Humanizing the Bad Guy (or, Some Thoughts on Violence in Fiction)

Our sense of story is almost like an extrasensory organ. It enables us to pick up on subtle signals in tone and intent and this allows us to interpret how we should respond when we encounter violence in fiction. These signals are more important than the actual act we are reading about or viewing.

This is why the same beat—someone shoots someone else—can produce varied responses. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we laugh when Indy shoots the swordsman. But in Gandhi, when the Mahatma is assassinated, we cry.

Emotion does not come from content but from context.

In the Raiders scene, Indy doesn’t even blink: he shoots, turns around before the guy falls, and is back to the problem at hand of finding Marion. The dichotomy in the context, between expectation (tough opponent) and result (dismissiveness), produces the humor in the scene.

In Gandhi, the great old man is greeting well-wishers when the assailant suddenly produces a gun and shoots. What follows is literal minutes of grief: the funeral parade, faces of deep sorrow, the soundtrack solemn.

Our response to all of this is unconscious; we’ve read and heard and seen thousands of stories. We are able to delineate between what could be called “significant” and “insignificant” violence. The random swordsman, appearing out of nowhere, we realize is insignificant. This helps us laugh at his fate—he is unimportant, disposable. Contrast that with Gandhi, with whom we’ve just spent three hours. His death is significant.

The Benefits of Humanizing Characters

Every bit of unnecessary violence on screen has the potential to lessen the impact of “significant” violence. There are but a mere handful of significant characters in any story which means most violence we might see would be insignificant. And insignificant violence can distance us from the story; it can make us in a sense sociopathic, in that we lack empathy for the violence we have seen. As such, it should be used cautiously, since audience identification with a character is the greatest strength the storyteller has.

In the climax to Star Wars, George Lucas makes us identify with the heretofore unknown Rebel pilots as he shows them trying and failing to blow up the Death Star and then mostly dying. The tone is that of ratcheting tension with low expectation of success. It’s designed to signal the impossible odds the protagonist Luke Skywalker faces but it is also hugely important as it humanizes the Rebel fighters; we feel the weight of their sacrifice.

However, it is not just good guys who need to be humanized, but bad guys as well. They need to be thicker than cardboard so they don’t collapse when confronted. And it doesn’t take much. For example, there’s a scene early in Star Wars in which we see Darth Vader get irritated by a fellow officer so he Force-chokes him. I submit to you: who among us cannot identify with that scene?

Probably the most important thing to realize is that, as goes the suffering, so goes the audience identification. Is Darth Vader ever depicted suffering in the original trilogy? Why yes—right after he turns on the Emperor and saves his son. Now a fully restored good guy, Darth can struggle to breathe as he gazes one last time on Luke and slowly succumbs to his wounds. In Joker, Arthur’s suffering humanizes him without making excuses for, say, the way he blithely murders.

Complicating the Narrative With Suffering

When asked when civilization began, Margaret Mead pointed to a 15,000-year-old skeleton with a healed femur. For this large bone to have healed in such primitive times meant someone had to care for this person, temporarily useless to the tribe, for weeks or even months. For the tribe to do this and increase their hardships for little to no external reward speaks to the power of human connection.

To suffer is, of course, to be human. From identifying suffering in our friends to doing the same in our enemies is not an unbridgeable gulf. In Unforgiven, as he confronts his demise, Little Bill Daggett is given a full speech. “I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”

Now just before this speech, Daggett had attempted to shoot William Munny in the back, so Little Bill isn’t redeemed. But this line complicates what is otherwise a straightforward scene: his final moments cry out for a recognition of shared humanity, and when it fails, he curses, “I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.”

Munny agrees and sends Daggett on his way. In Unforgiven every character is a bad guy. The film is concerned with making peace with the darkness in our souls in the aftermath of violence, and it suggests what justice there is to be had will not come from this world.

The complication of narrative equals the humanization of the antagonist equals more realistic outcomes from violence. No Country For Old Men is not a simple tale. The film opens with Anton Chigurh, the implacable psychopathic force of nature who is revealed to be the main antagonist. And quick as a wink, Chigurh is viciously murdering a deputy and sustaining grievous wounds on his wrists. The pain on Chigurh’s face as he kills the deputy is plainly visible. In fact, Chigurh is shown suffering multiple times; his injuries demonstrate he is just as human as the protagonist Moss.

Complicating the narrative serves to humanize Chigurh and add shading to Moss, who is completely in the wrong but who nonetheless we root for to succeed in keeping his ill-gotten gains. It also serves to deepen the impact of the story. On a subconscious level at least, humanizing Chigurh forces us to consider his viewpoint, because he isn’t wrong when he asks, “If the rule that you followed has led you to this place [about to be murdered by a psychopath], of what use was the rule?” Humanizing him allows us to see that he is subject to the same inexorable logic; it is in following his own rule that he becomes seriously injured in a violent car crash.

The Bad Guy Is a Point of View

If every antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, then two things follow from that: every story features two “good” guys, diametrically opposed to each other—and your protagonist is the “bad” guy in this other story.

All of us have moments we aren’t proud of, times we didn’t do the right thing, times we were the bad guy. But we learned from our mistakes; we grew as people and did the right thing eventually. The constraints of story are such that we can’t follow the antagonists past the ending; we can’t see them learn and grow from their mistakes. But if we deny them the capacity for that humanity in our story, in a sense we are denying our own capacity to grow.

But the bad guys always gets theirs in the end, you may be thinking, and you’d of course be correct. The secret is to make audiences feel the tragedy in the loss: the passing of a human being, both beautiful and flawed, wrong in this story, wrong in this fateful choice, yet but for the lack of time, capable of growth, reflection and ultimately, in a different story, being the good guy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What considerations do you weigh in using violence in fiction and particularly in relation to your antagonists? Tell me in the comments!

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About Usvaldo de Leon, Jr.

Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., is a screenwriter who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for his screenplay Let Us Hold Hands and Sing Folk Songs. Most of these statements are true (Usvaldo is so obviously a fake name).

Comments

  1. Excellent article. One of the things that makes Ender’s Game so intriguing is the finale where the hero finds out that he is really the villain. His salvific actions signal the demise of the Buggers and he is forced to confront that and come to grips with it.

    I Am Legend by Matheson and adapted in the Will Smith movie does something of the same thing. A self-styled savior turns out to be the bad guy. I think these constructions are among the most thoughtful and intriguing.

    • Usvaldo De Leon says

      That’s a great point. We default to a reading of “protagonist = good guy” and it’s not always accurate. Red River and The Searchers starring John Wayne are two examples from the past.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    A very thought-provoking post! Personally, humanizing the antagonist has become one of my favorite parts of storytelling. Since my MCs tend to struggle with the same misbeliefs their antagonists represent, humanizing the antagonist lends to better inner conflict—as well as outer conflict.

    For instance, in my current WIP, one of the MCs is so caught up in his misbelief that he totally misjudges his disinherited older brother, who is actually one of the only people trying to help him. But it takes a huge series of events to make the MC realize that the real bad guy is a man whom the MC loved and trusted, and that his brother was the one helping him all along.

    However, that isn’t to say that the antagonist is viewed as an evil villain from that point forward. The MC still struggles to accept the reality of the situation because the reason antagonist was doing bad things in the first place was for the MC. The MC at last clings to the Truth, bringing the antagonist to his own tough decision—whether or not to save the MC in sacrifice of his Lie. Though he is heartbroken to turn his back on the MC, the Lie ends up winning, and the antagonist makes the choice with literal tears in his eyes.

    While not all of my stories have antagonists that are so intimate with the MC, I do think they’ve all improved once I started humanizing them in some way. Plus, sometimes a relatable antagonist is the scariest kind.

    • Usvaldo De Leon says

      Exactly. This reminds me of the horrifying reveal mid series in The Haunting of Hill House where we learn who has been antagonizing a supporting character.
      If I as a person am hell bent on destroying my life then yes, anyone who cares for me would be an antagonist. Those stories always have tremendous potential for tragedy.

    • Miriam Harmon says

      @Grace Dvorachek
      Wow, that’s exactly what I want to do in my own stories! I’ve loved learning more about creating complex antagonists like this—antagonists that you feel for, even though they’re supposed to be bad. I like making antagonists that have surprisingly good morals but have been misguided in their actions and are creating the main conflict, thinking they have to. Like a villain trying to take over the world, not because they’re heartless and evil, but instead because that is what they believe they’re supposed to do. They think it’ll help make the world a better place. They don’t realize they’re destroying or corrupting the world in the process. Or they do it because their parents or guardians raised them to think it’s okay.
      I heard somewhere that the scariest antagonists are the ones that make decisions that we, the audience, would see ourselves making in the same situation.
      Complex antagonists are both easy and difficult to make.
      I’m glad some writers out there are doing it successfully 😀

      Good luck to everyone trying to do the same!

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        Goodness, you pretty much described my antagonist! And I agree, they do seem more scary when we almost find ourselves agreeing with them.

  3. K.M. Weiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Usvaldo!

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I read quite a few Alan Dean Foster books in my youth. I really liked how in many of them what was a clear antagonist in the beginning ended up being someone who was not evil but had a different point of view and need for survival.

    • That’s always a great reveal, learning the bad guy has perfectly valid reasons for their actions. It forces us to reckon with the choices of the protagonist and justify them.

  5. I understand the value of this. A troubling trend I’ve seen recently, though, is not just the humanization of the villain but a romanticization of villains or villainous traits. It is not my intention to glorify immoral things as “cool” or “romantic” especially. It is an especially disturbing trend in the YA genre as “good guys” are increasingly sidelined to make room for morally gray or villainous protagonists who teach the values of selfishness, your survival as paramount, trust as futile and dangerous, and loyalty as overrated. I want readers to be able to pity the antagonist, but not ultimately side with them. I sense more murky waters ahead with this.

    • I agree the moral compass seems to have shifted and the good versus bad guys are not always as black and white as they used to be. Personally I have two in my current work in progress. They are twins separated at birth, one become a sort of okay guy the other is bad through and through in fact a sociopath and psychopath.

  6. Meagan Naso says

    This is probably the most insightful thing I’ve read about violence in storytelling as well writing in depth antagonists. After I create an protagonist, I always think, “Who would be the opposite of this character?” This helps me establish a framework to create my antogonist.

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      That’s a great approach. Perhaps the best antagonists act as mirrors, reflecting the protagonist but with slight distortions, hence the line you hear very often: “You and I are not so different”.

      But there will be differences, which is why it is crucial that Moss return to the site of the shootout to bring water to a dying man. He has guilt and wants to show mercy. Chigurh would have also shown mercy to the man, albeit in a much bloodier way.

  7. Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

    Yes, there has been a trend lately of making an origin story for the bad guy – Cruella from earlier this year is one – and yes, because of our tendency to read protagonist = justified actions into what we read or view, this could be unsettling or dangerous. I think Joker is very much on the line between understanding and excusing actions, which is why the most important unanswered question of that film is: what happened to Sophie, Zazie Beetz’ character?

    A classic interpretation in story is antagonist = id, where the bad guy gets to do all the things we are constrained from doing as a trade off for living in an orderly society. I agree that stories where the id wins out without consequences can be unhealthy.

  8. Of course, part of the tragedy in Ghandi is that the death actually happened, and arguably after Ghandi’s most courageous moment – his struggle to stop religious violence in opposition to his own supporters. Saving Private Ryan is a study in this on many levels, particularly the scenes at the end where the translator watches the German kill his fellow soldier with a knife than shoots the same man when he’s a prisoner. It says interesting things about us that that is often seen as growth on the part of the translator. Arguably, the entire movie is an exploration of the value of life, ending with the Matt Damon character wondering if his life was worth those sacrificed for him.

    Darth Vader is an interesting study. I’d argue that from at least the “Luke you are my son” moment onward, he is not THE antagonist. That would be the Emperor, who is dispatched without anyone batting an eye. I think one of the shortcomings of the later released first trilogy is that it never humanized Palantine.

    In a movie where there are life and death stakes, I think you have two choices for your antagonist. Place them somewhere in the dark triad of psychopathy, or give them their own story. Either way, it adds to a story for the reader to understand the antagonist. Even if your antagonist is someone like Hitler or Stalin, it’s worth the time to understand them, though this may not (should not?) always translate into sympathy.

    I ramble as usual. Great article.

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      The translator in Saving Private Ryan is a great example, because yes, it is easy to read that moment as growth when what it really is reinforcing is his cowardice. Then connect that to the understanding that the translator’s act – shooting a prisoner of war – is actually a war crime.

      And then connect THAT thought to the way Nazism rose and flourished in Germany. War may be terrifying but it is the weakness of men like the translator that made World War 2 inevitable.

      And I agree: one must understand and perhaps even have empathy for – but one must never feel sympathy for the devil.

  9. Thanks for sharing

  10. Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

    Thank you for reading!

  11. Fantastic post. I noticed many of the examples in the post and responses about the protagonist not being a “good guy” are Westerns. Do you think that these characters need a lawless environment for us to see how far they will go if they don’t have the boundaries of law enforcement around? Or does the hostile environment that the characters live in make them more sympathetic?

    “Falling Down” popped into mind as following this too… while it is in a city… at the time the film came out, large cities were portrayed as being lawless hostile environments…

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      Well, I would start with Vader and his force choke in Star Wars. All of us have irritating co-workers. Sometimes we will tell our friends or family something like, ‘I could have stabbed him with my pencil.’ Well why didn’t you? Because we live in a society and constrain our impulses. This socialization factor all but eliminates violence (in 2020 there was a bit more than one violent crime per 100,000 residents per day in the U.S.).

      The Western is frequently about this tension between the bad guys who symbolize the id and the “decent townsfolk” who are bringing socialization. But what is the Western really saying? That it’s okay to kill Lee Marvin and his gang after they shoot your defenseless brother in the back? The reciprocal violence is shown on screen as a way to bring things back to balance but the signpost has to be repainted from population 750 to population 744.

      Falling Down is a great example wherein our willingness to identify with stars and the protagonists they play against us (Fight Club is another great example from the 90s). We’re at the midway point or beyond before we clearly understand Douglas is NOT the good guy.

      The juice from these stories like Falling Down or White Heat or Breaking Bad is always about release of the id. However, society, like gravity, has an inexorable pull; Bonnie and Clyde sure are living it up – but only for the moment.

  12. B.L. Albina aka Leilani Pearl Naida says

    My ending is that a character is caste in granite because of the crimes that she done because she annihilated half of the population in the story. So she was banished to Saturna. What do you think?

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      If you annihilate half of the population you have to expect to be cast in granite and fired into orbit. Good call #Don’tDotheCrimeIfYouCan’tDotheTime

  13. I think both in fiction and in real life it’s worth looking past the “bad” label… or any sort of label really.

    For example, I met a guy who spent time in prison for killing a man. Then you hear the story behind what happened, the man who killed someone got into an argument with a friend and while they were fighting his friend landed badly. He was labeled a bad guy, even though it started with a simple fight. In addition to that, it could have just as easily been him who fell and died and his friend who ended up in prison. It’s easy to imagine just how easily things can go wrong and out of control even when you didn’t really mean to. Even if you didn’t mean to, you can’t take back what’s done. He was so torn up about it that he let it affect his entire life and years later you could still see how what happened tore him up mentally and emotionally. His guilt was his prison and he was still in it, even if he was no longer physically confined. So is he a “bad” guy?

    I also met a girl who had become a prostitute. She was used to being rejected because of her profession. (Don’t hang around with her, or you’ll be labeled the same.) The story no one else heard was that she had ended up there because she was raped by a relative at age 9 (and the family blamed her for seducing the 17 year old) and then by a teacher she trusted. Her sense of normal had been warped, her trust in men destroyed. In a twisted sense by making men pay for sex it would temporarily feel like she had gained a bit of her power back (and thus had power over men) only to be revolted the next moment and absolutely hate herself which caused her to spiral down emotionally. Is she a “bad” girl?

    Even a guy I knew who cheated on his girlfriend had a story. His father had several women apparently, and his mother was just one of the port stops. Does it make him any less of a cheating bastard? Not one bit. Does humanize him when we imagine the little kid who was exposed to this behaviour and had a father who didn’t care? Yup. Even if he’s still an ass and is responsible for his own behaviour/choices right now, we feel bad for the little kid he used to be.

    Over the years, I’ve heard and seen so many of these kinds of stories. So many people that get judged and/or avoided because they have a label stuck to them. And each time I start talking to them I find amazing knowledge, experiences, or even an amazing personality. Are they perfect? Absolutely not. Can they become dangerous? Technically even the quiet grandma down the street has the potential to be dangerous if she suddenly pulls out a machine gun. You should talk to those you “wouldn’t normally talk to”, you will most likely be pleasantly surprised.

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      These are the sort of stories I had in mind when I wrote the end of my piece. These people were the bad guy, if you will, and then life went on and they grew beyond that label. It reminds me a lot of Crime and Punishment, which is basically all about this type of interplay.

      • Rather than grew beyond that label, I’d say they already were beyond that label. If anything, it was my understanding and vision of who they were that grew beyond the label.

        • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

          “it was my understanding and vision of who they were that grew beyond the label.” Well said indeed.

  14. I am a dutch woman who lives in Germany, so please forgive me my writing. I would like to make three comments:
    1. to understand doesn’t mean to agree. I like it, when people understand why my villain acts, the way he does, without agreeing with his actions.
    2. For me, the best villain is a person, who wants the same as the protagonist, but took a wrong turn, uses the wrong methodes to get, what he wants or wants it for the wrong reasons.

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      Yes. It reminds me of Black Panther, where Killmonger is tyrannical and bad – but he’s not wrong. I’m also reminded of Skyfall, where Silva isn’t wrong about M but as you say, “took a wrong turn, uses the wrong methods [and] wants it for the wrong reasons.”

  15. Usvaldo, I think you chose some good examples of cinematic antagonists with complexity. As a visual person, I could picture the scenes in my head and understand.

  16. i suppose it is the human part in the devil that scares us the most….

  17. Hannibal Lector, the Gotfather are persons, that take action, and are so fascinating, that the reader has to take care, not to be corrupted, The problem ist that it is always the antagonist, who sets the story on going.

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      This is very true. I’d also include modern anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White. The problem is even more pronounced in Godfather II which readily lends itself to a reading of Michael as monster but Vito as a good guy.

  18. Thanks for an insightful article.

    Interesting bit of trivia re. the scene when Indiana Jones shoots the sword-wielding “baddie”: apparently, the original scene was going to be a lengthy, exciting sword fight, but Harrison Ford had a heavy cold (or something) that day and wasn’t up to the scene. I think it was his suggestion to alter the scene to the one we know and love today, that has (deservedly) gone down in history as one of the most memorable movie moments of modern cinema.

    I really hope that story is true and I haven’t been hoodwinked by a Hollywood myth!

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      Oh the story is very much true, lol. Ford had dysentery and was exhausted and uncomfortable and indeed suggested why can’t I just shoot him? Thanks for reading!

  19. I actually have found this very helpful. I’m writing a story with a “bad guy” and have failed to give him human qualities as much as I should. Hence, I can see I should humanise him in a way that makes the end more compelling.

    Thanks for the tip-off.

  20. This reminds me of the funny scene in Austin Powers where he suddenly gives the back story of the evil villain’s henchman who has just been killed- leaving a wife and children. (much fake pathos).
    My current story has a Nazi antagonist who has very good reasons to support Hitler and genuine grievances against some individuals who belong to a subsequently persecuted group. I’ve always been fascinated about why people become ‘evil’. Psychopaths aren’t quite so interesting if we say that they have no moral choice. The biography of Speer is fascinating. Even people like Himmler were probably not true psychopaths. He collapsed when he witnessed the work of the Einsatzgruppen.

    • “ Psychopaths aren’t quite so interesting if we say that they have no moral choice.” Very true. Oftentimes you will hear dehumanizing language used as well – they are animals or monsters. They may not be an ordinary human, but they are human nonetheless.

  21. Violenc in Fiction… we have comics. There we live our childhood dreams, where the bad guy is only two-dimensional, (Altough the marvel studios are trying to make them three-dimensional.) They are the bad guys of our childhood, who are evil, and are allowed to be killed, so that we can be heroes in our own story and the good will allways prevail.Two-Dimensional bad guys can be fought and killed, without thinking, exactly as the bad guy was shot by Indiana Jones. Also the orks from Lord of the Rings fit in to this. Sauron, who is the devil or evil in its purest form, has therefore no body, but multiplies himself in his henchmen. Although even he was once not so evil, he became to something, that must be fought relentlessly. His counterpart, Aragorn, is (for me personally) almost boring. Exept that he doesn`’t want to fight he has no weaknesses. Frodo and Gollum are more interesting, because Gollum is, what Frodo could be. And Gandalf becomes, what Saruman should have been, untill he took the wrong turn. Here we enter the three-dimensional dimension of the Lord of the Rings. The book, that for Tolkien was also a way, to deal with the horrors of the second world war, where one person became to an anonymous evil (the eye of Sauron), that corrupted everything under its influence.
    When we make our antagonist more three-dimensional, whe become adults and have to acknowlege that antagonists once were innocent children like us. We then live in an adult world with a judicial system, where circumstances matter, where we have to live with this ambiguity. For me, Gollum ist one of the best representatives of this ambiguity. But that doesn’t mean the child in me doesn’t love a real evil antagonist! 🙂

  22. Gollum is a wonderful example, at once a figure to be pitied but also watched carefully. And yes, ‘comic book villain’ has emerged as both a critique and a trope. It reminds me of the film Snowpiercer, which is chock full of two dimensional baddies to be dispatched until the climax when the entire story changes.

  23. i didn’t see the movie yet, but will have a look at it. The antagonist is more interesting, when we understand, why he became the antagonist, But to understand is not to agree…

    • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

      Yes, certainly. In the case of Gollum he’s an object lesson: a person who has let their obsession literally destroy their lives. The conventional wisdom is to follow your passion but maybe don’t follow your passion so blindly it leads you into a scalding river of lava.

  24. the iinteresting thing is: also Frodo wanted the ring that obsessed them both and was also almost a victim of the lava. You could say at the end he loses, he also fights for the ring. Transferred: his obsessed part, also represented by Gollum, fell with him into the lava so that the good part could be saved. That makes Gollum to the part of us that has lost against temptation. But how can we judge Frodo? He is no saint, as well as Gollum is no demon. They are both part of our humanity, als well as violence is. The question is, how to use it, and that brings me back to the discussion about violence in litterature. Does it have a funktion, is it a force, does it show us something that is worthwile knowing? Or is it used as violence pornography, like some of the terrible descriptions of killing persons? that makes a difference to me.

  25. Thanks! Now i know, i am on the wrigth track, lol

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