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Getting to Know Evil

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devil.jpg?resize=519%2C824&ssl=1 Last month, I wrote about how hard it is to write morally good characters.  In the comments, it came up that writing evil characters can be just as hard, though for different reasons.

Evil characters can be easy to write because they’re often more clearly aware of their intentions than good ones.  But to write believable evil characters, you have to get inside their minds.  Anyone who gives advice on writing will tell you that you have to humanize your bad guys for them to be effective — cartoon evil is no more interesting than cartoon good.  But writers also need a warning about just how painful it can be to enter an evil mind.

A lot of writers try to dodge the question by just giving their villains the standard abusive childhood – as if no bad guy ever came from a happy home. Some avoid ever writing from their villain’s point of view, keeping their evil at a distance.  But to really make an evil character effective and memorable, you need to enter their worldview and see life as they see it.

Many evil people don’t think of themselves as evil.  So one way to get into the minds of some villains is to try to see why they feel that what they are doing is good.  They’re hurting people and destroying lives, but it’s for the greater good.  They might have to commit murder, but it’s to save even more people.  This sense of their own righteousness doesn’t necessarily excuse their actions – it could be massive self-delusion.  But it does give you a way to get into the head of someone actively causing pain.  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, people who hurt you for their own pleasure are far less dangerous than people who hurt you for your own good.

Some evil characters know that what they’re doing is evil, but they didn’t set out to do it.  They simply started with some minor, easily excused infraction that just snowballs.  An embezzler lifts a few thousand dollars from a work account to cover a debt, then has to falsify tax records when it isn’t paid back in time.  And then has to throw blame on a co-worker and perhaps embezzle more to escape, or even kill the auditor who discovered the grift. Again, this is not an excuse – at any point in the sequence, the villain could have bowed out.  But following a character through a series of bad decisions, each one building on the last, each one harder to justify, can actually be a good source of tension.

Some people are, though, simply evil, and those heads are the hardest to get into. Seeing the world from inside the head of someone who delights in destruction can only be done if you put aside your own humanity. It can be wrenching and exhausting. It doesn’t matter.  Do it anyway.  Just give yourself to it.

There is certainly room in the world for light, gentle, hopeful books.  But to write books that show readers a harsher, grittier reality often means you have to stare evil squarely in the face, understand it, even accept it at some level.  Many writers don’t have the courage. I often have clients who refuse to see their main characters get hurt, even though their story demands it.  Or they’re reluctant to have their main characters affected by their suffering.  If their characters don’t suffer, they don’t have to enter into the mind of the one causing them to suffer.

Darkness is sometimes part of life.  Grief is the flip side of love.  If you want to write the full range of human experience, you need devils as well as angels.

Tell us about the most evil character you’ve created.  How did it affect you to get into their head?  How did you manage?

Ruth Karl Julian co-authored this article.


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

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One of the main antagonists in my book is a man with the ultimate goal of saving his race from oblivion. What helped me get into his head was reading and thinking about how various past and present leaders have justified horrifically evil acts with the belief that "the end justifies the means." 

I also often find myself thinking that "the end justifies the means" in various situations, so getting into his mindset was not too hard. I tried to make it clear that he is at least partially motivated by a genuine ardor for and love of his people and a desire to save them. I imagined myself in his shoes: as a member of a race staring that is staring extinction in the face and with few options to avoid it. I wondered what I would do if I were in them. 

But what makes my antagonist evil is the fact that he is so stuck in his belief that "the end justifies the means" that he ignores the value of the lives he ends and ruins in pursuit of his goals. He also has only one vision of what he thinks the future should be. He cannot imagine any other and will do whatever it takes to reach it. 

All in all, I like writing antagonists. Writing antagonists helps me refine my understanding of what separates good from evil and how actions are justified for better and for worse. 


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