Making Your Bad Guys Good

Brandt Dodson is the creator of the Colton Parker Mystery series and the author of the stand alone crime novel, White Soul.He comes from a long line of police officers and was formerly employed by the Indianapolis office of the FBI. He uses this background to bring added authenticity to his work. Brandt is a board certified Podiatrist, specializing in peripheral nerve surgery for the treatment of painful neuropathies and is a former United States Naval Reserve officer.
His next novel, Daniel’s Den, will be released by Harvest House Publishers on February 1st, 2009.

By Brandt Dodson

Okay so the title isn’t the greatest and the play on words isn’t the wittiest, and maybe I could’ve written on a different topic, but the fact is, whether you write mysteries, crime novels, suspense, or romance, there’s going to be a bad guy. Fiction runs on them. They’re grist for the mill; fuel for the conflict. Someone has to be the bank robber, the stalker, the dog kicker, or the heart breaker. So lets make ‘em real, shall we?

No doubt you remember Dudley Do-Right, member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who was forever saving chaste Nell Fenwick from the terrifying clutches of … yep, you got it … Snidely Whiplash. Snidely was the symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world. An evil self-centered malcontent who was always looking for a way to ruin someone’s day (usually poor Nell) just for the sake of doing it. He was evil, mind you. EVIL. A real spoil sport.

But he was also a cartoon (Unless you count Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Snidely in the live-action version. But don’t, because that would ruin the point I’m trying to make.)

You can write fiction with a Snidely Whiplash in it, of course. You can do anything you want. But if you want to get published, acquire readers, and experience sales that will lead to multiple book contracts, you’ve got to come up with a better bad guy that Snidely. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult. All you have to do is take a look in the mirror.

The bible tells us that the heart of man is evil above all things. Who can understand it? The good book also tells us that before the flood, the heart of man was on evil continuously, grieving the heart of God. So you see, it really isn’t a stretch to find the evil that we need to portray our Bad Guys. Even the Shadow knew the evil that “lurks in the hearts of men” (you too, ladies.)

Most of us have had evil thoughts. It happens when we’re cut off in traffic, someone cuts in line at the grocery store, or the neighbor puts up a fence that is two feet inside side our property line. Now they’re going to get it.

We get angry with co-workers, friends, spouses, children, and parents. And sometimes – admit it – even the best of us have fantasies about “offing” them.
But we don’t. And it’s that barrier within you that will make your bad guys good. Or maybe I should say, help you create a better bad guy.

You see, we like ourselves. And we’re bad, sometimes. So put yourself in the bad guy’s shoes. What motivates him (or her) to do the things they do? Hitler had desires to raise Germany from the ash heap of history and restore her to her pre-WWI luster. His motivations may have been honorable, but no one would call him a good man. Still, his desire was good.

In Dean Koontz’s suspense novel, Mr. Murder, we see that the bad guy is simply looking for a place to belong. He wants love and acceptance. But he’s ill-equipped to find it so he terrorizes Marty and his family – not for the sake of terrorizing them – but because he knows no other way to reach his goal. In short, he’s no Snidely Whiplash. And that’s the key to developing good bad guys.

When we look at ourselves we can see that each of us has a dual nature. We are at once both good and bad. (Yes I understand that Jesus said there is none that is good, and of course that’s true. But for sake of argument, lets refer to our “lesser bad side” as our good side) Much has been written throughout the span of time about this duality.

Have you ever read, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? In fact, this duality is still a popular theme. We see it in Batman, Spiderman, and the Incredible Hulk to name a few. The point here is that each of us has within ourselves all that is needed to conjure up the evil that lurks in the hearts of our fictional serial killers, muggers, and mobsters because each of us is that guy. But we restrain it with a good side.

What makes your bad guy a good bad guy? Is it the dark side that is within him? Probably not. Snidely is all dark, but I don’t think any of us would consider him a good bad guy. But what if we fleshed him out? What if we gave him a motivation for doing the things he does. An understandable motivation. Understandable by his measure, even if not ours.

What if little Snidely’s mother doted on him while his father showed little concern. What if his mother gave Snidely a puppy for Christmas one year, then she dies of influenza shortly afterward. All of a sudden, the only thing Snidely has of his mother is the little dog – an extension of her love, her devotion. But his father re-marries and his new wife – Nell – has an inherent dislike for dogs. So she kills the puppy in front of little Snidely and throws its carcass on top of the wood pile.

Get the picture?

Your bad guy must have a true motivation. Even though we all know that evil exists, in fiction there must be some rationale for what is happening.

Fiction is about people. All people, including your bad guy. So I suggest the following as ways to avoid poor Snidely and come up with someone who breathes on the page.

First, create a biography for your bad guy. You probably did it for your protagonist, now do it for the antagonist. Be sure to help us understand how he became the person he is. What does he want? What are his fears? What are his boundaries?
Second, conceive of a character arc for your villain. It is accepted that your protagonist will change as a result of what has happened to him. So should your antagonist. The change won’t be the same, necessarily, nor will it be as great. But something should happen.

Third, give your bad guy a relationship. Very few people live in a vacuum. Most of us have family, friends, co-workers, former school mates, or acquaintances. So should your bad guy. How do these people influence him? Which of them does he trust? Mistrust?

Fourth, remember to give your hero some warts too. Drama is contrast. Right vs. wrong. Good vs. evil. If your characters are too starkly drawn you’ll end up with Dudley vs. Snidely. Sorry, but it’s been done.

However, if you create tension within the characters, you stand a whole lot better chance of creating something that’s truly suspenseful. In my own novel, Original Sin, I gave my protagonist, Colton Parker, nearly as many flaws as the antagonist, while giving the antagonist nearly as many halos as Colton. By creating contrast within my characters, the degree of separation between right and wrong became razor thin. And that’s how I built my suspense.

Remember Silence of the Lambs? After Clarice’s conversations with Hannibal weren’t you beginning to understand him? Wasn’t she?

In Batman Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson have reacted to trauma in their lives by taking on different personas. Both men have become someone else; one for the good of others and the other for the good of himself. Razor thin.

There is no secret to creating believable bad guys. It’s simply a matter of looking within ourselves, realizing that all of us walk a tight rope (the war between spirit and flesh) and figuring out where to draw the boundaries. Do that, and you’ll have a bad guy that’s just too good to be true.

In this fast–paced thriller by popular author Brandt Dodson, a young government accountant learns to trust God when his life begins to fall apart and unseen enemies pursue him with relentless zeal.
Daniel Borden is a thirty–year–old government accountant who lives a quiet life and plays by the rules. But when events transpire that shatter his orderly world and a team of assassins mark him for death, Daniel must flee for his life.
While on the run, Daniel encounters Laura Sky. Carefree and easygoing, Laura is everything that Daniel isn’t. But when the killers assigned to eliminate Daniel find him at Laura’s bed–and–breakfast, gunfire erupts and the two set out on the run once again.
As they try to unravel the mystery that confronts them, they discover how tenuous life can be and how their very existence depends on the God who will never abandon them.