By Dustin Grinnell
Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.
Whenever we learn of an unspeakable crime, an incomprehensible act, there are questions. Chief among them: Why? What motivated this person? What was going on inside their head? How did they go from quiet and nerdy to hateful and violent? Were they isolated, disenfranchised, lost? Were they triggered or born a monster?
We usually blame mental health issues, poor upbringing, bad wiring, and then we move on. But writers are encouraged to go deeper when writing villains, antagonists and antiheroes.
In the book Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint, author Nancy Kress writes: “When writing villains, authors need to know the whys. Real human beings, villains included, have reasons for what they do. Villains can’t be evil for evil’s sake. They need reasons. They need a motive. Doing so makes your villain more believable (87).”
Using fictional and human examples, this essay will explore how and why evil develops in story and in real life and how you can apply these concepts when writing villains.
Going from Pole to Pole
In most cases, it takes time for an individual or character to cross the line. It involves escalation. Little by little, a transformation happens, and then there’s a trigger. They are pushed to their limit; they snap.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, a book on the craft of playwriting, author Lajos Egri calls the process going from pole to pole. He writes, “If you look hard enough, you will find that there is always a long chain of circumstances leading to a seemingly unmotivated crime. And these circumstances can be found in the criminals’ physical, sociological, and mental makeup (85).”
Egri encourages us to examine the psychological, sociological and physiological makeup of a 40-year-old man who stabbed another man to death. “The groundwork for his crime began 32 years ago when he was married.” For years, this man had been humiliated by his wife’s infidelity. After they had kids, she changed her ways but eventually abandoned the family. The man fell into despair. He recovered and learned to provide for his children as a single parent. It was a thankless job, Egri writes. The kids disrespected him, then left him as well. The man lost his house, then his job. He withdrew from social situations. When someone cracked a joke about his depression, he snapped and stabbed the man to death.
From Egri’s point of view, let’s consider homegrown terrorism. How does a natural-born citizen become a radicalized terrorist? What social, physical, and psychological forces are at play? Consider a fictional teenager in high school. He’s mentally and physically healthy, engaged with the world, social, and happy. Then he’s crushed by a devastating breakup. Later, he prank calls parents from a school bus after a football game and gets kicked off the team. He’s humiliated and separated from his friends, his tribe. Maybe there’s trouble at home. His parents separate. Without after-school sports, he starts smoking pot and falls in with some unsavory individuals. He’s lonely, despondent, and isolated. He goes online and interacts in chat rooms. He finds community. Perhaps an online magazine helps him channel his anger. The radical ideology challenges power and authority. It seems to speak the truth. He contributes through comments, posts, likes, and shares. Someone from a chat room reaches out to him. Maybe they meet. This person, acting like a mentor, promotes a sense of adventure and calls the troubled soul to take a rite of passage. Maybe the young man trains. He plots. He waits. If he evades detection, he strikes.
When writing villains, it’s important to take them from pole to pole. Their breaking point could be any number of triggers: A major conflict; a destabilizing event, such as infidelity, job loss, divorce or an illness—anything that throws the character’s world off-balance. Have these conflicts occur in the context of tough economic times or during a catastrophic event, and that breakdown becomes more potent.
The television series Breaking Bad beautifully demonstrates a character going from pole to pole. In the pilot, the protagonist, Walter White, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. A high school chemistry teacher who works part-time at a car wash, White realizes that he’s played by the rules his whole life. He’s passive, a wimp. He never took a chance or found his way. In the pilot, White accompanies his brother-in-law, a DEA agent, to a meth drug bust. Waiting in the car, White sees a meth cook climb out of a window and escape arrest. The cook is a former student named Jesse. Something clicks for White. He knows chemistry, and Jesse knows the meth business. He only has a few years left to live. What does he have to lose? He starts cooking meth with Jesse and finds out that he’s good at it. Others call him an artist. It’s thrilling, life-affirming; it gives him confidence. Understandably, Jesse wants to know why White has suddenly decided to “break bad” at 50 years old. White says, “I’m awake.”
This journey from pole to pole can take years or decades, and it can begin with a minor infraction. For example, it seems unlikely that the financier Bernie Madoff intended to engineer the largest Ponzi scheme in financial history from the start of his career. It’s more likely that Madoff found himself in a pinch and decided to fudge a few numbers to buy himself time. Instead of admitting defeat, Madoff used his creative mind to temporarily cover up an economic glitch. He probably realized that he had to fabricate more numbers to cover up the initial lie. Then it became a full-scale operation to keep the scheme alive: as Ponzi schemes operate, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” And this was all because Madoff couldn’t admit that he and his company were struggling. A life-long winner who was looked up to as a genius, a genuine master of the universe, and “too big to fail,” Madoff couldn’t—wound never—admit failure. And his arrogance, his hubris, undid him.
In the article “How the Character Wound Links to True Connection in Oscar Films and Beyond,” writer Jen Grisanti says that when a reader or viewer understands a character’s wound, they can connect with the character. She writes, “When you give us an early glimpse of the wound, we are on board for the ride. We are rooting for a successful outcome on an emotional level.”
Nancy Kress agrees, suggesting that writers give characters human weaknesses that seem real, which permits reader identification and greater suspense.
In Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the antagonist is a pirate named Long John Silver. Silver is imposing and proves to be ruthless. He knocks a man over by throwing a stick at this back, then jumps on top of him and stabs him twice in the back. Silver is also cunning. He schemes, quietly commanding the loyalty of the sailors to arrange a mutiny. And he does all this with one leg. Silver is the story’s villain, but his disability makes us feel for him. His handicap evokes empathy. We relate with his wound because we too have wounds—physical, emotional or psychological.
Later in Treasure Island, Silver flies a flag of truce. The captain and others think it’s a trick, and so do readers. When Silver tries to explain the reasons for his mutiny, we know he’s up to something. To board the boat, he asks a sailor for a hand, but no one offers assistance. The reader experiences sympathy for the antagonist, as Silver “crawled along the sand till he got hold of the porch and could hoist himself again upon his crutch.” Silver didn’t deserve help, but we can’t help but feel for the one-legged pirate.
This is perhaps similar to the same sympathy we feel for Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The prison’s warden is a sadist and takes pleasure in making life miserable for his most notorious inmate. By the end of the movie, Lecter escapes from prison. In the final scene, on a phone call, he alludes to the warden’s murder in the famous line, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Most viewers were thoroughly entertained by this. Applause broke out in theaters. The takeaway: We can root for a villain if someone is more villainous toward them.
In the movie Point Break, like Silver, the protagonist’s wound also involves the leg. The story opens with Johnny Utah playing college football as a quarterback. The scene ends with a career-ending knee injury. The next scene shows him training to be an FBI agent. Utah reinvents himself, but his old knee injury haunts him throughout the story. He doubles over in pain during crucial moments in the story while pursuing the story’s antagonist: Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze.
In the movie Interstellar, the protagonist Joseph Cooper’s wound is revealed in the beginning of the film. We see flashbacks of Cooper in the pilot seat of a distressed aircraft. It’s clear the mission ended his flying career. But we see that he’s built a fine life as a farmer. He’s also father to a gifted daughter. But Cooper was born to fly. As witnesses to this story, we hope someone will give Cooper an aircraft to pilot. We rejoice when NASA offers him a mission to save humanity by exploring space for an Earth replacement. Unlike Utah’s and Silver’s physical wounds, Cooper’s wound is emotional. It’s about identity. If he’s not a pilot, who is he?
In the television show House, the brilliant diagnostician Dr. Gregory House is cynical, surly, and rude. House suffered a blood clot in his leg, and the tissue in his quadricep became necrotic, leaving him hobbled and in chronic pain. During the show, he hobbles around with his cane, occasionally gripping his leg in agony, eating pain pills like Skittles. His unyielding pain evokes sympathy. Moreover, underneath all his snarky, offensive comments and lack of bedside manner, House always does right by the patient. His compulsive drive to find a diagnosis, to “solve the riddle,” saves the lives of patients that no one else could have saved. This is redeeming. We are dazzled by his genius, especially since he does it with a disability.
A villain might not consciously recognize their wound(s). In fact, the less aware they are of the source of their pain, the more apt they are to act out in ways they and others find incomprehensible. On a recent episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher and his writing team suggested that the venomous anti-Hollywood rhetoric from conservatives like Stephen Bannon and Dana Loesch might be the result of their rejection by Hollywood as they were pursuing writing careers early in their lives. Bannon and Loesch took their shots and missed. Perhaps they are projecting their unacknowledged pain onto the liberal artists who actually achieved their dreams?
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Evil People Don’t Think They Are Evil.
Whether human or fictional, villains may develop complex rationalizations for their evildoing. In the movie Point Break, the bank-robbing antagonist, Bodhi, is a nonconformist, a revolutionary, on a crusade to undermine the soul-crushing “system” that oppresses the human desire to be wild and free. Around a campfire, Bodhi is Socrates’ philosopher-king, enchanting his band of adrenaline-hungry juveniles. “This was never about money for us,” says Bodhi. “It was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. To those dead souls inching along the freeway in their metal coffins, we show them the human spirit is still alive.” For Bodhi, it’s not about the money. It’s about liberation, but no one can deny that he’s breaking the law and must eventually be brought to justice.
Alternatively, there are villains who are well aware of what they’re doing and find deeper meaning in their criminal lives. In the movie Seven, the villain John Doe, played by Kevin Spacey, believes he’s doing God’s work by serially murdering the worst offenders of the seven deadly sins. “I’m not special,” Doe tells the two detectives holding him captive. “I’ve never been exceptional. This is, though. What I’m doing. My work.” In the story, Doe believes he was chosen by God to turn each sin against the sinner. He’s not murdering “innocent” people but ridding society of sinners. He says, “We see a deadly sin on every street corner and every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common. It’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. And what I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed, forever.”
Finally, the most horrifying form of evil is when ordinary people do not think they’re engaging in evil acts. One needs only to examine the Holocaust and the members of Hitler’s regime who ignored their own consciences during this time of genocide. Adolf Eichmann was an administrator who helped coordinate the deaths of millions of innocent people. Eichmann didn’t carry a gun or pull a lever in a gas chamber. He lived far from the death camps. He wasn’t a soldier but a paper pusher, a bean counter. To him, the names on his papers were an abstraction. Famously, he said he was “just doing his job.” The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this just-following-orders mentality “the banality of evil.” While Eichmann was on trial, Arendt was shocked by the man’s ordinariness. He was a disturbingly normal bureaucrat. And yet his actions and his blind obedience to authority had profoundly horrific consequences.
Bad Barrels and Bad Barrel Makers
One question has preoccupied the mind of social scientist Philip Zimbardo his entire career: What transforms good, ordinary people into perpetrators of evil?
In his TED Talk “The Psychology of Evil,” Zimbardo calls the “line between good and evil permeable and movable.” He says good and evil are the yin and yang of the human condition and that even good people can be seduced to cross the line.
Zimbardo defines evil as “the exercise of power to intentionally harm psychologically, hurt physically, and/or destroy mortally and commit crimes against humanity.” His research shows that situational forces are the cause of a great deal of evildoing. He contends that evil is a response to social and psychological forces; it’s less about “bad apples” and more about “bad barrels.”
In what Zimbardo terms the Lucifer effect, three factors explain why people cross the line:
- The first is dispositional, or the inside of individuals, “the bad apples.”
- The second is situational forces to which individuals are subjected, “the bad barrel.”
- The third are the political, economic, and legal powers that promote these situations, “the bad barrel makers.”
To demonstrate the idea of “bad barrels” and “bad barrel makers,” Zimbardo introduces the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment conducted in 1961. In this study, subjects were broken into two groups—students and teachers—and then separated into two rooms. The teachers asked the students questions through a microphone. If a student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed by a doctor to administer an electric shock. These shocks supposedly became increasingly stronger with each question. After a shock, teachers could hear the students shout in pain (the students were part of the study and pretending to be in pain).
Before Stanley Milgram’s experiment began, leading psychologists were asked to predict what percentage of the teachers would advance to the most powerful shock (450 volts). They speculated that only a sadist would progress to this voltage, which would cause tremendous pain in another person. Since 1% of the population is sadistic, psychologists estimated that 1% of the teachers would reach this point in the study. To everyone’s surprise, two thirds of the teachers reached the highest voltage.
According to Zimbardo, the study demonstrates the power of institutions and authority to influence individual behavior and has terrifying implications—from the gas chambers of the Holocaust to the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay.
Evildoers Aren’t 100% Evil
Whether it’s the page, stage or screen, the best villains are complex and multidimensional. In the article “6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys,” Laura DiSilverio writes, “Pure evil is dull, unbelievable and predictable. Readers cannot relate to it.”
Nancy Kress writes in her book, “Your challenge is to keep your good guy from being too good and your bad guy from being too bad” (86).
In Treasure Island, the villain, Long John Silver, initially appears honest, hardworking, and obedient. Says the narrator, “A man of substance; I know of my own knowledge that he has a banker’s account, which has never been overdrawn.” When the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, first meets the one-legged sailor, Silver gains his trust by regaling him with maritime stories and educating him about all matters of the sea. Silver even flatters Hawkins, calling him “smart as paint.” Later, the pirate shows his true colors when he organizes a mutiny. Surprisingly, at the end of the book, when we think Silver has crossed to the dark side forever, Silver and Hawkins work together to locate the hidden treasure. In some ways, Silver acts as a catalyst for Hawkins to grow up, becoming an adult.
In Point Break, Bodhi’s character is compelling because he’s not a monster. He’s conflicted about robbing banks. He’s not necessarily stealing for personal gain (I mean, he hopes to at least cover the expenses of funding an endless summer), but to make a statement. During heists, Bodhi avoids violence and doesn’t get greedy about what he takes, sticking with the cash registers and avoiding the vaults. But when a robbery goes sour and one friend dies, Bodhi raises his gun slowly and shoots a police officer. We know this isn’t easy for Bodhi, and the dilemma makes for good cinema.
Some Do It for the Buzz.
Crime is often motivated by personal gain (“Need or greed,” say the authorities). In many cases, it’s the pursuit of the almighty dollar. In Treasure Island, the narrator writes, “In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten.” However, it’s important to recognize that crime can also be intrinsically satisfying for some.
In the movie The Departed, the villain, Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, says that his crimes aren’t motivated by money. “I haven’t needed the money since I took Archie’s milk money in the third grade.” Costello likes crime; it’s fun for him. I once interviewed a con man who said that pulling off a con was “a touch of fear, a touch of happiness.” It gives him a buzz.
In the movie Heat, professional thieves debate whether they should take down a bank, which they have prepared to rob. They are second-guessing the job because police are closely surveilling them. The calculating leader, Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro, is inclined to bail and cut his losses. They take a vote. One needs the money; one says he will do what McCauley does. Another says, “The action is the juice,” which is another way of saying that the means (the robbery) is as satisfying as the end (the score). Later in the story, during an iconic scene, the detective, Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino, sits down for a late-night coffee with the loner McCauley. Hanna asks McCauley whether he’s ever considered trying to live a “normal life.” With a look of disgust on his face, McCauley asks, “You mean like barbecues and ball games?” No, McCauley doesn’t do normal. It’s boring, soul-deadening; it doesn’t square with his values. For whatever reason, McCauley was born for crime, and he likes it that way.
In the last episode of Breaking Bad, White finally confesses to his wife why he decided to continue breaking bad for all those years. White did not do it for his family. He didn’t do it for the money. He admits, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive.”
Biology vs. Environment
Are some individuals just wired wrong? How much does biology play into the mind of a villain? Was Charles Manson born a monster? In The Departed, we see Costello shoot a couple while they’re on their knees and then callously say, “They fell funny.” Like any psychopath, Costello shows a lack of remorse and no capacity for empathy. Standing next to Costello, his right-hand man quips that his boss should seek professional help. “You really should see someone, Frank.”
Would Costello have developed such antisocial, psychopathic tendencies if he had been born into a caring, predictable nuclear family? Perhaps with a more nurturing upbringing, he would have grow up to become a successful contributor to society—a creator, not a destroyer. Research has shown that some of the greatest American presidents had psychopathic tendencies, such as fearless determination, charisma, and the ability to manipulate people in the pursuit of their goals, but their prosocial dispositions kept them on the rails.
In the article “How to Write Better Villains: 5 Ways to Get Into the Mind of a Psychopath,” author Peter James writes about a time when he visited a psychiatric hospital for the violently mentally ill. A psychiatrist told him that the patients were split between the treatable schizophrenics and the incurable psychopaths.
James writes, “The psychopath brought up in a loving, stable family may well go on to become a hugely successful businessman or politician. But the one brought up in a broken home, or a violent, abusive situation, is likely to become dangerously warped. Many serial killers come from such latter backgrounds, as did Adolf Hitler who had a bullying father who would not let him pursue the career as a painter he wanted in life.”
Crimes Without Motive
As much as we search for answers, sometimes we may never learn why an evildoer does what they do. There may never be a clear motive, psychological explanation, or identifiable social or political force. In the movie The Dark Knight, the butler says this about the villain, the Joker: “Some people just want to see the world burn.”
This can be a difficult pill to swallow for well-adjusted, law-abiding citizens, especially for those who enforce our laws. This was true for the protagonist in No Country for Old Men. The Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is pursuing a murderous hit man only days before his retirement. The sheriff can’t fathom the villain’s style of crime. His evil is incomprehensible, otherworldly. “I feel overmatched,” he confesses. Hence, the film’s title and theme: This country—this life, one might say—has no place for those who try to make sense of the insane.
In a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, we see a home video of Dahmer on Thanksgiving. At this point in his life, he’s been abducting and serially murdering people and erasing the evidence of his crimes by dissolving corpses in barrels of acid. In this video, nothing appears out of the ordinary, and yet Dahmer is hiding a horrific secret. After he was caught, his neighbors said he was kind and quiet. People were baffled to hear that this “normal” person was a serial killer. Why did Dahmer do what he did? We may never know.
The Antidote to Evil
By definition, an antagonist, or villain, opposes a protagonist’s goals. The villain is the hero’s main source of conflict. They make life difficult for them. But the greatest villains are the heroes’ superiors. They encourage the heroes to access untapped mental faculties, strength, and courage and to overcome doubts and fears. They call the hero to adventure and invite them into the arena. The villain promotes change and drives the hero’s character arc.
At the end his TED Talk, Philip Zimbardo suggests that the antidote for evil is heroism. He says most people are guilty of the evil of inaction. In the face of wrongdoing, they remain passive bystanders. They don’t get involved. He encourages all ordinary people to commit extraordinary moral deeds in the face of evil.
In story, isn’t this the hero’s function? The hero is something of a deviant, says Zimbardo, because they’re always going against the conformity of the group. A hero is not passive but active. A hero speaks when everyone is quiet. They stand when everyone sits. They fight when people run. In real life and fiction, a hero gets involved.
According to Lajos Egri, there’s a frightening truth embedded in the human condition. “Suffice it to say that every living creature is capable of doing anything, if the conditions around him are strong enough.”
In a riveting scene in Breaking Bad, Walter White’s wife, Skyler, learns about her husband’s involvement in crime. Skyler tells White that he has to contact the police, that he’s in danger. White is taken aback, offended. “I’m not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.” Breaking Bad is a degeneration plot; White goes from pole to pole, from good to evil. The takeaway is that all humans, all characters, have “the danger” inside them. However, in life and in story, if circumstances and conditions access the danger or try to draw it out, there will be a hero waiting for them.
Dustin Grinnell is a writer based in Boston. His nonfiction has appeared in Outside Online, New Scientist, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Salon, YourTango and Narratively, among others. He is also the author of the sci-fi/adventure novels, The Genius Dilemma and Without Limits. See more at dustingrinnell.com.