What Makes a Good Bad Guy? Part 2: Turning the “Shadow” into flesh and blood

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

Image from Flickr Creative Commons
Image from Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Post Script:

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.

12 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Bad Guy? Part 2: Turning the “Shadow” into flesh and blood

  1. Kodi Schoppmann 01/26/2014 — 9:39 pm

    I have to agree that a good bad guy is one who’s motives are understandable, maybe even noble, but how he/she behaves because of that motive is horrendous. I think a good example is Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. He loves his sister physically and emotionally, and because of that love, he shoves a child out of a tower window.
    Then you have the bad guy who appears invincible and the hero somehow through luck and skill and intelligence finds the one tiny weakness to accomplish the impossible and destroy this great evil. For instance Voldemort. He has no redeeming qualities. His motives are completely evil and selfish. He is immortal. Yet Harry finds a way to destroy him. Those are great bad guys too.
    For me, I really enjoy the books where the bad guy is someone who is human ruled by human emotions and does terrible deeds because of those emotions. Someone I might actually like under different circumstances.
    Hope that answers your question.

    1. Awesome. Thanks, Kodi. Of your two examples, I’m only familiar with Harry Potter (and only… ahem… because I’ve seen the movies), but I like your example of Jamie Lannister as someone driven by good intentions (what’s that old saying about the path to hell?)

      And again, only based on cinematic knowledge, but I would daresay there is enough of Harry in Voldemort (or enough in Harry himself that he has to overcome) to make Voldemort more than just an agent of “evil” that Harry has to defeat. But I can’t say that for certain not having read the books.

      But I agree that I prefer bad guys I might like under different circumstances. Messes with the head a little more, you know?

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hello Paul, and thanks for such an interesting post.

    I’ve often liked, or at least sympathised with, “bad guys”. I like a little bit of moral ambiguity, and enjoy stories that allow room for that. One very famous example that springs to mind is Frankenstein’s monster – but then I’m pretty sure that Mary Shelley wanted us to feel sympathy for him. Dracula? All the bloke wanted was to move to London! And Jack Torrance from “The Shining” – I wouldn’t say I liked him exactly, but I could kind of see things from his point of view…

    1. Hi Mari,

      Great to hear from you. And some good examples. I think many writers create their bad guys to elicit hints of sympathy (like Frankenstein’s monster). I know I just wrote a short story with a guy who goes nuts (or does he? Maybe everything is really happening as he imagines) and does something awful, and it’s very important to me that the reader can at least understand what caused him to do what he does (and if the reader can even sympathize a little, even better).

      Great example with The Shining. Not that I have as many personal demons as Jack (or given the setting he puts himself in), but it wouldn’t be too hard to envision myself in that same setting kind of losing my mind as well.

      Thanks again for your comments. How are things going for your writing?

  3. Guillermo Del Toro once said: “Your hero is only as good as your villain.”

    I think this really rings true with Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, as well as Frankenstein’s monster (as mentioned by an earlier commenter). Good villains are often ostracized – even in in their own community – and sometimes victimized. And there is something of an inherent sympathy written for, and built into them – which makes them likable to the reader. The best I know of this in modern, widespread, visual fiction, is Joss Whedon’s use of the Spike and Angel characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would also extend that to many of the Klingons in Star Trek. Regarding Game of Thrones (books and TV show) I don’t like Jaime Lannister as a villain because I think he desires to be a hero, but is really just a treacherous pervert / expert swordsman traveling a journey to righteousness. To me, Jaime Lannister is an anti-hero. I expect Mr. Martin is building up Jaime’s early betrayals of the dragon king and the Starks into an epic moment of redemption. So Jaime, for me, is no villain. Also, if he wasn’t handsome, he would be wholly uninteresting and gross (to the ladies). In fairness though, the same goes for Angel and Spike.

    I recently read The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley – and while I thought the primary villain in that book was amazing, I needed a chapter of development to make the story and climax as epic as the book was built up to be. He was a murderous demon – and didn’t need to be sympathetic, but, a literary escalation of his power and destruction, prior to the major confrontation, would have made the clashes between him and Harry (the heroin) way more interesting. I get the author wanted the heroin to have a little bit of ignorance as to who she was facing – as well as the level of power she yielded with the Blue Sword. But still, the villain could have used more development … either pre or post battle.

    Anyhoo – I don’t think sympathy is necessary for a great villain. There is definitely a fine line between an anti-hero and a villain. But, when the lines turn grey, I would suggest you constantly ask yourself: “Is my hero as good as my villain?”

    Good luck.

    1. Erik,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, it doesn’t hurt if your antagonist has smoldering good looks 🙂

      And now I’m definitely curious about Game of Thrones (already was, but now even more). Just need to get it on Amazon Prime or Netflix. I’ll be curious to see this Jaime Lannister.

      Interesting comments on The Blue Sword. I think it’s okay to have your hero/heroin in the dark, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to be in the dark as well. I think the reader having a good idea of what could potentially happen is a good thing. And if the heroin is in the dark, even better. It adds more tension because the reader is practically shouting “Don’t go in there!”

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. I think I enjoyed part 2 of your article more than the first, which I didn’t see coming lol. I think it’s because part 1 confirmed what I thought, part two helped me think in a different way :).

    “the villain believes themselves to be the hero of their own story, and the hero is their villain.” Is something I hadn’t heard before, or if I had, not in that way.

    Also the stuff about the flip side; using the villain to shine light (or dark) on the hero: What is the hero hiding? etc was very interesting to ponder.

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilty about rooting for a villain because I let my mind indulge itself and feel what it wants in relation to fiction/entertainment, or what else is it for? :-D.

    1. Casey, glad to hear you enjoyed this part more.

      Yeah, that was pretty enlightening for me to hear about the villain’s point of view as well. Even considering some of the bad guys we have the hardest time understanding, let alone potentially sympathizing with them, it seems easy to recognize that they believe they are doing the right thing. This can be as simple as them just being deluded, or as complicated as them carrying out these actions even though they personally believe it’s the wrong thing to be doing (for whatever ends those means will bring about).

      I like the way you’ve justified being okay with liking particular villains. Nicely worded. Still, to bring up Reservoir Dogs again, if you’re a huge Mr. Black fan at the end (beyond just thinking he’s a bad ass)–or Leatherface, or Hannibal Lector– perhaps you might check the ol’ wiring 🙂

  5. First off good luck on your short story submission.
    Secondly: Yes I do love my dark characters. Currently I am writing the darkest character I ever have, a ruthless sadistic serial killer and I have to admit I love him. Perhaps it is because I can be ruthless in my depiction of him. Perhaps it is because his motives are pure black and white and nothing will sway him from his mission, I like that dogged determined way of viewing life in black and white so I identify with this aspect of him.
    I have always been intrigued in what turns a person evil or to commit evil acts. I truly believe there are some people just born without a moral compass. But I also believe that any of us could be pushed to doing something unthinkable to either save someone/avenge someone we love or in that most animalistic survival aspects of self-defense. That is why I will continue exploring the psychology of darkness because by facing it I do not allow the fear of it to win.
    By the way I love those TED talks too.
    Great post Paul.

    1. Hey Kim,

      Sorry I’ve taken awhile to approve these comments (or why you aren’t just automatically approved). I went on a cross country ski trip over what is our three-day President’s weekend with a good friend of mine from my time in Montana. Great time, but been playing catch up ever since.

      Anyway, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I think we are on the same page (no pun intended 🙂 ) when it comes to this topic. And I like your continued discussion of the hero in addition to the villain. I agree that many people could be pushed to that limit. Edgar Allan Poe was fond of saying that you discover the true roots of a character by putting them in extreme situations and seeing how they react. Very true of real people as well, I’d say.

      Anyway, thanks again. Hope all is going well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close