I’ve often heard actors say that they really prefer playing bad guys to good guys. Good guys are generally so…good. They’re simple, where bad guys are complicated; straightforward, where bad guys are conflicted.
I can understand this view and, based on how characters are written in most movies these days, I agree with it. In books, though, I think we have to do better than that.
When I sit down to flesh out the characters for a novel or story, I try to divorce my mind from the usual concepts of good guy/bad guy, white hat/black hat. I’ve already talked about “grey hats” in a previous post, but here I’m talking about what we’d all traditionally call “the villain” of a piece.
I believe that almost everyone who does something wrong, from the most hardened criminal to the kid with his hand in the cookie jar, either does not think what s/he is doing is wrong, or has created a satisfactory justification for the crime. Remember the old reality show, “Cops”? How many times did you hear the arrested person say, “I didn’t do anything!” Or, when they admitted committing the crime, how many said something like, “Well, yeah, I did it, but <insert justification here>”? Damned near all of them.
People know when something is morally wrong, but they also know that sometimes “wrong” is justified. “Bitch asked for it,” or “He needed killing,” or “Victimless crime” all point to our internal justifications for our immoral acts.
So, when I write, I don’t have “bad guys” or “villains.” When I compose the backstory and the profile for my “black hat,” I know that, in his mind, he’s wearing a white hat. He’s a good guy, from his point of view, and that’s critical, because if he’s just this insane, amoral, sociopath, the reader will never connect with him.
I want my reader to like my bad guys. I want them to thoroughly understand his motivation, and to see why it makes perfect sense from his point of view. That way, they’ll identify at least with his intention, though perhaps not with his method.
This also gives me the ability to reform my bad guy. You can’t reform a sociopath; you’d never trust him, as a reader, if he turns over a new leaf. But someone who’s just misguided? Someone who’s so tortured internally that they lash out, if you heal those wounds and heal their spirit, the reader will believe it.
If I’ve made a bad guy the reader can root for, I’ve created a real character.