why the devil makes a boring bad guy

Why the Devil Makes a Boring Bad Guy

This week’s video shows why the ultimate bad guy doesn’t always make for the ultimate story.

Video Transcription:

Bad-to-the-bone bad guys drive fiction, just as much—if not more so in some ways—as the likable and intriguing good guys. Since the whole point of a bad guy is that he’s bad, we want to make our antagonists as despicable as possible—and who’s more despicable than the devil—or an “antichrist”? Many popular books and movies take advantage of both these entities, displaying the ultimate evil, and thereby forcing their protagonists to go head to head with the ultimate villain. Sounds like the making of a thrilling story, right? I’m not so sure.

As was driven home to me by a book I just finished, the devil makes a lousy bad guy. This is so for a couple of reasons.

1. Just as supreme goodness in a hero is boring, so is supreme evil. Bad guys are people too, and just like the good guy, they’re much more interesting and compelling if they come complete with shades of gray. In life, we never find great evil without some spark of goodness anymore than we find great goodness without some flaw.

2. Despite the fact that a devil-like character can bring insurmountable odds to the table, he ironically only increases the reader’s assurance that the hero will be beat him. There’s always the possibility that a human bad guy will triumph. After all, they triumph all the time. But the devil victorious is simply unthinkable. We know, without a doubt, that the good guy is going to find some impressive (and probably unbelievable) way of besting this supreme evil.

3. The fact that the bad guy represents utter evil too often means that the good guy, by default, is utterly in the right. The opportunities for internal conflict (although certainly still present) are much less likely to be utilized. And, as a result, the story suffers thematically as well.

Although these types of antagonists can be done well, remember that even the likes of Darth Vader had a spark of goodness left in his heart. And he was more interesting because of it.

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent, as always! :) We’ve been talking about the devil and evil in my small group/Bible study the last few weeks, so it’s good to see this right now.

    Couple little things (technical)–I think there’s something on your lens. Unfortunately, it was on your face the whole time–slightly distracting, not sure what you could do about that. :/

    And, love the fact Snyder’s ‘Return Policy’ is just over your shoulder! :)

  2. Ah, yes, I wondered if any of Snyder’s fans would be able to recognize the spine! :D

  3. I really enjoyed this post. What you’re discussing here is somewhat similar to a post I put up on my own blog a few weeks ago.

    In terms of crafting an interesting villain I compared the likes of Darth Vader and Gollum. I agree that the former does have some change of heart at the end, but it’s not totally clear to me why (I assume seeing his son being zapped upset him, but his change of heart’s not really foreshadowed). Gollum, on the other hand, is presented early on as something along the lines of a schizophrenic. In other words there’s a reason behind his behavior that creates suspense and a compelling conclusion.

    I concluded my post by proposing of an exercise: taking a Good Guy figure and stripping away his/her virtues until they’re closer to a villain than the character you started with. I think it’s kind of a reductive exercise, but tried it over that weekend and ended up with an interesting result.

    I’m glad to have found your site. Video clips are a great idea and something I haven’t seen on other blogs.

  4. Sounds like a good post! Send me the link, and I’ll link back to it as a “Related Post.”

  5. Great post, Katie. Glad I’m able to watch it on my BB.

  6. Glad you’re Blackberry’s up and running!

  7. Great blog post, excellent point! I hate those pre-ordained clashes of good and evil. Yawn. The devil, as you point out, is only interesting as a fallen angel, not as The Devil.

  8. You nailed it: If they’re preordained, how can they be interesting fiction?

  9. Excellent as always. You seemed a little bitter though in this video versus your normal light-hearted and peppy ways. That and there was something on the lens.

    I prefer the clash of good versus good, which is hard to pull off in the first place, Good vrs Ultimate evil is boring because it has been done to death and the devil never wins, if he won once and a while it would be more interesting such as in Peirce Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series. There the evil did win once every few books and I found it enthralling.

  10. This was about the gazillionth take on this video, so I suppose my smile probably is frozen in place. :p

    I’m attempting to tackle the good vs. good idea in my WIP – or maybe good vs. a little-less-good is more accurate. I wanted to take two likable, essentially decent men, pit them against each other, and see what happened. So far, it’s been pretty interesting.

  11. Re good vs. a little-less-good:

    Get characters/ideas too far apart and they really don’t interact. While the “conflict” is still there, it’s unreal and often we readers can’t identify.

    Maybe the hardest conflict to unravel is the situation in which two or more characters share many traits (either “good” or “bad”). It would be pretty tough as a writer or a reader to say who is the “hero.” The resolution might even leave the choice up to the reader.

  12. I like this a lot. Thanks for taking the time.
    Warm regards,
    Simone

  13. So many first-time novelists are afraid to give heroes believable flaws and villains soft spots.A much-needed post!

    BTW, Katie, there’s a surprise for you on my blog.

  14. So many first-time novelists are afraid to give heroes believable flaws and villains soft spots.A much-needed post!

    BTW, Katie, there’s a surprise for you on my blog.

  15. I like this! You should read the new release from Joe Hill, HORNS. He makes the devil very human, and very interesting. Indeed, he’s the GOOD guy!

    I’m taking a class now on “Monsters” (I blog about it here) and we’ve been discussing these same issues: how to find the good in your monsters, to make them real.

  16. @Bruce: You make an excellent point – and it’s borne out in the fact that many “super-villains” spend the majority of the story without ever coming into contact with the MC.

    @Simone: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @dirtywhitecandy: It’s a hard balance to find sometimes. We want our heroes to be lovable and our villains to be despicable, but what we sometimes forget is that it’s the humanizing element that strengthens both traits.

    @CKHB: Stories that turn archetypes on their head are often incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, the link you posted is dead, so I’m not able to read the article.

  17. Katie, I’m joining this late as I work my way down your blog, but I had to comment on this.

    I am a HYUUGE fan of webcomics, and one of the ones I follow avidly, with some of the best writing (and artwork far more complex than it appears) is the Order of the Stick. OotS is a DnD based gaming comic, and the author, Rich Berlew, once was a module writer for TSR.

    He wrote once about a campaign he was running that featured two evil sorcerers. The good guys (the party) decided to split them apart by fabricating a story that one sorcerer was plotting against the other.

    The scheme detonated on the table. See, the players forgot that EVIL doesn’t mean BLIND or STUPID or INCAPABLE OF EMOTION OTHER THAN HATRED.

    Turns out, the sorcerers were close friends from many a battlefield victory and ritual slaying. They KNEW the fabricated story was a lie… so they played along until they could ambush the party.

    I think this remains one of the best examples of how NOT to see an evil character. Oh how we hated Snape at first. He hates the protagonist so by definition he MUST be ebil, right?

  18. Excellent example. The best bad guys are the ones that are worthy of respect (in some way or another), not just hatred.

  19. I have a WIP where Shataan isn’t a good guy or bad guy…he’s just a guy. Let’s see if he turns out interesting….

    Good post, K.M.!

  20. Sounds like an interesting idea. Lots of stuff there to explore.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. There you go! One of these days I’ll get around to adding the transcription to all of the old vlog posts.

  23. I have a devil character in the novel I’m working on. I’m finding it difficult not to make him too predictable.

    My story incorporates the good vs. evil battle, the fall of Lucifer, the fall of mankind, and redemption of souls. I don’t think my main character needs to go toe-to-toe with him if she defeats enough of his minions. In fact, my ultimate goal is not to squash evil entirely. It will be severely weakened, but not entirely gone.

    Is there a way to introduce a character without the character being physically present in the scenes? Like I said, I don’t think my main character (or anyone else for that mater) and the devil himself actually need to cross paths in a scene to emphasize who he is, what he does, and why he does it.

  24. It’s certainly possible to have other characters reference and describe a non-present character. In fact, this can actually be an excellent technique for foreshadowing and adding tension.

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