How to write an evil character

My subject today is how to write a really, really evil character.

When I say evil, I’m talking about nature, not about motive. Evil goes beyond the normal catalysts that drive human beings to commit murder and mayhem–those catalysts can include jealousy, anger, rage, fear, even a distorted kind of love.

When I think of evil-doers (and I have to credit the former Prez for that phrase), I’m talking about psycho-killers. Cold-ass weirdos. As writers, sometimes we need to create those kind of unabashed, dead-at-the-seams, evil characters. We especially need to create this type of character when we are writing a big, breakout book.

Back in August, we had a week of posts on this blog about our favorite villains. But now I’m wondering, how do you write that evil? For example, who could forget the moment when Jack Torrance’s nonsensical pages of writing were finally revealed to his wife in The Shining? That one moment showed both his insanity and his being overtaken by the evil of the Overlook Hotel.

Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it works on the page

One of my greatest frustrations in writing group is when someone defends their not-so-convincing work by saying, “But it’s true. It really happened this way.” So the f’n what? If it doesn’t work on the page, it doesn’t work, period. Writing what is true is not always convincing.

Here’s a true story that would be hard to convey in fiction: A successful, apparently-happily married scientist, the mother of an adorable toddler, one day decides to poison her husband with a massive dose of arsenic. She’d been building up with “test” doses for months, giving him flu-like symptoms. No one could believe she’d done it. Even the man’s parents didn’t believe she’d killed him. She was visiting them in their house when she was arrested by the police. Even when the husband was dying of the last dose of poison she’d injected into him while he was in his hospital bed, he still thought that they were a happily married couple.

It turned out that this woman was a true psychopath. She didn’t want the shame and perceived social failure of a divorce, so she decided to off her hubbie and start over as a “grieving” widow. There’s evidently no stigma to being a widow in a psychopath’s mind.

How do you write that in a convincing way?

Right now I’m struggling to write such an evil character, one of those people who on the surface seems to be a caring, warm pillar of the community. And even though this is one cold, unsympathetic creature, I am trying to wiggle inside her head through the writing. Right now I’m researching the type of emotional disorders that might have given rise to her pathology. And (as Joe points out in the comments section), a well-written villain-psycho needs strong motivation beyond mere pathology. Even Hannibal Lechter had that going for him. So I am also going to give her a powerful motivation to kill for what she wants, in addition to her psychosis.

And I’d love to know, what are some techniques you use to convey a character’s evilness?

Stay tuned for upcoming guest appearances at the Kill Zone:

April 5 P.D. Martin

April 12 Eric Stone

20 thoughts on “How to write an evil character

  1. If you watch Lost, last week, they started with an episode from Sayid’s childhood where his older brother had to kill a chicken but couldn’t bring himself to do it, so Sayid killed the chicken by wringing its neck and gave it to his brother to give to his dad.

    Not that Sayid is a psychopath, but it gave context to a seemingly cold-blooded decision he made later in the episode.

    That’s how I’d do it.

  2. Interesting post, Kathryn. The biggest problem I see with creating evil characters is how fast they can turn into a 2-deminsional cliché. There’s also the danger that, because of what we read in the headlines each day—estranged husband walks into a church and shoots dozens or despondent father shoots family then turns gun on himself—we tend to become numb to the run-of-the-mill serial killer or mass murderer. It’s not uncommon for writers to fall back on the excuse that the bad guy is insane and that’s why he does his evil stuff. I believe the dastardly antagonist must be empowered with as much believable motivation as the hero. Good luck with your new project.

  3. Good point, Joe. Motivation + psychosis = good evildoer. That bodes well for my bad guy, who has a powerful motivation, and who, as we discover, is also deeply disturbed. Chris, I’ll be on the lookout for that episode of Lost, thanks!

  4. I think the most important thing it that the character truly believes they are the good guy/gal in the story.

    If you’re interested, Kathryn, I’ve blogged a little about the ‘Flight or Fight’ theory for characters which I find very useful. In short, good guys/gals I believe should have the ‘Fight’ theory whislt the bad guys/gals have the ‘Flight’. Break us all down to our core selfs and we have one or the other. Just my opinion though and there’s some good information on the net about this theory that may be useful. Never let me down in my old job and seems to be working OK for my writing.


  5. Hitchcock always said the villains were the key to suspense, and he’s right, of course. His best work has the best villains. (One of my personal faves is Strangers on a Train)

    FWIW, when I conceive a villain, I make myself answer these two questions.

    1. Why is the villain right? In his/her own mind. No villain wakes up each day and says, “Hm, how much evil can I do today?” (Except Dr. Evil, of course). I justify the evil from the character’s POV. Truly evil characters think they are doing something right.

    2. Why do I love this character? Not AS a fictional character, but as a person. Whoa. This means, for me at least, getting so deep into his background and tissue that I can find some sympathy factor in there. Koontz once wrote about this, saying the best villains evoke some sympathy, like the wolf man trying to fight off the lycanthropic thrust of his cells, but unable to resist.

  6. JJ, that Fight-or-Flight test is really interesting. I sallied over to your blog to read it–hope you don’t mind if I post the link!
    I tend to think of fight-or-flight as a survival mode rather than a evil versus goodness characteristic, but that may just be because I’m a physical wimp who couldn’t fight my way out of a box of Crackerjack. However, when I’m directly confronted in an unavoidable way, I have been known to shift into what my family jokingly calls a “Girl, Interrupted” mode. It freaks them out because it’s so completely the opposite of my normal conflict avoidance mode. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about, and perhaps that puts me in the ranks of the good gals? Or not, grin.

  7. Jim, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now–to make myself love this villain. It’s hard because this person is so horrible. But there has to be a reasonable back story that gave rise to him or her, that made them that way, that justifies the character, at least to himself.

  8. I like to think of “evil” characters as sociopathic more than psychopathis. (Not implying the two are mutually exclusive.) A sociopath essentially has no conscince; he deserves whatever he wants, and is therefore entitled to take appropriate action to attain it.

    Evil characters can also have traits that are considered good and proper. Certain mobsters, who will stop at nothing to get what they want (sociopaths), are wonderful family men. (Tony Accardo comes to mind.)

  9. Does the character have to be evil or can she just be bad? I think the distinction is critical. Evil characters tend to be wooden to me as they tend to transcend humanity. But bad, even really bad characters, have some humanity to them. They might be 99% bad but it’s that 1% of good that makes them interesting to me.

  10. That’s an interesting question, Mark…is Hannibal Lechter simply very very bad, or brilliantly evil? I vote for evil, but he still has a tiny core of something sympathetic inside him. Dana, maybe that woman who poisoned her husband was a sociopath and not a psychopath. I’d have to have a psych degree to know the difference. But eee-vil!

  11. One thing that draws us to villains like Lecter and Gordon Gekko is their power. They are really, really powerful in interesting ways (feeding that part of ourselves that wonders, Could I ever get away with that?)

    I mean, Lecter is more powerful at manipulation inside a cage than anyone else is outside. Gekko can manipulate markets with a phone call (is that next call coming from the White House, BTW?)

    Another example: Hud Bannon. As portrayed by Newman, he’s very bad (immoral) but he can charm anyone (except his father). Charm is power. That’s what Robert Walker has in Strangers on a Train.

  12. As the old adage goes, always remember that the villain is the hero of his/her own story.

    I love the bad guys, which is probably why I gravitated toward this genre. Chris, that episode of Lost was brilliant, very well done and as you said it explained better than anything else Sayid’s later actions.
    Speaking of Lost, isn’t Ben Linus the perfect villain? His motivations are never entirely clear, all you know is that whatever he’s doing is designed solely to further his own ends and to hell with anyone else. He steals the show every week.

  13. So Chris. Are you saying that to get stoked for an evil character you throttle a chicken?

    Not that I’m condeming the idea. To each his own.

    I just…well…I tend to use a squirrel instead. They are cuter. And when you skin them they look a lot like a little human. just food for thought.


  14. On a serious note regarding evil characters I find that sometimes I disturb myself coming up with the bad guys in my books. I start to see the world through their eyes and get a bit nervous about where those thoughts come from.

    The first was a character in my first podcast. A French intelligence operative and former Legionnaire who never smiled, until that is he came out of the closet and was discovered to be a double serving the Iranian Vevak (Secret Police) and really enjoyed enjoyed rape and torture. What really got me though, was that I had met the guy for real (at least the guy the character was based on). As in I didn’t know it at the time but later heard from some friends that so and so had been a serious bad guy all along.

    Sometimes evil walks among us and doesn’t need to be fictionalized to scare the living daylights out of us.

    The one that really creeped me out though was a modern pirate who grooved on mutilation. Having seen real evil face to face more than once, I hate getting into the mind of the bastards to write them, but it happens anyway.

    After writing a really bad guy I sometimes have to wash my brain out with lemon juice. As long as the good guys win in the books, I suppose I will be able to keep my insanity. I fear the day I write a bad guy who can’t be caught.

  15. Oh…

    The Pirate guy was totally fictional..never met him…just read about the type

    just wanted to be sure you don’t think I hang out with Mr Sinister and Dr. Evil regularly.

    The French Legionnaire guy though, yeah…dude was sick.

  16. I think the best research you can do for finding motivation to “love” (or at least empathize with, or perhaps feel pity for) a villain is to read RED DRAGON. The part where Dollarhyde, as an adult, still pees sitting down ‘like a good boy’ because of what his grandmother told him and how she treated him…that whole set of backstory was brilliant, and built up a reasonable understanding of the character’s “heroic” journey from his perspective.

    Just my opinion, of course, but I’ve always felt he was much better done than Lecter’s background in Hannibal Rising, good as it may have been.

  17. Thanks for that link, James! King has some interesting choices, and he’s added one to my TBR pile–William March’s novel that became the filmed version of The Bad Seed. The 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark made his top-ten list of villains. And Dracula is his top literary villain of all time.

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