The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil - Hannah Arendt
The thing about the best bad guys is that they usually don't perceive themselves as bad or evil. They see the world about them as wrong and they want to make it right in their eyes. One of the best examples of this is the character of Magneto in the X-Men comics and films. He's such an interesting character that he's going to get his own film. He isn't simply a foil like the Joker is to Batman or a doppelgänger as in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. A Jewish Holocaust survivor, Magneto's actions are driven by the purpose of protecting the mutant race from suffering a similar fate. His logic is that the end justifies the means.
In a 2008 interview, Stan Lee elaborated that he "did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist ... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course ... but I never thought of him as a villain."
Right and wrong are such fluid terms. In England, in 1966, a gay man would have been a criminal, a 'bad guy', whereas in 1967 he would not. But, if he'd moved up to Scotland he would've become 'bad' again as soon as he crossed the border since homosexuality was still a criminal offence here up until 1980. Some people, those who believe in a higher authority, would regard him as a ‘bad guy’ no matter where on the planet he moved to: simply because it’s no longer a crime doesn’t mean it’s not still a sin. He probably doesn’t think of himself as anything close to ‘bad’. He no doubt pays his taxes, never exceeds the speed limit and is kind to kids and small animals. He probably believes that doing ‘bad’ is a choice whereas being gay is not.
Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
Okay, so sin is inherited. But is sin evil? Or even a propensity towards being evil?
Bad guys have been a mainstay of literature for thousands of years. It used to be all very straightforward. But that’s not so much the case nowadays. In a lot of cases the true identity of the bad guy is unknown until the climax where he gets his chance to deliver his little speech before being summarily despatched and, even if he has what might seem like a just cause (even if his methods leave something to be desired), it's often hard for a reader to develop any real empathy for him. In the first of the X-Men films the action opens with a scene from Magneto's time whilst in Auschwitz. It is a relatively short scene but it immediately grounds the character in reality; he is not simply a bad guy.
We see this being done most effectively in the TV series Smallville where over several years we get to observe the character of Lex Luthor struggle with his dark side (some might say his destiny) but very few actors will ever be afforded the chance to work on such a large canvass.
It used to be so clear, the guys in the white hats were the good guys and the ones in the black hats were the bad guys. It makes total sense just like colour-coding your army: blue coats versus red coats, for example. And then Clint Eastwood came along with his grey hat and nothing was quite the same ever again.
I don’t tend to write bad guys. They don’t really interest me. None of my good guys are perfect, you need to understand, but who is? I actually have only one short story, ‘Time’, where the protagonist is evil (he’s a serial killer so on a scale of one to evil that’s pretty wicked) but he spends the entire story trying to justify himself. He sees himself as an artist, the people he carves up merely the raw material he works with:
It was the media that christened me ‘The Glasgow Ripper.’ You know, those journalists really have no imaginations. They weren’t to know how much it displeased me – but it did, very much. It was reminiscent of the time I acquired the nickname ‘Prof’ at school. Part of me wanted to believe it was really something even if there was a tinge of sarcasm in the moniker; the rest of me detested it. Still, it was a slightly more suitable appellation than ‘Jock the Ripper’. God be praised none of them thought of that one; we are thankful for His small mercies. That kind of cognomen demonstrates no appreciation for a man’s art. Then again, one man’s art is another man’s butchery. Personally I’m fond of those animal corpses swimming in formaldehyde but I expect most people don’t know what to make of them. People are so superficial in how they look at things. Take for example Jack. It takes a truly sensitive person to fathom the art in Jack’s Whitechapel pieces. Perhaps if he’d called them something, given each work a name, possibly one with religious connotations after all there were two Marys and an Elizabeth. The public do prefer their artworks to have titles even if it’s just something generic along the lines of ‘Arrangement in Grey and Blood Red’, though that might not have gone down so well in 1888; a little too ‘Whistler’. Either way it would have been ahead of its time don’t you think?
I was actually quite pleased with this character but I don’t think I could sustain him for a whole novel although I have thought about it. In most stories the bad man lurks in the shadows. My artist is the narrator and I’m not sure he has enough to say to keep my, let alone my readers’, interests for a whole book. There have been exceptions, of course. In the later Hannibal Lecter novels he moves centre stage. Villains have come a long way from the Anglo-French and Old French vilein, which itself descends from the Late Latin word villanus, meaning "farmhand". Turning Lecter into a hero, even an antihero (although he does give it a shot), was never really going to happen which is why the world was ready for Dexter Morgan, the serial-killer-with-a-conscience, created by Jeff Lindsay, a bad guy who only kills bad guys.
I’ve known people who’ve done bad things – hell, I’ve done bad things – but no one likes to think of themselves as bad. Even the Devil doesn't think of himself as bad; he simply has an alternative take on the universe, that’s all. He’s a popular bad guy. He crops up all over the place, usually more mischievous than out-and-out-malevolent, a prankster, like Loki.
Most of your bog-standard bad guys are out to rule the world or something OTT like that. Or destroy it. Destroying the entire universe is a popular end too (I seem to recall that was the aim of the Daleks in a recent Doctor Who) but what anyone would do with a ruined universe no one seems to have thought through.
In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil. Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus what we know of life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.
My wife and I like watching crime shows, all kinds, but especially programmes like Criminal Minds where they profile the “unsubs” (unknown subjects) and invariably evil is shown to be a symptom rather than a cause which leads them to be often more understanding than you might expect – if they can. They view bad guys as victims, too, which is probably very true.
Even in fiction that evil is a symptom is acknowledged when you look at the stock character, “the mad scientist”. The name says it all; he’s insane, mentally deranged. No one in their right mind wants to blow up the world with them on it. There are benevolent mad scientists too, characters like Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown from the Back to the Future movies, “mad” being read as “obsessive” or “absent-minded” rather than criminally insane. A man scientist does not need to be an evil genius. Even Dr. Frankenstein is a sympathetic character as is his monster; neither is pure evil, far from it.
Conflict is good though. But just because you have an antagonist it doesn’t mean he or she is the ‘bad guy’. Is the Big Bad Wolf evil or plain hungry?
Moustache-twirling nemeses of the ilk made famous by actor Tod Slaughter still exist – think of Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf. He never allots Count Olaf any redeeming qualities. We’ll never learn that he had an unhappy childhood or anything. He’s bad because . . . well, just because. And I found that a little tiresome. But that can also work to an author’s advantage. What you don’t tell your audience they will imagine.
Probably the best example of evil incarnate has to be Michael Myers who we first get to see in the film Halloween. On film John Carpenter has described the character as "almost a supernatural force – a force of nature. An evil force that's loose," a force that is "unkillable." When asked his opinion of Rob Zombie's expansion on Michael's family life, writer Stefan Hutchinson says that explaining why Michael does what he does "[reduces] the character." It is human to want to understand evil. We’re frustrated when we can’t. It’s okay for the creature in Alien to do what it does – it’s a freakin’ alien – but we struggle with that kind of mindset in humans. We believe that being bad is unnatural. I think so too.
There is an argument against the existence of God based on Natural Evil.
1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, then there would be no natural evil.
3) But there is natural evil.
Conclusion) God does not exist.
And if God doesn’t exist why should the Devil?
· Pantheistic religions regard evil as ultimately unreal. Human suffering is a product of spiritual ignorance gathered in previous lives and distributed in the present one according to the dictates of karma.
· In the dualistic religions, good and evil are two eternal and rival principles. Neither has created the other one and each acts according to its own nature.
· In the monotheistic religions, evil has a personal identity. Its source is a being that has fallen from an initial good status as a result of misusing freedom of will.
My father once explained to me the difference between perfection and imperfection in humans (and angels). The question was how Satan, one of God’s creations (and all his works are perfect – I’m paraphrasing Deuteronomy 32:4 here), how does a perfect creature become imperfect? His answer was that a perfect man’s natural inclination is to be selfless but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be selfish; likewise an imperfect man’s natural inclination is to be selfish but that doesn't mean he can’t be selfless. Good and bad don’t enter into it.
This actually ties in with an atheistic approach to the nature of evil. For the atheist evil (a.k.a. godlessness) doesn’t exist:
Things have simply evolved this way. Evil is just a name we perhaps give to our left-over instincts of self preservation from the time when we were brute beasts; that force which drove us to kill, thieve and do whatever necessary to preserve ourselves and our offspring at all costs – italics mine.
I think looking at ‘bad guys’ as selfish people is a good start if we want to make them believable because, as we’re all imperfect, we all know what it’s like to be selfish. Most of us don’t even equate being selfish, looking after No. 1, with being bad. A ‘bad guy’ is someone whose selfishness has got out of control, like an addiction, and that’s something all of us will have come in contact with, either personally or indirectly. If nothing else we all know what it feels like to want to lose control. Control is hard work: not ordering another pint, not having another slice of pie, keeping your flies buttoned.
Ignoring, for a moment, how the villain got to be the way he is, how do you defeat him? Killing him is good. It’s a bit extreme. But it is effective. Unless he’s Michael Myers. Very often, especially in shows like Criminal Minds, they talk the bad guy down; they reason with him.
Hannah Arendt, in her often-quoted account of the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, wrote: "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic or monstrous." Arendt concluded that Eichmann, far from having the desire to prove a villain, sent thousands to their deaths merely because of "a lack of imagination." His only motive was personal advancement: "he never realized what he was doing." Arendt wondered whether "the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of the specific content and quite independent of results...could 'condition' men against evildoing."
“I didn’t think.” How many times have we said that? “I didn’t think it was any big deal.” “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt.” “I didn’t think I’d get found out.” “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
Really the most important one though is: “I didn’t think things through.” Of course bad guys think. From all accounts they think constantly, they obsess . . . but only up to a point.
What do you do when you get the world the way you want it? What then? Even we non-evil people are guilty of being short-sighted when it comes to our plans. But let’s just say that the bad guy wins, and it does happen, what then? In Nineteen Eighty-Four the bad guy wins. Or does he? If badness is defined as behaviour that isn’t socially acceptable – certainly criminal behaviour could be defined that way – then aren’t Winston and Julia the real bad guys, trying to rock the boat? Just a thought.
Some of the most interesting antagonists in recent history are those whose loyalties shift back and forth as circumstances change. In the revamped Battlestar Galactica TV series, Gaius Baltar is a brilliant scientist and key player in the Twelve Colonies' defence research. His unscrupulous character allows a beautiful Cylon to manipulate him into granting her access to the colonies' defence systems, the resultant failure of which ends in the destruction of most of the human race during a Cylon attack. Now it’s not as if he personally killed them but understandably he’s burdened with guilt. It’s not clear-cut if he’s a bad guy or not; he’s certainly a highly flawed individual and he makes a number of questionable decisions. One thing he is though is a survivor. He never goes completely over to the dark side but then, although he achieves redemption, you could never call him a hero either.
Probably the closest I’ll ever get to writing a bad guy is by personifying a character’s inner conflict. In my first two novels Truth is the antagonist but he’s certainly not the ‘bad guy’; neither is my protagonist a ‘good guy’. Good people do bad things. You need to be able to distinguish between a man and his actions. None of us are all good or all bad, or all selfish in contrast with completely selfless, and so there should always be that tug-o-war going on being doing the right thing and being a selfish bastard. Robert Louis Stevenson took this to the logical conclusion by splitting a man into two halves, or at least only allowing each half control for a certain time. It was clearly only a matter of time before some science fiction writer devised a way to split an individual in two so that his good half can do physical battle with his evil side; just think of Superman doing battle with his evil side in the junkyard in Superman II.
Talking about comic book characters, if there is one thing I have always hated – and the Batman TV series with its cliff-hangers was especially guilty of this – it’s villains who, when they have the hero by the short and curlies first of all take time to explain their entire dastardly plan to them includes dates, times and place before leaving them to die in the arms of some fangled, OTT machine that it just guaranteed not to do its job properly without at the very least taking a peek under his mask. I ask you!
Evil is attractive. There’s no doubt about it. And more and more films are focusing on the bad guys some of whom never quite seem to get their comeuppance. The logic is that evil never dies. People don’t go to films like Saw to see the bad guy get in in the neck. And they go back (five times so far) to see him not get it in the neck. In the past that was the reason for having a bad guy, to make the good guy look good. Not so much these days. I couldn’t write something like that. Actually the Jigsaw Killer does get it, literally in the neck, in Saw III, so don’t ask me how the thing’s still ongoing (yep, Saw VII is due out in October which means the remake of Saw is probably being pencilled into someone’s diary for sometime in 2032).
I know this post has covered quite a bit of ground but the bottom line is, as far as a writer is concerned, is that deciding to include a ‘bad guy’ into a story isn’t as simple as it used to be. Readers want to understand why someone is evil. I suppose that’s why millions read books trying to get inside the minds of serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West or the Yorkshire Ripper. Type ‘serial killer’ into Amazon and you’ll come up with 7,256 results – I actually thought there might be more. Books like that don’t interest me but, as I’ve admitted, I don’t mind watching TV programmes about them; my wife and I love Dexter.
I think, for me at least, there’s a feeling of there but for the grace of God/natural selection go I.
Andrew Bernstein, Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil
 Marvel Spotlight: Uncanny X-Men 500 Issues Celebration, p. 5-7