Columns > Published on August 5th, 2016

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!

About the author

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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