I DO LOVE A GOOD BAD GUY
Robert McKee, the creative writing guru, is heavy on what he calls the ‘Forces of Antagonism’. I’ve been known to use this phrase myself when talking about ‘bad guys’, most often within the context of fixing a story that isn’t quite developed or feels a little thin. If a writer ramps up his (or her) ‘bad guy’ and gets right underneath his skin to explore what lurks beneath and makes him tick, the story itself will spark with vitality and instantly become a ‘meatier’ proposition. Conflict is the name of the game in thrillers and if the murderer/thief/spook/con man is a pale and wilting foe, there isn’t going to be much for the main protagonist to bump up against. Your good guy/main protagonist can only really show the reader what he’s made of (mouse or man/woman) if he’s got a worthy adversary with whom to struggle.
Many writers will tell you that they love creating villains. I’m among them. I enjoy rummaging around in damaged psyches and letting rip with writing about the extremes of human nature. It’s not necessarily a case of the more evil an antagonist, the better. I prefer to think in terms of how the heck did they become that damaged in the first place? The smartest writers explore this aspect to avoid the creation of cardboard, two-dimensional caricatures rather than fully fleshed out characters. Perhaps this explains the popularity of psychological thrillers – it allows the writer to get to grips with what makes good people go bad, something that can happen to any one of us, given the right stressors. And maybe that’s the scary bit.
Even bad guys have Achilles heels when it comes to their nearest and dearest, or chums. The Lannister clan in ‘Game of Thrones’ provide one of the greatest fictional examples of inter-generational evil, yet they are not vile, individually or collectively, all of the time. The exception, perhaps, is King Joffrey Baratheon who seems to have pure evil running through his DNA but, as he’s a result of an incestuous relationship, his bizarre and barbaric behaviour can be cheerfully explained away by the fact that he’s bonkers! Writers like James Patterson, whose bad guys read like an encyclopaedia of mental disorders, embrace this device warmly and it’s a trademark of his novels.
Meanwhile, the rest of us hunt around for more mundane motives: thwarted in love, neglected or abused childhoods, inheritances going south. This usually involves a healthy dose of the seven deadly sins, greed, lust, avarice and that old chestnut the root of all evil, loot, the most popular. Plenty there to get your teeth into which is what every writer wants.