I have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.  In addition to having a wonderful family, terrific friends, and a fulfilling career, I have this new vocation in my life – writing fiction, which allows me each day to create an imaginary world of interesting characters.  

Now in my world characters usually are ordinary people who find themselves in some very complicated situations.  While these “people” definitely possess major character flaws, no one is ever absolutely good or bad. Displaying these gray areas and making my readers think is what makes writing fun for me. 

However, when I am free and I’m in a mood for a particular type of book, there are times when the only acceptable selection is one that contains a truly evil character.  You know the ones:  Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, or Anne Wilkes from Steven King’s Misery.  If you look hard enough you can find a truly evil character in almost any genre.   One of my recent favorites is Tony Hobbs in Douglass Kennedy’s A Special Relationship.  While he’s certainly no Hannibal Lecter, the way that he treats his wife is pretty terrifying nonetheless.  I could go on forever but these are all memorable characters readers just love to hate.  I think readers adore them so much because their stories remind readers that their own humanity is still intact.  It’s a confirmation that the reader is still okay.  Or maybe entering into the evil characters’ world is the only time that readers are allowed to delight in pure evil without others thinking they need their own heads examined.  Whatever the reason, it is my dream to one day create such a character of my own because I think it would be a lot of fun.  I just hope my readers never get the impression that I really do have dozens of bodies buried in my cellar.

I don’t think I am qualified yet to say what makes evil characters great from an author’s point of view, but I can tell you what I think from a reader’s perspective.  To me, authors throughout history who have successfully created evil characters have one thing in common:  They manage to find that tiny morsel of humanity in each character, and that is not an easy thing to do.  Assigning evil deeds to a character is easy; but try making that same character normal and relatable to any rational person – at least on the surface, and one can see why writing truly is an art form.

Why Bad Characters Can Be Good Fun

  • They can seem normal on the surface but as the author peels away the layers and reveals the true character, the reader finds a deeply disturbed person. 
  • Their actions can seem justifiable or arguably deserving, but maybe taken just a little too far.
  • They can get away with doing things that the average reader wishes he/she could do.
  • It’s the only time when it could be fun to be or act crazy and when the reader tires of that world, they can always leave.
The point to all of this is all writing is hard work; creating truly three-dimensional, fully-formed evil characters is even harder.  That tiny bit of humanness is not only a reflection of the author but of the readers as well. That’s what makes characters like these so memorable and at times beloved. 

So as we all sit down to give thanks this holiday season, let us give silent praise to those talented authors who awaken our imagination and remind us that sometimes it is good to be bad.