What makes a good bad guy? And by good I mean bad, and by bad…you get the picture.
I asked this question on Facebook, and a lot of people mentioned “Dexter”, which I confess I haven’t seen. It seems that serial killer Dexter, by all accounts, is an exemplary bad guy. He cares about his family, yet he’s capable, almost simultaneously, of ruthless, chilling acts of torture.
The consensus of the Hivemind (Thank you, Hivemind!) was that, in order to be a really good bad guy, the villain had to be relatable. Readers had no time for Lord Darkevil*, who wants to take over the world and destroy it for the hell of it. They wanted to see back story. What made Dexter, or Lord Darkevil, or Valery Northpoint, the way they are? What circumstance has driven them to evil acts? Never forgetting, of course, that everyone is the hero of their own story (Yes, even Lord Darkevil). Bad guys and gals don’t think of themselves as “bad”. Often, they seem to think of themselves as righteous.
Readers also want a villain they can sympathise with. This can be part of their back story (Dru joins the King’s Third to prove his courage, and is so terrified of being thought weak that he bullies and intimidates the younger boys, and the situation spirals out of control) or it can be a personality trait, such as a love of animals, or charisma (interesting fact : psychopaths are often especially charismatic individuals – think Tom Ripley). There has to be something about them that’s likeable, both for the reader to empathise with, and to make their acts of evil, when they occur, even more shocking in contrast.
Someone who is pure evil for the sake of being evil, or has no discernible motive, is hard to relate to. No matter how much the reader boos and hisses, they also need to care. And a hero is only as good as his antagonist. A strong villain provides a worthy opponent for your protagonist to struggle against.
Characters are people too. Even bad guys, and you need to show them with the same mixture of good and bad traits that everyone has. Writing villains can be a wicked lot of fun. They allow a writer to explore the dark side of human nature, as well as dreaming up horrible tortures for them to inflict on the poor innocent heroes! A well written villain can linger in the readers memory long after the affable hero has ridden off into the sunset…
*Please note – I have no intention of ever naming a character “Lord Darkevil”. Or “Lord Deathbreath” for that matter…