Stephen King on Creating Believable Bad Guys

They’re not hard to spot: One-dimensional. Predictable. Occasionally drawing up half-hearted ruses and doomsday scenarios, perhaps with a cigar and some maniacal laughter.

Bad bad guys.

So what’s a key to breaking out of the stale villain mold, no matter what you write?

Stephen King offers his thoughts in today’s installment from the Top 20 Tips From WD in 2009 series. (We’ve almost breached the top 5!)

No. 6: Villains in Shades of Gray
Writers must be fair and remember even bad guys (most of them, anyway) see themselves as good—they are the heroes of their own lives. Giving them a fair chance as characters can create some interesting shades of gray—and shades of gray are also a part of life.
Stephen King, as interviewed in the May/June 2009 issue of WD (click here to check it out).

Be sure to check back Wednesday—I’ll be posting an interview with the spectacular Steve Almond (The Evil B.B. Chow, Candyfreak, (Not That You Asked), My Life in Heavy Metal) about literary journals—submitting, their role today, how they can help you sharpen your abilities, and how being rejected thousands of times isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you.

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings (I feel another one coming on next week …).

The sun is setting in dramatic hues of pink and tangerine, but nobody is watching it—they’re all staring at him, instead.

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5 thoughts on “Stephen King on Creating Believable Bad Guys

  1. Leigh Hamrick

    The sun is setting in dramatic hues of pink and tangerine, but nobody is watching it—they’re all staring at him, instead. Even me.

    My champagne glass chills my fingers as watch, my eyes squinted against the sunset that had, a moment ago, been the focal point of everyone’s attention on deck. It was, after all, our first real night out at sea. A cause for celebration.

    The woman was shaking visibly with rage. The sequins on her blue dress flashed with reflected light. “Oh my god,” she said, looking down at herself, her arms held out stiffly. “You little shit.”

    He stood frozen in horror, his eyes bulging with fear and unable to rise from the dark stain on her bodice. I’d noticed him when he’d first come out, dressed immaculately in white coat and tie, holding the tray of champagne flutes proudly as though they were jewels entrusted to his care. His smile, full of happiness and delight, had given him away.

    “Do you know what you just did? You spilled a fucking drink on a Versace dress! Do you even know what that means? Do you?”

    His mouth worked around his protruding teeth and gums, but nothing came out. His eyes continued to stare. His smile had vanished.

    “You don’t even know who Versace is, do you?” She was nearly screaming. “Who the hell let someone like you carry the drinks? Who the fuck would do that?”

    “Sheila…” her companion murmured, embarrassed.

    “Tony, he’s a fucking retard! Look at him! My dress is ruined!” She pointed a finger at him. “You’re getting fired. Do you understand that? Yeah, you get that, don’t you? You know what that means, don’t you, you dumbass.”

    “I’m – I’m sorry. Marty’s sorry!”

    “Sorry isn’t going to cut it!” She looked up, as we all did, as the head waiter appeared swiftly. “Are you in charge?”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “What the hell are you thinking letting this idiot carry the drinks? He just ruined my dress! I could have both your jobs for this!”

    “I’m very sorry,” he said with great formality. He turned to the waiter and spoke low and quickly. Whatever he said couldn’t be heard but the meaning was clear. I stood, immobilized with a pity that I couldn’t express, with my eyes on the man’s face, his fear and remorse as visible as a child’s and infinitely harder to watch. I wanted to say something. I wanted to step forward, I wanted to offer comfort.

    But I did nothing.

    The head waiter gestured sharply with his head. The waiter turned but was stopped. The tray of champagne was taken from him. He released it as though he’d lost the keys to a kingdom.

    His eyes slid over the tawny, bubbling liquid inside their glasses. In the sunset light, they did look like jewels, each popping merrily with effervescence, signifying fun and magic and promise. He watched them as the tray changed hands with something like adoration; like hope; like respect.

    Then he left quickly, his head down and his arms chopping at his sides.

    A moment later the woman was lead away. The occupants of the deck were silent for while, but soon their pleasant chatter resumed and the festive mood was restored.

    I walked to the railing, my heels tapping on the white deck, and watched the sun sink into the sea, drawing the fiery color in the sky away with it. I stayed there long after it had gone.

  2. Brett Chabek

    The sun is setting in dramatic hues of pink and tangerine, but nobody is watching it—they’re all staring at him, instead.
    I’m supposed to understand that, I guess. Especially at this point in my career. But to be standing in front of one of nature’s most awesome spectacles, even if it does happen every day, makes me think that maybe none of this matters.
    I need to hurry. I know that. If I stand here watching the sun go down I won’t be able to use its light. And I’m going to need that just to make my way down to the edge of the breakers where the waves are crashing. I know because I’ve done this before. Four times in the past six months.
    What I can’t figure out is how he always ends up making it work so that everyone shows up here at sunset. They never come by the next morning, no lovers strolling through in the middle of the night… Always at sunset.
    But musing over that or watching the fading rays of nature’s greatest snapshot isn’t going to get my job done.
    And as much as I love being here at sunset, I don’t want to do this again.
    As I start making my way down to the breakers, the forensics team pulls up to the beach. Even with the sun going down, our day is just getting started. I’m going to need to get pictures of this guy floating there just below the surface, and I already know that we’re going to find his feet bound with barbed wire to a pair of fifty pound free-weights.
    But first I’m going to have to get everyone to stop staring at him and get the hell out of my way…

  3. Mark James

    Zac: Give up the pot of gold, and no one gets hurt . . . seriously, awesome prompt.
    Martha: Looks like I owe you lunch

    The sun was setting in dramatic hues of pink and tangerine, but nobody was watching it—they were all staring at him instead, like he was some kind of Messiah.

    “Alright,” he said, “who’s next?”

    In the narrow dead end alley, silence reigned among the hostages.

    Crow nudged the body at his feet. “Nobody else got nothing to say?”

    “What do you want?”

    Crow looked around for the speaker.

    An exasperated voice said, “Over here. Thought you had to see good to shoot people.”

    He looked down at the little girl whose bangs almost covered her green eyes. “What’s eating you, short stack?”

    She put her hands on her hips, peered up at Crow against the glare of the sunset. “You come in the bank, steal money – -”

    “I didn’t take any money.”

    She went on like he’d said nothing. “Then shoot someone dead and – – ”

    “I aimed low.” Crow said. “He’ll live.”

    “Then you ask me what’s wrong.” The little girl looked him up and down. “What’s eating your brains?”

    A woman pushed to the front, grabbed the girl, and wrapped an arm around her. “Oh my God Sheila. Be quiet, sweetheart.”

    Sheila struggled free. “Why mommy? He isn’t being nice.”

    The woman smoothed her daughter’s hair from her eyes. ‘No he’s not, honey. But we don’t say things like that.”

    “How come?”

    That was too much for Sheila’s mother. Her voice rose to a screech. “For God’s sake, shut up you demon child.”

    Crow felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He met Sheila’s eyes. “Looks like she’s not being nice either.”

    In a low voice that said she lived with a secret, Sheila said, “She didn’t take her pink pill today.”

    “Is that right?” Crow said.

    “Are you going to tell me what you want?”

    From the corner of his eye, Crow saw them back away another inch or two. “Why don’t you all sit down?”

    With a comical military precision, the hostages sank to the asphalt. Except Sheila.

    “You don’t feel like sitting down?” Crow said.

    “Road’s hot. Why should I burn my but for you?”

    Behind him, Crow heard the Hostage Negotiator shouting something about demands through a loudspeaker.

    Sheila’s mother dropped her face into her trembling hands. “Oh my God, shut up. We’ll all die because of you.”

    “I don’t think so, Ma’am,” Crow said. “Your kid, she’s the only talking sense.”

    Sheila fixed Crow with a glare. “I’m not a kid.”

    “You look like one.”

    She shot his words right back at him. “You look stupid. Are you?”

    “I must be. Should be half way to Mexico by now,” Crow said. “Instead, I’m arguing with a mini smart ass.”

    “I don’t argue. I win. What do you want?”

    “To get out of here in one piece.”

    Sheila sighed, took two steps toward Crow. “Let’s go.”

    He raised his gun, sighted between her green eyes.

    “Cut it out,” Sheila said. “Hold my hand.” She stood still a moment, in deep thought. “No. Wait. Better pick me up.”

    “Sheila don’t you dare.”

    “Mommy when you get home, take two pink pills.”

    Crow holstered his gun, hiked up his back pack full of bearer bonds, and held his arms out to Sheila.

  4. Martha W

    What the heck? Do you have an endless pot of gold, Zac? These prompts are great!


    The sun set in dramatic hues of pink and tangerine, but nobody watched it—they all stared at him, instead. And who could blame them? He was beautiful. Enough so, even the men stared. I knew this because I was one of them. Only once or twice before had a man caught my attention. Never had one brought me to my knees.

    I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and looked again. Surely he couldn’t be that damn gorgeous. Bronze skin stretched taut over honed muscles, blond hair just brushed his collar bones and the clearest blue eyes stared right back at me. Oh my God.


    A quirk of his eyebrow sent streaks of red rushing up my neck. The one unfortunate draw back to being a redhead. Well, that and the fair skin. I had sun screen slathered on in layers just to sit on the beach to watch the sun go down.

    He moved with grace for such a big guy, almost six-foot-three by my guess. His gaze was intent and never left my face as he weaved through the crowd in my direction, causing me to squirm in my seat. It also caused another part of me to stand up and pay attention.

    Where had that come from? A groan rumbled up my suddenly parched throat, drawing the unwanted attention of my sister next to me.

    "Dan? You okay?" Erica whispered.

    I dragged my eyes away from the Adonis coming our way, "Sure." But I knew the minute she laid eyes on him. Her pupils dilated and her breath grew shallow. Oh yeah, I knew that feeling.

    "Excuse me." The deep rumble could only come from one man. Goosebumps sprang up on my skin as his timber skittered down my nerve endings.

    Barely suppressing a whimper, I turned my gaze away from my panting sibling. "Yes?"

    "Would you like to dance?"

    Before I could answer, Erica jumped up. "I’d love to." Now, my sister was not to blame for her presumptions. This one secret I had kept to myself. But apparently he had no such compunctions. Or closets.

    "I didn’t ask you." His eyes shimmered like ice at her interruption. She actually backed up a step or two. For once, I took pity on her.

    "What’s your name?"

    He turned back to me with a smile bright enough to counteract the darkness of Erica’s glare. "Matt. Yours?" Oh man, he had nice teeth too.

    "Wait a minute." My sister was not known for keeping her mouth shut. Or quitting while she was ahead. "You’re hitting on my brother?"

    One side of his lip actually curled. "Why is that hard to believe?"

    "Uh- He’s straight!" she blurted. I could have killed her and no one would convict me. Justifiable homicide, they’d call it.

    His rough chuckle brought a fresh wave of tingling that shot straight to my gut. He leaned in close, his breath fanning my ear, "Not anymore."


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