At Sleuthfest, I attended a class by Wallace Stroby, the author of ‘Kings of Midnight‘ and ‘Shoot the Woman First,’ among others. Titled “Good Bad Guys and Bad Good Guys,” he made a great statement that “even Hitler loved his dogs.”
In Stroby’s books, his hero Crissa Stone (the cold but not stone-cold career criminal) must distinguish between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. And actually Crissa falls somewhere in that range herself. His point was that the antagonist in well-written mystery-suspense fiction must be more grey, than black. If the bad guy is a human being, he can’t be pure, unadulterated evil. (Obviously, fantasy and horror can feature non-human antagonists who love to be mean just because they can.) Human antagonists though will have some redeeming character traits, and must be motivated by a cause that they feel is just. Or, at least justified. The bad guy is the good guy in his own story.
Most good bad guys have a common element. They are so blinded by their own agenda that they loses perspective of right and wrong. Greed is always all consuming. However, a bad guy with a good motive, such as protecting a child, saving a loved one, avenging a past wrong, protecting an environment or a way of life, adds a whole ‘nother dimension.
John Hammond from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an example of noble intentions gone wrong. His personality was changed from a cold eccentric CEO in the book to a more caring sympathetic grandfather who wanted to leave a legacy in the 1993 movie. Dolores Claiborne, Stephen King’s psychological thriller, features a woman who murdered her abusive husband after she learns that he molested their fourteen-year-old daughter. She wasn’t evil; she was protecting her daughter. Perhaps one of the strongest examples in literature is Heathcliff, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. His all-consuming passion for Catherine destroys both himself and those around him.
Ultimately, the antagonist’s desire becomes so strong and so over-powering, that he can no longer empathize with any alternative view point, and has justified his actions for that “greater good.” There’s been numerous examples of this in recent comic book movies, from Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, wanting to eliminate the rampant greed and corruption in Gotham City, to Magneto in X-Men, who starts a revolution for mutant rights. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Alma Coin is the leader of the rebellion against the Capitol but has a special dislike for Katniss because she wanted Peeta rescued from Quarter Quell instead. That anger leads to hate and ultimately gets the best of her. And again in literature, Madame Thérèse Defarge, from Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, is so committed to the revolution that she becomes a brutal and cold blooded killer.
Sometimes, evil is matter of perspective. That idea was eloquently articulated by Senator Palpatine, in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, when he explained to Anakin Skywalker that “Good is a point of view.” Dolores Umbridge, from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is another case in point. She’s evil only by our (the reader’s) standards. From her perspective, she’s the hero. As is Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes’ femme fatale. She is witty, resourceful and diabolical, but only when she has to be. Going hand in hand with perspective, evil can stem from the character’s history. Frank Burke, in Stroby’s Shoot the Woman First is the product of a depressed economy that encourages crime.
Stroby’s point was well taken, that often the best villains don’t see themselves as evil. Even Hitler didn’t laugh maniacally, wring his hands, and declare that he was evil.
Check out some great sites on the subject: