"

Maybe flipping your hair back, "Must I do everything around here?"

"Not a bounty hunter, my god, have you even seen the movie? He was a government agent. Do you even know the difference?"

lol. Thanks for the corrections, James. Very enlightening.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 7, 2016 - 9:16am

the titular thief from the Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Albert Spica, is the nastiest piece of work I've encountered. I wouldn't say he thinks what he's doing is for some sort of good, beyond covering up his own neuroses in affectation and bombast maybe.


BrianAsman's picture
BrianAsman from San Diego, CA is reading The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker August 7, 2016 - 4:49pm

There are so many great examples, but for me the first one that comes to mind is Jaime Lannister.  I think we can all agree that pushing a young boy out of a window because he caught you fucking your sister is pretty evil, and for the entirety of A Game of Thrones we perceive him as a bad guy (RIP, Jory).  But then George R.R. Martin flips the script and makes him a POV character, and damned if we don't start identifying with that one-handed incestuous sumbitch.

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. August 8, 2016 - 8:04am

Hello Leah. Gail here. I enjoyed this essay. I trained as an actor. As such, we were always looking for the driving force behind the actions. Execute  each action in accordance with the ultimate goal, one yard at a time, one scrimage at a time, one play at a time., and the sum of the actions dicates the result. What someone is doing might look crazy, but it makes perfect sense, if you know the motivation of the character. 

Okay. Having said that, My two favorite villains, are Tony Soprano of  "The Soprano's", and Al Swerangen of "Deadwood". Wonderfully, beautifully, comically wicked, and fascinating. Both luminous studies in the perlexities of crime and punishment. What is a crime to Tony is quite different from what is a crime to the FBI. A crime for Al Swerangen sometimes seems an act of mercy. Richly designed performances based in good writing. These are the two that I can watch over and over again, and see something new every time.

Thanks for the article. Please make an announcement next summer, here on LitReactor so I can read your book with the question of villainy in mind. With regard. gsr

Afterthought: I forgot to mention, in regard to Tony Soprano, I always felt that Carmella was more villainous than he, in that she operated in perfect pitch innocence all of the time, until something happened that forced her to show her stuff. Tony took care of her business most of the time. When she had to do it, it was chilling. She never strangled anyone with a piano wire, but she knew how to get it done. gsr 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 8, 2016 - 5:28am


Al Swerangen is a great example. He's the villain until a worse villain turns up. Very rich and complex.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 8, 2016 - 7:54am

Oh my gosh, so many fabulous comments happened while I was weekending! Yay and thank you all for stopping by!!!

Some replies, in case anyone checks: 

Re: He's a drill sergeant - yes, this is true, that is a fact...but I do still believe he takes things more than a little too far. I know it's his job to harden them and weed out the weak (I believe I even stated that), but still. He goes beyond, and thus, I still consider him a cinematic baddie.

Re: Jaime Lannister - YES!! I can't believe I didn't think of him! You are SO right on target there!

Thanks for all the other tips and suggestions - I can't wait to check them all out! Great discussion, all!!! :D :D :D

P.S. @smithreynolds - thanks so much, and if you follow me on twitter or Facebook, I'll for sure make announcements there. Plus, yes, I'll probably talk about it here, too. :D :D :D

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 8, 2016 - 9:45am

Gunnery Sarge may not be the black-hat "bad guy," but for storytelling purposes, he is certainly the antagonist in the first act of the film from Joker's POV, so the logic holds up.

The Serenity example is one of my favorite illustrations of this concept, too.

To perpetuate the cliché, each character is the hero of their own story, and in revising your work, it's helpful to make additional passes that reinforce this, keeping their POV in mind. Especially if you write screenplays, because the roles need to be enticing to actors, something with the requisite depth for them to sink their teeth into.

I love making the reader/viewer feel implicated in the character's badness. Like Walter White in his multi-season-long arc from Mr. Chips into Scarface. At what point—if ever—did people stop rooting for him? We involuntarily tend to make a strong connection to the first character introduced, and that can be used to great manipulative effect, whether it's Lolita's Humbert Humbert or Marion Crane in Psycho.