How To Write Believable Bad Guys
"And the thing is, I like my evil like I like my men - evil. You know, straight up, black hat, tied to the train tracks, ‘soon my electro-ray will destroy Metropolis’, bad. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture." -Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Buffy is my hero in all things, save this. Straight up evil villains don’t make the most believable bad guys in a novel. I consider a villain to be the single most important character in mystery fiction. Without a good villain, what’s a hero left to do? It only stands to reason that the character burdened with carrying the entire plot forward should be endowed with a tad more emotional complexity than a cartoon.

Some authors equate good villainy with monstrosity. If they can write a fiend so grotesque that mothers grab their children and clear the streets, they feel they’ve done their job. Freakish bad guys are only interesting to people who pay money to attend circus sideshows. To such an audience, the mere sight of someone biting off a live chicken’s head is an end in itself.

I’d like to think that good fiction demands something more of its heavies. They don’t need to be piteous specimens who immediately claim our sympathy but they should have some kind of rationale for what they do. A writer can’t make a bigger mistake than to pen a bad guy whose basic motivation could be summed up in the words, “Because I’m evil, evil, evil! Bwa-ha-ha!”

Thriller novels featuring sociopathic serial killers have been the trend for at least the past two decades. From a motivational standpoint, serial killers make uninteresting villains. According to the latest psychological research, sociopaths process reality in a different way than the rest of us. Their brains don’t make an emotional connection to others so they have no brake pedal called empathy to stop their heinous actions. They do what they do because they’re incapable of doing otherwise. A serial killer who acts on compulsion is a wind-up toy, albeit a murderous one. His bloody rampages inspire shock in the reader but that sensation lasts about as long as the nausea after a roller coaster ride. If you want a villain to be memorable, his atrocities have to be fueled by something more than a blind urge.

What I’m driving at here is the notion of choice. The old fashioned term would have been free will. Knowing the difference between right and wrong requires a conscience. The most realistic villains all have a conscience but they’ve managed to twist it into a tool of destruction. They commit epic crimes against humanity because they believe they’re doing the right thing. These men are determined to save the world no matter how many people they have to kill to do it. To me, a villain like that is far scarier than the guy in the hockey mask toting a butcher knife. A believable villain’s eyes glow with inner conviction. He can hide in plain sight. You’ll never see the danger...until it’s too late.
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