What makes a good bad guy?

Recently, as my thoughts turn to planning a new book, I’ve been wondering what makes a good baddie? If you see what I mean.

In my current w.i.p. the baddie is a politician, and I suspect, he will be not so much evil as morally bankrupt. To make things right, our hero will have to manipulate things so that the politician, in getting what he wants, will unwittingly deliver justice for the goodies of the book. In so far as there are any. A bit more like real life then, even if it’s set in space.

But I do want my villain to be bad. And while you can fiddle with the circumstances and the dynamics; on their own, they don’t always make the actual being evil. So I’m trying to work out if I want my latest bad guy to be greedy and selfish and incidentally evil or whether I want to go for a full on supervillian: a being who is intelligent, pointy-brained, and who plans (and revels in) his malevolence. The first is more real, the second an absolute gas to write and great fun to hate.

To get my head around concepts and ideas of ‘evil’ versus ‘bad’ or just ‘greedy’ I have turned to current affairs. I find current affairs intensely distressing if I look them directly in the face. Even so, they seem to be even worse than usual right now. There’s nothing like a bit of economic trouble to bring out the hatred in all of us it seems.

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Here we are in a modern and supposedly enlightened world and the various peoples of The Book are still trying to kill one another with gusto – and anything else that comes to hand.

We have an organisation of people pretending to be Muslims who believe half the population is shameful and valueless. It’s better to be a goat than a woman under the Taliban. After all, even their livestock can roam freely to find food. But if the male folk in a woman’s family die, the honourable thing for her to do is stay at home and starve to death rather than go out into the world unchaperoned to buy supplies. Yes that’s how much a woman is worth to them. Nothing. Because having kids and periods makes us unclean – Lord above if ever there was a bit of biblical health and safety advice that went big time wrong it’s that bit – oh and we don’t have a cock to think with, which makes us bad. And heaven help us, the Taliban seem quite moderate compared to ISIL, the Islamic State.

And then you get Israel which has had it’s foot on Palestine’s neck for years and just. Won’t. Lift. Off.  I wouldn’t pretend to be able to fathom Middle Eastern politics, there is no knowing Who Started It because the fighting there began at the dawn of time. I’ve read enough of the The Book – Old Testament/Torah/Koran – to appreciate that. But historically, countries like Britain, America and Russia have exacerbated the problems in an already volatile area for their own gain; fanning the flames of enmity, promising everyone what they wanted and delivering it to no-one: for years. And in return we get ISIL, the Islamic State. I guess it kind of serves us right.

Then… enter the ‘Christian Right’ and holy smoke, there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – who vilify women and single mothers, not to mention the poor. They justify the hatred-filled crap they spew as the word of God when all it’s about is power and more money for them. I thought god was supposed to be a loving father – you know, ‘love they neighbour as thyself’ and all that – not a psychopathic, vengeful shit-head. Maybe I’m wrong. It would be funny if there wasn’t an actual, realistic chance of these people gaining power in America, a country which looks, from the outside, as if the political choice is between rabidly conservative and a few steps to the right of Atilla the Hun.

And when I turn on the news and see the latest venom-filled cleric screaming spittle-flecked hatred in the name of whichever version of God they purport to believe in, I confess I feel contempt. Contempt for someone who uses their intelligence, or presence, or social standing to persuade others to maltreat people in the name of a supposedly loving god. And contempt for the brainwashed sheep who follow them.

Which is where it all starts, of course.

The minute we stop seeing extremists as human beings, we become like them. Because that’s what they’re doing to us. That’s how they can justify massacring whole towns, that’s how they can justify institutional peadophelia – selling 12 year old girls into sexual slavery because they dare to get an education: learn to read, learn to think, is peadophelia in my book. No wonder extremism is so attractive to every tinpot fuckwit with a Kalishnikov. What better excuse for violence, bullying and sexual depravity than ‘god told me to do it’? Even if it’s patently, bollocks. I really feel for the world’s quiet, moderate people of faith, who have to put up with people thinking that nutters like the Islamic State and the Christian ‘Right’ represent religion.

What the angry rationalists fail to realise is that using religion to manipulate people is a completely different from having an actual faith. I suppose that’s what a lot of the K’Barthan Series is about: that just because the extremists are in power, it doesn’t mean everyone is one. Even so, it seems that nothing is more guaranteed to make you despise and kill your neighbour than a jolly good argument as to whose philosophy you should employ to go about loving him. Weird isn’t it?

You know, I wanted to make my villain female in this next book – think Servalan out of Blake’s 7 – but, in light of the state of world affairs, I really don’t think I can. There’s enough hatred directed at us women without my making one of us a love-to-hate baddie. The saddest thing is that every time I make stuff up, on the grounds that it’s chillingly evil, I find someone, somewhere, is already doing it.

Servalan: Scary baddie from Blake’s 7 Image: from http://jasonnahrung.wordpress.com

Stepping off the soap box and dragging this back to the point, apart from depressing me profoundly what does the state of world affairs have to do with writing credible bad guys?

In a nutshell, because what current affairs show us is that contempt is the key. A good look at history is an excellent place to start if you want to analyse the subtleties of evil. All you need to do then is give your baddie a healthy dose of idealism at the expense of any practical consideration whatsoever. He doesn’t have to be all-other-beings-are-inferior-my-pawns-to-be-used-and-discarded, supervillain bad. All he has to do is believe, passionately that the ends justifies the means and forget that the populations of the nations he is playing with are actual real humans. There are many faces of evil and often one begets another. So you can have some seriously bad karma starting off with deeds done with good intent.

Hmm… for all his supercilious air I think I prefer the supervillain like Lord Vernon. At least he’s honest.

So, what are your thoughts folks? Who’s the baddest of the bad? Love-to-hate superbaddie or vainglorious politician. More to the point, which one do you most like to see in books?

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “What makes a good bad guy?

  1. Oh yes. These people masquerading as followers of the Divine are enough to convince anyone that religion is the source of all evil. It’s a terrible state of affairs.

    Idealistic baddies are the villains I love to hate. A bad guy is more convincing if he’s acting out of a misplaced sense of “right,” rather than a generic baddie who is evil just because. I do like my baddies to have a motive. Even if their thought process is totally off track, they need to have SOME thought process.

    • I like them to be power hungry megalomaniacs. But I agree, someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing or who does evil in the name of achieving an ultimately benign goal is always going to be a cracker.

  2. I think the stronger baddies are the ones that think they’re doing the right thing. At the very least they believe they know better than everyone else and will be praised later. For example, the politician might be doing what he/she thinks their constituents want or what they firmly believe will help the country. This tends to work better for me because pure evil can be fun to write and dull to read. Also, the pure evil characters put the story in a position where it will either be good wins entirely or evil wins entirely. There’s no middle ground ending there where redemption, both getting a little victory, or a twist can occur.

    As for your mention of using a female villain, I say do it. I’d love to see more love-to-hate female baddies. Their either sexy femme fatale that turns hero, pure evil b-word, or simply poorly written. The world need more Maleficients, Cruella Devilles, and . . . why are memorable female baddies from Disney?

    • Very true, indeed, in sci-fi, Servalan is one of the few who springs to mind. I loved to hate her as a kid.Hmm… in that case, perhaps I should.

      I do like a good old-fashioned battle between good and evil, I’ve kind of got that in the K’Barthan Trilogy. I hear you about redemption, too. I had a baddie turn goodie, in the first book and it was so much fun I had another go with one who… well… you’re not really supposed to know whose side he’s on until the last stand. I have to say though that the baddie in the K’Barthan trilogy was a sadistic b’stard who got off on causing pain. That’s why I’m looking to do something more complicated in this next one.

      Cheers

      MTM

      • I have a sadist villain in my series right now. Looking forward to writing his death scene. One thing that is a lot of fun is having a group of villains, which gives you several flavors to play with. The main one can be a monster, but the others can hit on other villain types. This tends to require a decent length series though.

      • That’s pretty much how it panned out in K’Barth. There’s lord Vernon who is the ultimate sadistic, power hungry bastard and then others who are not evil, just misguided like the leader of the Resistance – all ideals no flexibility, the vacuous, shallow Nigel in book 2 who is just selfish really and Captain Snow, who is a bully. But Lord Vernon is the only one who gets off on being vile, the others are but only in the process of their going about other things. If you see what I mean.

        Cheers

        MTM

      • I get it. I have that with Stephen who is sadistic and loves inflicting pain and misery. The other villains, including the main one, have some traces of humanity or better reasons for being evil than this guy. His interactions with his boss is interesting because it’s not the big baddie that has the sadism, but his top agent. Makes for some amusing conversations.

      • He sounds cool in a rather nasty sort of way. I’ll look forward to reading about him, when I get that far. 😉

        Cheers

        MTM

      • I really can’t call him cool because I find him morally repulsive. Strange from the author, but I really hate this guy. More than I thought I would.

  3. A powerful post, MT.
    As for baddies -. a great baddie brings out the best in our hero/heroes, but s/he has to be believable. They have to be as believable as the good guys. Too often, we make caricatures of bad guys because we either don’t want to understand their version of humanity, or we think the reader won’t be interested. But I always wonder what makes a baddie bad.

    • This is interesting. Reading everyone’s comments, the thing that comes across is that actually, my bad guy, who I absolutely loved, is probably not as fully rounded as some of the people round him who start off bad and then switch. That said, I’m always interested by which characters people like best in my books. It seems to vary so much. I’m hoping that’s a good thing.

      Cheers

      MTM

  4. I always get drawn back to ‘the banality of evil.’ I think Terry Pratchett got it spot on (as he usually does) in Small Gods, where the torturers of the inquisition drink from mugs labeled “World’s greatest Daddy.”

    • Yeh. There’s a book I’ve been meaning to read, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which is about how they broke down the monstrous whole into tiny administrative pieces that were a lot more innocuous seeming on their own. The result being that a lot of the people involved who might otherwise have baulked were able to convince themselves that they were not doing anything particularly bad.

      Cheers

      MTM

      • I know someone who put on a ‘committee game’. Players were engaged in an uphill struggle to keep up wartime production, with enemy action and blockade hampering their efforts. From what I’ve been told they did just about keep production up, but were having trouble with the migrant workers being constantly shipped in and had finally had to bring in pretty tough security to keep things moving forward. Apparently they were horrified when they discovered the scenario was based on one of the Nazi camps.

        In the real world it seems that most people ‘dont’ ask’ if it makes it uncomfortable for them, and a lot of people don’t really care anyway, it’s easy for them to produce spurious justification. 😦

      • I’m not surprised to hear that. After all, we have a strong survival instinct.

      • And we’re social animals, so it’s comparatively easy to manipulate people into doing things that win them ‘approval’ from their peers

  5. Annie Page

    Do you know it makes my brain hurt trying to understand all that. I’m so glad there are people like you to try for me. As for what makes a good baddie? Someone who knows they are being mean but carries on anyway. A bully. And go for it on the female villain thing….

    • Mwahahahaargh! Sorry to have made your brain hurt. It was a bit of a rant. Your definition is very similar to mine. A sadistic git basically. And thanks re the lady baddie. I may just go for it.

      Cheers

      MTM

  6. Hmmm, tough one – I do think that female bad guys are more fearsome somehow though and perhaps it is because they are different. Thinking of how Cruella da Vil instilled fear!
    Maybe it is because it is rarer. It certainly seems to be the case in crime fiction (and in life) that female murderers are much rarer and hence, feared more in a way.

    • Perhaps because we are the gender which gestates life we find it harder to end. I agree that properly evil female villains pack a serious punch. After what all you guys have said, I’m thinking that maybe I can make the baddie in my next book female.

      Cheers

      MTM

  7. Awesome post! For me I like to read the over the top evil villains that kill puppies and laugh maniacally but I prefer to watch the villains that are politically evil and take away peoples rights and other evil deeds. I’m not sure why. I do think it’s harder to write the second villain type and definitely more fun to write the over the top villain. Writing puts you in the head of what you’re creating and I’d rather be in the mind of a crazy villain than a seemingly rational one.

    • Yeh, I think that’s the nub. Having a evil villain is kind of fun but being in the head of a zealot is not such a pleasant experience. I absolutely loved writing Lord Vernon, the arch baddie, but really hated both Denarghi – idealistic villain – and Captain Snow – general louse.

      Cheers

      MTM

  8. I love Lord Vernon. I think he was well enough portrayed. He was single minded, motivated and wouldn’t let anything get in his way.

    I think you should do another K’Barthan book. You could do loads with Ruth (give her a big role) and The Pan, and General Moteurs. You could make him disillusioned and turn him into a baddie :). You could have The Pan not liking being Architrave, and clearing back off to Hamgee…

    Anyway the rest of the rant was good. Sort of thing I write from time to time, I did write a mild sexism one this week. I’m going to be the lone voice and say I wouldn’t make the villain a woman, we need some good role models and images. It may be fantasy rather than the world we live in, but it doesn’t harm to try and remind people of the daily abuse and cruelty that is perpetrated on women…

    • What you say about a female villain is what’s making me baulk.

      On the K’Barthan front. It’s funny but what I’m really thinking of doing is having Gurney and Softone from Book 2 do a bit of something. I can see them setting up a department to investigate the paranormal and getting up to all sorts of stuff. Which means I have to decide, fast, whether May is going to be Afro-Caribbean or not – I am toying with the idea – rather quickly.

      I do agree that The Pan may not like being Architrave and I could do something with that, or he could be kidnapped, or even be compelled to thwart Lord Vernon in other versions of reality… kind of like the good Rimmer in Red Dwarf.

      Although at the moment I’m rather enjoying writing a new one with a lesbian heroine (incidentally lesbian, it dosen’t impact on anything much on the story other than freaking her flatmates out because they think she fancies them). She’s working with a group of aliens who only have one gender (but have to breed in threes). It’s not the much needed commercial book I should be trying to write in order to fund the others but it’s reassuringly mad, I promise.

      Cheers

      MTM

      • You are probably aware that women are convicted of serious crimes they receive harsher sentences and very, VERY, sexist publicity. Hell, everyone knows men do that naturally, but women, oh no.

        I don’t know. Partly because your male villains are perfect, LV is classic. But if you want to go deeper, do you want to reflect current society, or invent a new one without restrictive religion and patriarchy. Very difficult. Rather you than me. Go with what feels good I say.

        I think K’Barthan is too good to leave. Seriously. Whatever aspect you restart with. A parallel universe with LV is good for all us LV fans 😀

        I’ve reviewed a couple of lesbian stories, makes no difference to me what someone’s sexuality is in a book or in life. But one gender is interesting, so many people argue about the gender issue. Dismissed in one novel by MTM! Sounds good, even if it’s not commercial. At least in your author’s garret with freezing fingertips you’ll know you stuck to your principles. 🙂

      • That’s true. I think a part of that, beyond the sexism, is because we are the ones who are perceived to place a higher value life. Perhaps our biological set up, as the ones which gestate it causes that. I couldn’t say but it makes it more shocking when we take it. There’s no excuse for harsher sentencing or vilification in the press but the shock value is good for a book. 🙂

        But yes, the ones that want to be written tend to get done first. On the upside, we’re having the heating fixed so at least my fingers won’t freeze right off. Phnark.

        As for K’Barth, it’s tricky, with the amount of power one character now has – bit of a spoiler to say who. I may well write more about it, but believe me, there’s plenty more where that came from.

        Cheers

        MTM

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