The Big Bad

May 6th, 2010 • Kate

spikeContinuing the fascinating conversation from yesterday, I want to talk Bad Guys. (Like Spike over there. Swoon.) And despite my choice of image for this post, not lovable bad guys, but the truly evil, the really horrible, and the must-be-vanquished. If I were to continue to cite only examples from Buffy, I’d be talking about The Master, Mayor Wilkins, and Glory. In terms of kid lit, of course Voldemort is one, too. I mean, Rowling shows us Riddle’s backstory, but not for the purpose of making Voldemort an understandable villain — not in the way that Spike is, perhaps. A victim of a beautiful mad girl (Drusilla), certainly, but a subject of ridicule before that. And ultimately, Spike wasn’t vanquished but redeemed.

So who are the irredeemable bad guys in kid lit? Who’s evil for the purpose of being evil, and not just misunderstood? And do you think it’s harder to write a truly evil bad guy, or one with a kernel of relatability?

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13 Responses to “The Big Bad”

  1. Mandy Says:

    "IT" from A Wrinkle in Time was always a bad guy that stood out to me, and I guess with it "The dark thing".

    For me, its definitely harder to write the truly evil bad guy. I wouldn't say my bad guys were merely "misunderstood", but I like to know where my bad guys come from. It's my general opinion that people aren't usually just born bad. Once that bad guy was an innocent kid who was loved by his mother. Once that bad guy might even have had a girlfriend that he truly loved. You know what they say "The road to hell is paved with good intentions", and I often think the same is true of bad guys. Their path to evil was paved with good intentions.

    Truly evil bad guys are simply hard for me to comprehend. I have to be able to get into the head of all my characters, and its hard for me to imagine the mind of a truly evil and bad guy.

  2. Delilah S Dawson Says:

    General Woundwort, all the way. Classic case of one little rabbit kitten kernel snowballing into horrible bunny evil.

  3. Kater Says:

    President Snow, from Catching Fire and The Hunger Games.

    I agree that I don't write "evil" bad guys very often. At least, to their own minds, they're totally reasonable. Sometimes the bad things they do are no more horrible than the bad things the "good guys" do, ie. kill people, but they don't feel as conflicted about it.

    Some of my worst, most horrible, amoral villians are actually friends of the protagonist.

  4. A.L. Sonnichsen Says:

    Since you mentioned C.S. Lewis yesterday, The White Witch is the first bad guy that springs to mind. She's a pure-evil type of villain.

    I think my villains have reasons behind their villainy. I hope I've made them a little deeper than just uber-evils. At the same time, it's different when you're talking fantasy. Fantasy can have an uber-evil villain and it works. It's almost expected. More realistic fiction requires that your villain be multi-dimensional, with motives people can often understand, if not empathize with.


  5. Heidi Says:

    Definitely Duke Roger from Tamora Pierce's Alanna series. He made evil look good, and everyone but Alanna loved him, but there was nothing redeemable about his character. And Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter–technically, she was on the side of the good guys, but she was still one of the most evil characters I've ever read about. I'm sure there are more good examples, but those are the first ones I can think of off the top of my head.

    I also have trouble writing about pure evil characters. They might start out evil, but as I flesh them out they develop their own reasons for what they're doing, and suddenly they're a little more sympathetic. One of my professors ground in the idea that everyone is a shade of gray. He used to tell us that even Hitler loved animals, as his example of evil still having likable characteristics. I guess I've kind of taken that to heart, and so now I go looking for the good to illustrate in my villains.

  6. Georgiana Says:

    I read this out loud to Cam, my HS senior, then said "Who do I think is evil in kidlit?" but he thought I said "Who do I think is evil? Piglet." You can tell he's horrible just by looking at him. Only a monster wears a scarf like that!

    I think writing an evil through and through character is easier, but also can be a cop out as most people are not villains in their own heads. There is always an excuse or a justification for their behavior, or maybe an inability to see others as real.

    That being said I do have a WIP with a completely despicable character who does such terrible things I have anxiety attacks writing about him. He probably falls into the "everyone and everything is my toy" category.

    Cam says the Rag Witch from The Rag Witch by Garth Nix has no redeeming qualities at all. He also thinks Rabbit in the Pooh books is pretty bad. 🙂

    Kater – nice call on President Snow. He's evil for the sake of power, which makes him all the worse in my eyes.

  7. Peter Dudley Says:

    PIGLET! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    The one that comes to mind for me (besides all the wicked stepmothers and evil queens in Disney movies) is the Baudelaire children's dear Count Olaf.

  8. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Georgiana- Piglet, ha!

    I thought Angelus was a truly evil character as well on Buffy. He was vicious cruel and liked to torture his victims first.

    As for the big bad, it's tough. I think they are more believable if they aren't completely evil. In my WIP, my big bad is evil because he is selfish, but he isn't evil just to be evil. Sure he's willing to destroy the world to get what he wants, but he doesn't kick puppies or anything. I think it makes him even worse of a bad guy than if he was just straight out evil. Because he knows it's wrong, but doesn't care instead of not really seeing it is wrong.

    I agree with Heidi – Umbridge was just evil.

  9. Julia Says:

    Dolores Umbridge most definitely! As I recall, most villains in the original Grimm fairy tales had little or no redeeming qualities.

    It's very difficult to write pure evil villains without them coming across as cliched characters. To get inside their minds and find out what makes them do what they do is to risk recognizing that they are as human as we are – just with a different set of values. That is why authentic writing is so important – and, of course, we can't be authentic about evil without looking into that little shadowed corner of our own selves. (Scary stuff that!)

  10. christy Says:

    I love both a nuanced-with-a-shred-of-empathy bad guy and a totally irredeemable, just plain bad bad guy, depending on the context.

    For the just plain bad, this may not count because this character doesn't appear in the Ian Fleming book (although he was created by Roald Dahl for the screenplay, so there are multiple kidlit connections) but the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is just plain bad. When I saw the Broadway musical version a few years back, the entire audience BOOed him when he took his curtain call. It's a real villain that makes a whole theatre full of trying-to-be-cool tourists and New Yorkers forget about the actor and just out-and-out BOO.

    Man, I love booing.

  11. Shannon Says:

    The most recent series I've read, Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan, had lots of evil. But, I like how he made his baddest bad guy, Cronus, work through others. It was so simple, and effective.

  12. Callie Says:

    After agreeing with everyone on Umbridge, I'd have to add Ender's brother Peter from the Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. He puts on a good show of being good (or at least not so bad) when he has to, but he's so outright manipulative and power hungry that I can't help but hate him.

  13. Kathy Says:

    I'm finding it hard to give my villians a rounded personality. Right now they have a single motive — come after the protagonist and beat him up. His motivation is that the protagonist studies ballet, which the bully feels is sissy and feminizing. So he also labels the protagonist as "gay" which results in fist fights. In my book, the protagonist wins those conflicts.

    But I'm having a hard time figuring out why the villain/bully keeps on about the protagonist. One reason I figured out was the protagonist broke the villain's nose in that fight. And now the villain is seeking revenge by breaking the protagonist's nose whenever possible. (doesn't always manage to)

    anyone have suggestions for classes or groups where this is covered?