Thursday, October 25, 2012

Get the bad guy right

Have I missed a comma out in my title? I think not.

Ask yourself what the following have in common:
  • A fairy tale
  • A romance
  • A horror story
  • A police procedural
  • A Victorian melodrama
  • A children's play
  • A spaghetti western
... and so on.

The answer is that such stories, disparate as they may be in content, style and demographics, will almost certainly possess a truly despicable villain. The only question is whether that villain lives in a house in the forest and gobbles up lost children or whether they've seduced our beautiful and headstrong heroine at the time of her greatest vulnerability.

But what really makes a good villain?

Naturally the specifics relate to the book itself but there are many lessons to be learned from popular culture - not just of our generation but also of our recent ancestors. Look at the logic behind what was possible not so many years ago because, as a species, we haven't significantly changed in the meantime. In bygone days, theatre audiences weren’t able to see much of the stage, by-and-large wouldn't be particularly well educated, and would universally want something that they could let off steam over. To coin a phrase, they wanted someone to boo and the louder the better.

From a modern writer’s perspective, the first decision to be taken is whether to have multiple villains or a single one. If the answer's 'a number' then the next question is from the book's perspective - are you going to see things from the point-of-view of the heroes or the villains? If it's the former then the villains should possess minimal individual characteristics as giving them too much personality will reduce their effectiveness; the reader will begin to identify with them.

If you’re going to write from the point of view of the bad guys then, yes, you do need to develop their characters and this is where you can have some fun. As with the principle of theatre, it's perfectly permissible to go a little bit over the top. The reader isn't likely to want someone who's a 'bit on the bad side' doing things which 'aren't very nice'. They want someone really evil doing mind-bogglingly horrible stuff. NB this doesn't mean a splatter-fest - there needn't be an ounce of gore in the storyline for this criterion to be fully satisfied. Your truly bad guy can be the evil seducer or the wicked witch just as easily as they can be the mad psychopath or the bandito with the bad teeth and an even worse attitude.

With a group of bad guys try hard to think of something which links them. Don't forget that altruism won't figure highly on their agenda so come up with a good reason why they stick together - e.g. through fear, greed, power etc. The higher the level of 'bad-ness', the stronger the glue you're going to need to hold them together so work on this before you start putting 'pen to paper'.

A book without a solitary bad guy is likely to be insipid yet a book without a good guy isn’t of necessity a bad read. This is because we still like to be able to boo our villains – good and loud.
Now, there's a message there somewhere.

Clive West is the author of a collection of short stories featuring a selection of rogues, as well as a full-length novel called 'The Road' in which the bad guys are just ordinary folks who use their position of power for self-gain and who justify their actions through selectively ignoring the consequences of their action or inaction.

Clive is also co-owner of Any Subject Books and you can see more about them on their website or on Facebook.


  1. This is all great advice! I've read a few stories before where there was no "bad guy", just "misunderstandings" between some of the characters. Because there was no bad guy, there was no real conflict, which made the story less interesting.

    1. Thanks, NW. Without wishing to seem tacky, have you read any of my stories? I'd love to know if you think I've taken my own medicine!