Evil characters can be some of the most fun to write, but how can you make them convincing?
No matter what you're writing, you're going to run into an antagonist on the page. They don't have to be human or even a physical character in the story, but there are always forces pushing against the protagonist, putting them in harm's way.
But we kind of love when they are an evil character. The best antagonists don't just have that sick glint in their eye, but they embody what our heroes fear the most, and also what the audience fears as well.
Still, the problem is, how can you make a character feel pure evil? Are there different levels? And what if you don't want to make their crimes totally off-putting right away, but explore a more nuanced look at humanity?
These are all valuable questions we'll explore today.
Check out this video from The Cinema Cartography, and let's talk after the jump.
What Makes Up an Evil Character Type?
That was an excellent video that tackled human nature on the screen. I think it's important to think about our characters and how they fit into the mode of conflict. We see a lot of man versus man, but there's also how man is viewed by nature, or how we are often victims of our own devices.
To write an evil character, you have to define where that comes from. I loved how the video broke it down from movie to movie. Rather than using their examples, I figured we should check out some fresh instances.
One movie I love is Angels with Dirty Faces. It's a gangster movie that asks the question, "How could a priest and a gangster come up from the same neighborhood? What things happened to them when they were younger that affected how they turned out?"
The movie shows the eventual downfall of why these characters turned out this way. And that kind of arc is echoed later in a movie like Boyz N' the Hood, which shows the temptation to turn evil, when evilness is thrust upon you.
Still, there's so much nuance to who these characters are, I am not sure we can call any of them purely evil.
The same goes for any movie or TV show where our protagonists are the bad guys, like The Sopranos or even Goodfellas. Since the TV show is about them, they are not pure evil, but we are seeing what made them the way they are.
I know it's in the video, but what about a villain like John Doe from Se7en? Here is a serial killer who enacted the seven deadly sins to punish humanity. What makes that purely evil? This is where the writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, shows intricacy.
Doe doesn't kill Mills when he has the chance. But he later slaughters Mills' wife and unborn child, to show Mills what true evil can be. It's not about a character behaving evilly all the time. It's about showing their intentions are driven by pure evil, and that makes them evil.
Lastly, let's talk about someone like Amon Goeth from Schindler's List. He's a Nazi captain who has a range of emotions, from lust, to greed, to murderous desire. He has moments where he almost reconsiders his actions, but he is still pure evil incarnate. We have to make him a certain level of evil where we can still have a protagonist sit across from him. See, Goeth's evilness does not extend past what he thinks is his duty, which is following Hitler's plans. While he presents a threat to the Jewish characters in the movie, he never presents one to Schindler, even bailing him out at times with more stringent Nazis.
It's the nuance here that makes this character especially evil.
Wrapping Up Evil Characters
As you can see, there are lots of varying degrees of evil that come across the screen via characters. Sometimes they're just kids doing bad things, but sometimes they are people like Hannibal Lecter, letting their ego power them.
No matter the case, you have to write them convincingly.
What are some purely evil characters you've seen across film and television? How do writers and directors introduce them and excuse the way they are? Depending on the genre, there's lots of room to improvise.
For example, when we see Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we know they are bad guys. But when we see the swarm of people in War of the Worlds attacking the van, we know they are just desperate to be safe.
There are lots of examples I didn't include, so let me know what you think about this in the comments.