What’s news for horror writer Paul D. Dail?
Not much since last week (maybe this is why I don’t post more frequently :) )
I submitted a short story to another market I’m excited about. Deadline is end of March. Send out those good thoughts for me.
And finally got started on edits for my next novel. It’s slow going, but I’m optimistic.
But now, without further ado…
What Makes a Good Bad Guy? Part 2: Turning the “Shadow” into flesh and blood
In Part One of this article, I discussed the theory that one possible reason so many writers (and readers/viewers, for that matter) enjoy the character of the “bad guy” is because he/she/it represents what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the Shadow archetype, our opposite side of the Self we project to others.
However, while the Shadow may be the opposite of the Self, it is not completely alien. A well-crafted villain has to have something to which we can relate. They can’t be the nefarious, mustache-twisting man in black who does evil (read: eee-vul) just for the sake of evil. Well, they can be that villain, but then there’s less internal conflict in the minds of your readers. If you can create a “bad guy” that people actually like, they’re going to have a harder time doing the easy thing: cheering for the hero.
As an example, think about Harvey Keitel’s character in Reservoir Dogs (I know, another Tarantino reference, but he does great bad guys that we hate to love). Without giving up any spoilers, Keitel’s character, “Mr. White,” is one of the many bad guys, but when he shows his humanity to the wounded hero, most viewers feel like they want “Mr. White” to get away with his crimes.
And don’t even get me started on the therapy I probably need because just a smidgeon of me likes “Mr. Black.” Even after the horrific thing he does.
If wielded properly, finding that connection with the viewer or reader can make even a 90-year-old woman relate to the disenfranchised teenager who wants to destroy the world. She may not be necessarily cheering for him, but she may not be able to bring herself to completely hate him either.
Bringing the Darkness to the Light
If you’re new to the writing game (or just an interesting tidbit for readers), a good place to start with the character development of your bad guy is to remember Joseph Campbell’s assertion that the villain believes themselves to be the hero of their own story, and the hero is their villain.
So your logic for why the bad guy does what he/she/it does needs to well thought out. They need to believe that they are doing the right thing, even if the rest of society doesn’t agree. And with villains, you have a much wider range of means available to you. As opposed to the hero, your villain has the advantage of not having to work within the framework of civilized society to accomplish their ends.
I would propose that a writer, as the Creator, has to understand (and I dare say, sometimes agree with) the reasons their bad guy is making seemingly irrational decisions. Even if part of that authorial concession is that a wire would have to be short circuiting somewhere in their brain, but then, yeah, I could see how that girl might believe her dog is actually an alien telling her what to do.
In addition to how the hero and villain clash with one another, another consideration is how they are connected to one another. Knowing that the Shadow often represents the side people don’t show anyone else, an examination of the hero often sheds light on the “bad guy.” What is the hero hiding? What are their secrets? What side of themselves might be embarrassing/frustrating/anxiety-causing to them?
The Shadow is sometimes symbolic of the hero’s bad habits, old fears, or repressed emotions. Robert Louis Stevenson gave us probably the most literal example of this in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, this theme is spread throughout storytelling. More recently, we might look to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. But it doesn’t have to be a split personality situation. In fact, it’s usually more figurative. Take John Grisham’s The Firm. In the novel, young law student Mitch McDeere has to battle his own repressed desires and temptations embodied by the big law firm where he has been offered a job.
This type of character examination not only creates a “bad guy” for your hero to overcome but also sets up the hero to have to battle their own personal weaknesses. In these cases, not only is the villain not that bad, but the hero’s not exactly perfect either. Most thinkers on this topic will say we want our heroes to have some flaws. We can relate to flaws. Every hero has their Cryptonite, right? And if the Shadow represents those flaws, then it becomes easier to relate to the Shadow.
Ergo (and to bring this full circle), conflict has been created in the mind of the reader or viewer, and they are left with a more lasting impression of the story.
Obviously not every antagonist can embody all of these ideas. Sometimes it’s fun to just have a bad guy who revels in chaos. But I think the best of the bad guys are the ones who don’t seem that different from us…if a wire was short circuiting in our brain or something.
As I stated in my last post, this is an article I wrote a couple of years ago for Suite101. However, over the past few days, I’ve been bombarded with evidence of these ideas in film and discourse.
Just watched the film Bug this weekend. Whew, talk about the ability of characters to make connections and draw conclusions that are completely insane (or are they?) and have the audience able to kind of understand… if, say, our wires were short circuiting or something. I’m thinking this movie wasn’t as clear cut as it appears. It’s kind of pulling a Memento on me.
Also watched a couple of TED Talks that discuss some of these concepts in more depth if you are really interested in this kind of thing and want to know more. They can be found on Netflix or YouTube.
“Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil.” Discusses what makes people do evil things, and consequently, heroic things. He also mentions Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 23 minutes
“Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception.” This one is more about what makes people believe “crazy” things. 19 minutes
What do I want from you?
Have you ever found yourself liking a bad guy? More importantly, did you feel a little guilty? Any examples you’re willing to admit?
Finally, I know posts are sporadic as of late as I pursue the writing career, but if you’ve enjoyed what you read here, please subscribe to receive posts via email or RSS feed (on the right hand column) so you won’t miss anything when I do get the opportunity to say something. NO SPAM, I promise.