It's easy to fall into cliché when creating a bad guy. Most of the bad people in movies and books want the same thing... power. And they don't care who gets hurt on their way to achieving this ultimate goal. The very thought of their victory brings a sadistic grin and an evil laugh to their lips. They seem like such a happy lot, always laughing and rubbing their hands together in excitement as they make their dastardly plans. Of course they never win, as the good guy strikes them down just in time, so we never get to see what they would have done with all that desired power. There's an old saying: "It's lonely at the top." How true is this? Too bad the antagonist will never find out.
The good guy, or "protagonist," has one big job to do (and possibly a bunch of smaller jobs on the side), and that big job is to stop the bad guy or "antagonist" from winning. Of course, your antagonist may be just an obstacle to overcome, such as fear of speaking in front of an audience, rather than an actual person to defeat. But you simply don't have a story without an obstacle, conflict, or bad guy. Without the conflict, the protagonist has no reason to exist. It's an interesting way to think of life in general. We don't find out what we're made of until we have something to push against. Something that forces us to be our best so we can discover things about ourselves that we never would have known otherwise. Without a whole lot of pressure, a diamond is just a piece of coal.
What would Harry Potter be without Voldemort? What would Frodo be without the ring? Or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? Neo without the evil machines that created the Matrix? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch of the West? Let us all take a moment to silently thank the bad guys for doing what most would call a "thankless job." They create the fun of the story, yet all they get is tortured, destroyed, thrown in jail and otherwise humiliated.
My students have asked why they never make movies where the bad guy wins. Well, they do make such movies, but they're usually not successful at the box office. Happy endings where the audience feels a sense of communion with the triumphant protagonist make the biggest bucks. People will see a film that has a sad or defeating ending once, and never go back (unless it's Titanic and it has a Hollywood hunk as the lead character - someone who teenage girls go nuts over). But people will see a movie over and over again if the protagonist triumphs in the end because it makes them feel good inside. It makes them feel like they can accomplish anything in lives because the protagonist overcame great obstacles and made it through. People like to be inspired. If you want to create a bad guy who wins in the end, by all means, feel free to do so. But remember that if you do this, you'll need an antagonist who is original and interesting. Maybe someone who makes us question our own sense of morals and values. Otherwise, no one will want to read your story...at least not twice.
Now, for the sake of this article, let's just assume you're trying to create a person as your antagonist. This person is really bad, and in being so, he/she brings out the best in the protagonist. You want a unique bad guy who people are going to remember. Someone who speaks with an original voice and doesn't seem like anyone else they've read before. This is a very hard thing to accomplish.
The first thing you need to do when creating an interesting bad guy is define "evil" in your opinion. This is going to take a lot of thought, because normal good people make mistakes. They lie and steal and hurt other people without really meaning to. Are there times when it's okay to steal? What about if you're Robin Hood? Are there times when it's okay to kill? What if it's to save your own life, or the life of someone you care about? What if it's just for revenge? Is it okay then?
What separates a good person who does "bad things" from a bad person who does bad things? Most humans aren't perfectly good or perfectly evil. We are all various shades of gray, and we spend our lifetimes defining just what that means and how we came to be who we are. I've never in my life met a person who was "evil" for the sake of being evil. I've met some people who are walking what I would call a "dark path," but that doesn't necessarily make them "bad." Define what evil is in your opinion and that will give you the basis from which to grow this dark character.
Next step is to give this character a history and a motivation for doing bad things. We are the culmination of our environment, our genetics, our past, and our choices. This antagonist of yours needs to have reasons for choosing the path he walks. Even if it isn't a conscious choice. Did something bad happen in his past? Did he suffer some kind of abuse? Does he have a mental instability or illness? Has he felt helpless all his life and he craves power now? If you want an antagonist who isn't a walking cliché, it's all going to be in the motivation and history that you give him. Let's look at some motivations for doing bad things, and some of the famous bad guys who have used these motivations.
The Joker and most other super-villains fit into this category. Insanity is an easy way to explain most bad behaviors, but it can be a bit of a cop-out, if not done right. You can't just explain everything away by saying the guy isn't right in the head. There has to be more than that. And if you're going for the insanity plea, at least make the character unusual yet believable. Try looking in the real life DSM guide (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) for mental disorders and phobias. You won't believe some of the brain disorders you find in there. Stuff you wouldn't have ever thought up yourself. Real life is far stranger than fiction.
Stupid but Strong:
Most villains who are just stupid and brawny, are in comedies and aren't meant to be taken seriously, except for maybe the movie version of Frankenstein (not the novel version), in which he was deemed a "horrific character." Wolfman is another example of this kind of character.
Fearful and Prejudiced:
Fear born of ignorance is different from stupidity. It can be changed with a little knowledge. There are lots of real life examples of ignorance causing bad behavior, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and other racist groups. When you fear a group of people just because of the color of their skin, or because of their religion, it's from ignorance.
Fanatic or Extremist:
Certainly one of the most frightening villains is one who is willing to kill himself for a cause. One who believes so strongly in a religion or political belief that he takes extreme action (i.e. causing wars, taking hostages or prisoners, kamikaze, terrorism, or sacrifice). You often see such enemies on television in action shows, but they're also all over the news. Extremists are easily found in almost every nation around the world, and they make for an interesting antagonist, as long as you don't stray into the cliché again. One television show that has used this technique successfully and surprisingly is the new Battlestar Galactica. This science fiction show is about humans who are on the run from a race of machines that they themselves created, called Cylons. The Cylons can look like sleek metallic robots, or they can look exactly like humans. The interesting thing about the Cylons is that even though they are machines, they believe in God, and they are fanatical in their mission to carry out what they believe to be "God's will": to destroy all humans. They're actually quite spiritual. They meditate and preach and believe that God has a reason for all things. It's the last thing you would expect from a race of machines. Fanatics are scary because they are steadfast. You're not likely to change their minds. They believe they're right. They are on a divine mission.
Most villains are greedy for power and/or riches, like dastardly pirates, evil overlords, bad wizards (i.e. Long John Silver, Voldemort, Sauron, The Wicked Witch of the West, Count Olaf, the Snow Queen, Cruella DeVil, all the villains in the James Bond movies, etc.). This is the most popular explanation for evil deeds and should be avoided if you want to break away from cliché.
Some of the more clever villains in recent film and novels have come from a concept called cultural preferences. In a culture such as the Aztecs, human sacrifice was considered a part of their normal routine. We would think of such a sacrifice in our modern society to be horrific. But it really comes down to cultural preferences. In a show called Star Trek, they have an interesting bad guy called the Borg. These are part human, part machine beings who have a collective consciousness. They're not individuals, but they don't want to be. When one is cut off from the collective, essentially "rescued" from the Borg, the first thing the drone notices is how lonely he feels inside his own mind. How cut off he feels from the whole. The mission of the Borg is to unite the universe into their collective consciousness. Individuality will be wiped out. No more painful choices, emotions, violence, loneliness... All will be ordered and peaceful. In their opinion, that kind of life is perfection. To us, it's unfathomable. Who's right? Them or us? Or are we both right? It's just a matter of preference.
Mindless instinct is for when your villain is an ant colony or a dinosaur or a man-eating monster or a killer bunny who's just trying to survive and you've stepped a bit too far into its lair. Jurassic Park, Alien, and Jaws fit this category nicely. The best mindless villain I've read is the "Thread" in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. Thread are clumps of spores that look like worms that fall from the sky every 200 years or so, when another planet gets too close to Pern in its orbit. When Thread land, the acid on their skin allows them to burrow quickly into the ground, where they grow fast and devour all growing life for miles. They must be destroyed by fire in the sky (which is typically done by fire breathing dragons) before they reach the ground. Thread are incredibly dangerous and pose a terrible threat to the planet, but the people of Pern have devised clever ways to combat this mindless creature.
Angry and Hurt:
The villain could be angry, hurting and vengeful. He was wronged in some terrible way and wants to set things right by hurting people. Situations like this make an antagonist more sympathetic. Though you may not agree with his methods of finding healing, you can relate to him because you know what it's like to be angry and hurt. Darth Vader from Star Wars and Magneto from X-Men fit this category, as do many other common villains. These characters run the risk of being terribly cliché, but if their background is developed well enough and readers feel a measure of sympathy for them, cliché can be overcome by uniqueness of experience and emotional connection.
Intelligent Attention Seeker:
Some bad guys will do anything for attention. They won't be ignored no matter what. The intelligent ones are commonly bored, have hidden layers of low self esteem, experience jealousy easily, and come off sounding like ego-maniacs. They have ready insults for anyone who dares challenge them. They can out-think anyone, and generally have above-average attractiveness and charm. They can be flamboyant and outgoing, trying to gather as many people behind them with their convincing words as possible. Mr. Smith from The Matrix and Sark from Alias are two examples. They want money and power, of course, which only serve to feed their false egos more, but their greatest desire is to be noticed. To stand out from the crowd. I've seen many of these villains on television and in the movies, particularly in action TV shows.
Ignorant Attention Seeker:
The ignorant attention seekers are typically risk-takers and bullies because they're bored. They put their own lives in danger as well as everyone else's for the thrill of it, and/or to make a name for themselves. These tend to be party animals, drug users, daredevils, abusers, classroom disruptors, bullies on the playground, and cause fights and riots in bars. It's hard to think of examples of these characters because they seem to be in the film for a short period of time and they're only there to cause trouble so the hero has someone to beat up. They're easily forgettable.
Yes, being overly good can be a form of evil. At least certain characters like Barney and the Tele Tubbies bring out violent urges in my own sons (who are nearly teenagers now). A character can be so sugary sweet and out of touch with reality that it becomes the enemy. This is displayed well in Edward Scissorhands, The Stepford Wives, and A Wrinkle in Time. Places and people who seem brainwashed or lifeless, because they're too plastic and sweet, are sometimes seen as the best villains of all.
Some Gray Areas:
There are lots of characters who are hard to define...who don't fit into any of these categories. Those are the ones who are most interesting and complex. Characters who play on both sides of the tracks, like Morgan Le Fay (Arthurian Legends), Han Solo (Star Wars), Rogue, Wolverine and Gambit (X-Men), and Q (Star Trek) are good examples. These are generally likeable bad guys who are sympathetic and could switch sides at any time. They prefer to remain neutral and unpredictable.
Name some of your favorite bad guys. Ask yourself these questions:
Why are they considered "bad"? And what are their histories?
What are some reasons for a person to act in ways that are not socially acceptable?
Now create your own villain. Make him/her completely unique. The only way to do this is to really delve into his/her background and motivations. Bring this character into three-dimensional life by telling your readers all the details that you would want to know about your friend. Look at real people. Watch the news for your examples. Get into the mind of your character and try to understand him. If you do this, you're guaranteed to have a captive audience.
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