How to Take Your Villain Out of His Cardboard Box and Make Him 3-D
by Sylvie Kurtz
A good bad guy
When we set out to create a story, we don’t want to end up with something black-and-white filled with cardboard characters that the reader will forget five minutes after putting down the book. We want a full, blooming story that pops with color and will live on in the reader’s mind. We spend a lot of time working on our main character, on conflict, and plot. But the bad guy often gets the short end of the plan. He’s a bad guy and bad guys do bad things. What’s so hard about that?
That lack of planning can lead to a character that’s all evil, which, despite his easily recognizable over-the-top badness, makes him boring.
Hero vs. Bad Guy
I’m not saying that you need to turn your evildoer into a loveable mutt you want to take home. But to snap him out of his flat two-dimension, you have to understand him as well as you understand your hero. Like your hero, he needs a concrete, specific, and worthwhile goal to pursue. Like your hero, he has to really want this goal. Like your hero, he needs some sort of motivation that fuels his desire. He may want to steal all the gold in Fort Knox, but deep-down, it’s not the money he needs, it’s the sense of security that much gold represents, it’s the self-esteem he’ll gain by pulling off the impossible heist, it’s the glory of providing his love with all she desires, because how can she possibly reject someone who can give her the world?
Motivation is Everything
Most people aren’t born evil. Your bad buy doesn’t wake up in the morning wondering who he’ll kill today. He most likely has a mother, sister, girlfriend—someone—who loves him. He has reasons for what he does. In his world, he’s the good guy. He’s the one who’s not understood. He’s the one who’s been victimized. He’s the one who’s right. He may spend all day carefully torturing a man to give up his secrets, and come home to play with his kids with just as much patience. He can function as a respected executive, yet go home and beat his wife because she missed a spot in the sink. He has likes and dislikes that appear normal—and maybe a few that don’t. He’s an avid cyclist, a collector of Jazz albums, a wine connoisseur. He doesn’t like his peas to touch his mashed potatoes. He’s allergic to roses. He knows a thousand ways to break a bone.
His need, like ours, is to survive in this harsh world. What he does to survive makes sense to him, even if the rest of society shrinks in horror. He doesn’t just take out his gun and shoot at anything that moves. More often than not, he has a set of principles values he follows and values he lives by. It’s okay to walk into a house and steal everything, because the door was unlocked. It’s okay to use a knife, but not okay to use a gun, because the dying have a right to see who kills them. It’s okay to kill a man, because a man can defend himself. His view of compassion or justice or love may not match ours, but it guides his every move. He’s stalking her, not because he wants to scare her, but because he loves her so much.
He would reveal himself. Soon. But he wanted her to know the depth of his love first. When he pulled away the veil of mystery, she would say, Of course, it had to be you. Then she would smile and walk into his arms. (Honor of a Hunter)
Look for the Pain
You can often find the seed of his motivation in how he’s been hurt in the past. What happened to him to make him hurt? What painful lesson has he learned time and again? What does he do to avoid a repeat of that pain? How does his pain skew his perception of himself and the world? How does that need to avoid pain lead to protect himself by hurting others? What makes him angry? What stresses him? What makes him lose control? How does he feel after he hurts someone? How does he hide his dark side? When does it come out? The more you can get his motivation across, the more his actions will make sense, and heighten the horror of what he does for your reader.
One hand cradled her jaw. “If I can’t be with you on earth, then I want to be with you in heaven.” (Honor of a Hunter)
What the bad guy doesn’t do is back down. Unlike the hero, he doesn’t change. He doesn’t grow. He doesn’t overcome his flaw. He’s stuck in his mode of survival, because he can’t see another way out. Even if he engineered the successful destruction of the world, he still wouldn’t be happy, because that still wouldn’t fill the thing missing inside him. Because he can’t change, the outcome for him leads to decay or death.
Your job as a writer is to understand your bad guy and all his weird and twisted ways, even if you don’t share his beliefs. Before you start writing, leak your story plan to your bad guy. Let him call you up. And when he says, “Listen, you got it all wrong…,” take notes. The complexity of his personality will allow you to add depth to his character and a greater sense of danger to your plot.
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