Writing bad guys

Last night I was having a phone conversation with Mike. He was driving home, running on zero sleep and the Amp and Mountain Dew had worn off, so he was using me to keep him awake so he wouldn’t fall asleep and drive into the river. And everyone knows that if you drive into the water in Florida, you will be immediately consumed by alligators, so I did my duty as a friend and talked his ear off about my current writing project.

Mike is one of my alpha readers, in that he actually gets to see what I’m working on as I write it. He isn’t too tough on my rough drafts, because since we’ve written a book together he knows how lousy my first pass can be.  The other alpha for Grimnoir is Bob Westover. Then the ultimate first reader is Kathy Jackson, but she doesn’t get to see it until it is actually all the way done and cleaned up, because Kathy’s a professional magazine editor and her time is valuable, (and her criticisms cut like razors!) so she gets the cleaned up version. Then I can show other people.

Well, anyway, I was telling Mike the backstory of one of the bad guys in Hard Magic.  I realized that I had talked for about twenty minutes going over this one villain’s past and his motivations.  He made the comment that I did good villainy. After I hung up I started thinking about how much effort I put into fleshing out my bad guys.

As a writer, I’ve found that I’ve become more unforgiving as a reader. I can’t really stand reading fiction with one dimensional bad guys.  I’m kind of dead set on my main antagonists being actual people. If I ever have a dude who is evil just for the sake of being able to wax his mustache and build death rays for no discernible reason other than to have a cool death ray, then I’ve failed.

There are several layers of bad guys in Monster Hunter International. The main one got quite a bit of treatment, and I think I made him plausible. Basically he’s a sadistic dick who wants to rule the world, but that wasn’t really too much of a stretch for a five hundred year old conquistador. Then there’s one of the bad guys who works for him, but I can’t say too much about her, as that would be a spoiler. Now she was fun to write. (and those of you that have read the POD version know who I’m talking about). She was everyone’s favorite.

MHI was my first book, and I’ve tried to grow as a writer since. The main antagonist in MHI:2 has a history and reasons for doing what he does. He honestly thinks he is the good guy and he is going to save the world.  He has a family. He has kids. He made a deal with the Old Ones to conquer the world in their behalf, so that he could rule it mercifully instead of the blood and fire way that they would go about it. He’s also bug nuts as a result, but hey, everybody has their issues.

It is particularly tough, because I would really like to talk about some of the other characters that I’ve written, but those books haven’t been published yet, so I can’t give too much away.  By the time you get to read something I’m already two projects ahead.  I guess that’s why I’m working on three series at one time.  

For those of you that read Mr. Nightcrawler on THR, you met Big Eddie.  He’s got a little more development in the novel that that mega-thread evolved into , Dead Six, plus over the series you get to meet his family and learn where he comes from.  Picture Carson from Queer Eye, now make him an international crime lord. With a poodle. There you go.  

Beyond that though, Eddie is a complex man with serious issues. He grew up as the bastard son of a super wealthy man. His older brother was the heir and chosen one.  While he inherited all the upstanding parts of the business, Eddie got the dark side. He plays the fop, the playboy, and people underestimate him. He’s sick and twisted and hurts people for fun, because it makes him feel like the big man.

And I can’t say more than that, but there are more bad guys in that series that I just love. Have you ever had a buddy with that really psycho ex-girlfriend, you know, she’s hot, but crazy…  Vindictive, delusional, manipulative, and as you get to know her you realize that this chick must have had one seriously messed up childhood. Yeah… and if that is your ex-girlfriend, you have my condolences.  Now picture that girl… with nuclear weapons.  

My philosophy is that your villains have to be actual people first who became bad guys. Nobody goes out and does evil just to be evil. (well, there are a few, never mind).  Even serial killers have reasons. Most people think that they’re the hero in their own story. They will view the protagonists as the bad guy, the person standing in their way. Everyone has motivation, and the typical bad guy motivations are great, money, power, lust, revenge, etc.  but you’ve got to ask why first. Why does that bad guy want those things?  What made him that way?

Maybe that’s one reason I so absolutely hated the new Star Wars movies. Darth Vader was a chilling evil dude in the originals. Then we got to see where he comes from and we all discovered that Darth Vader was basically a sniveling punk who takes this wild jump from being a good guy to massacring children for reasons that weren’t even sort of plausible.  

Even the evil overlords have a reason for doing what they do. In Grimnoir, the evil overlord is Baron Okubo Tokugawa, Chairman of the Imperial Council. In this 1932, Japan has taken a bit of a different path after the Meiji restoration.  Sure, he’s out to dominate the world, but he’s doing it because he honestly believes that he is on a mission from God (or the rough equivalent thereof) to cleanse the world and make it a better place.  

He does terrible things. He has no mercy, no conscience, and will absolutely do anything to win. He feels a duty to mold mankind into something better, something purer. He paints (badly), and even composes very poor haiku.  He’s actually a very intelligent, even sympathetic man, who will exterminate millions to do what he thinks is right.  At one point he is having a conversation with one of the heroes, who is grieving because of a loss, and the Chairman actually gives him sincere condolences, even though the Chairman was responsible for the death. Both men know when they meet again they will try to kill each other, but the Chairman is polite about it. To me, nothing is scarier than a villain who thinks that they are doing the right thing, regardless of the evidence, and damn the costs. subliminal message – obama – end subliminal message.

In true TV Trope sense if you are going to have an Evil Overlord, you must have a Dragon. And in this case, I’ve got probably one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written, Mr. Madi. I can’t give too much away about this man, because his past is revealed as the book goes on.  Basically he is crude, mean, utterly ruthless, has this really bizarre sense of right and wrong and an absolute hatred for weakness.  As he sees it, he has been wronged by life in general, and so somebody has to pay for it. As I explained his past to Mike last night, at one point he said, “Man, if that happened to me, I’d be pissed too!”  I hope that as people read Madi, they’ll hate him, but they would probably feel the same way he does while they hate him.

If you look at really memorable bad guys there is a reason they stuck with you. Keyser Soze was pure evil, but you don’t even know the guy until the very end of the movie. All you get is little snippets like “He says the Devil was in the harbor killing many men!”  that give you the shivers. He was pure badassitude for the sheer mystery of his character.

Sometimes a bad guy can just be dumped on you, fully developed, and you don’t even need any explanation of why they are the way they are. Other parts of their character are so interesting that they create their own story. For example, in the Dark Knight, the Joker tells different stories about his origin to different people. We never know who he really was, but it didn’t matter. He arrived, fully developed, and stabbed you in the brain with a pencil.  

One mistake I see in books is that people make their villains too weak. If they’re going to threaten the protagonists, they must be plausible. It doesn’t have to be through size, strength, or firepower, it could be through their brains or their manipulations. No matter what, there has to be tension that the good guys might fail, and if your bad guy is a putz, there is no tension.

A good intro for your villain can really pay off too. I was once on a Con panel on this topic. I was put on the spot when somebody asked what was the greatest intro of a bad guy I could remember. I answered that one in a flash because it has stuck with me my entire life. Gozer and Zuul on Ghostbusters. No, I’m being serious. Remember that scene when Sigourney Weaver opens her fridge into an alien world and there is a the big green demon dog and it goes ZOOOOOOOOL.  I don’t care if the movie won any Oscars, that was friggin’ awesome. If I’m ever an evil interdimensional force, I’d want my minions to appear in people’s refrigerators and bellow COOOORRREIA, but knowing the kind of minions I’m likely to have they’d probably just raid all the snacky foods and vanilla Coke and wander off to play Xbox.

12 Responses

  1. It was Dr. Pepper God damn it. We’ve been friends long enough for you to know that I don’t drink Mountain Spew. That stuff’ll kill you.

  2. “Both men know when they meet again they will try to kill each other, but the Chairman is polite about it.”
    This concept sort of reminds me of the interactions between James Bond (after he has been captured by the bad guys) and his antagonist du jour. The antagonist is polite and hospitable as he reveals his innermost secrets and plans because he thinks Bond is helpless to do anything to thwart them. Then he’s rescued by the bimbo du jour and the explosions begin as Bond & bimbo fade off into the sunset.
    I agree that your bad guys are interesting because they are fully developed and multi-dimensional rather than being stereotypical bad guys.

    • “Both men know when they meet again they will try to kill each other, but the Chairman is polite about it.”

      Actually it reminds me of the movie Highlander when McLeod and the Kurgen meet at church. Sort of ‘The die is cast and we just need place and time for the confrontation.’

  3. The Agent from Serenity. The director commentary audio has a short discussion of this same thing.

  4. When I read the section on Baron Okubo Tokugawa I immediately thought, “So, you’re writing Hitler”. I’ve always been under the impression that Hitler honestly thought he was doing the right thing, of course he was very, very wrong, but still, he thought he was doing good. And it’s the thought that counts right? ;-)

    Also I second your complaints about Darth Vader in the new movies. In the old movies Vader and Palpatine where trying to accomplish “good” (stability and peace) by being tyrannical dictators. It feels like Anakin goes from anti-hero to evil incarnate in just a split second in the new movies.

    • “Also I second your complaints about Darth Vader in the new movies. In the old movies Vader and Palpatine where trying to accomplish “good” (stability and peace) by being tyrannical dictators. It feels like Anakin goes from anti-hero to evil incarnate in just a split second in the new movies.”

      Anakin’s fall was the worst thing about the movies (even worse than Jar Jar). You can extrapolate his motivations out from the movies and Expanded Universe, and his overall actions are understandable. But the speed of the fall was dictated by the pace of the movies and the writing didn’t compensate for it. Had things been thought out better, the first hints of Anakin’s “screw the Jedi code, I want power to protect those I love and see my justice done” attitude would have come out in the first movie.

  5. Thought you’d get a kick out of this:

    http://ihasahotdog.com/2009/07/08/funny-dog-pictures-gate-keeper/

    Writting villians has always been hard for me, because I can never really establish a “why”. Thats why I like zombie fiction. When I’m feeling up to it, I can write a legit bad guy. When I’m not…well, flesh eating masses of the dead works out quite well enough.

  6. Nailed it with the prequel comments. Vader is still an amazing character. Anakin? Not so much.

    And I immediately thought of the agent in Serenity just like Vaarok. Great bad guys are worth the effort.

  7. Well, if you throw in the Clone Wars cartoon it really makes Anakin suck less, and then with the even-more-padding of the Clone Wars CGI cartoon, that helps too. But yeah, third movie blew because they tried to cram everything in for those people who didn’t have the interest to suck up the backstory, and couldn’t be subtle about hinting there was some or they wouldn’t’ve made sense at all.

    They did the same thing for Star Trek. Just reading the Memory Alpha articles summarizing the pre-story to the movie made the movie ten times more enjoyable.

    http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Star_Trek:_Countdown

    I’m not sure if it’s laziness, studio budget, or what, but these half-here half-there movies kinda suck. Even Serenity did it, with the comicbook that was necessary reading to understand where Inara went and explained why Mal went from cheery to gloomy.

  8. “Some moron brought a cougar to a party and it went berserk.”

    Greatest movie EVAR.

    Great post, too! Your characters in MHI were well-written and very entertaining. So what if it ups the word count? A good book is well worth the weight of the extra pages.

  9. Huh. Well, of course I agree about Anakin/Vader. He went from being sympathetic to a whiny bitch who killed everyone? And then, almost totally evil, in a flash. Stupid. Badly written. Unbelievable. I also agree about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character. Frighteningly enough, The Operative reminds me of the person I have often been. Fanatics are dangerous, even if they’re not self-deluded.

    There are a couple of stages of evolution I feel can be gone through, and you’re almost there for the first, Larry.

    There are no bad people, just sick ones. People who have genuinely no understanding of what they’re doing, or who have learned the wrong lessons from and about life.

    There is another step, but it’s not strictly necessary. There *are* no good people, or bad people. Only people. And we live, and we die.

    John

  10. I’m looking forward to seeing Big Eddie fleshed out some more. What a bizarre little man.

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