Complex Evil Characters
For complex evil characters to work, you’ve got to give them some screen time, as it were. Because a paragraph or two simply will not cut it.
Since evil characters are a certain type of character, it pays to give them a backstory as deep and rich and meaningful as the ones you give to your hero characters. Hence, just as you do with your hero characters, think about where and when they were born. Do they have siblings? Do their parents still live?
Maybe there were early signs of trouble. Could they have been abused or neglected? Did they abuse weaker, younger siblings, or animals? Both of those signify deep mental disturbances. Perhaps there is trauma.
So, why is this particular character evil? What drives their behavior? Because real human beings don’t just do bad things for fun, what gives? Are they seeking vengeance for something? Did they lose their own true love, their fortune, their family, or their home? Maybe they were horribly humiliated.
Characters who are evil simply for the sake of being evil are boring and unrealistic. Humans just plain don’t work that way (because people who are evil for the sake of being evil tend to be psychopaths in real life).
And the same is true of characters who are evil merely to drive the plot. Your terrorists need a reason why they do what they do, no matter how odd.
And for your complex evil characters to do their thing, they need some way of getting it done. Hence an impoverished character would need funds, probably. Or a disabled character might need someone else to be the muscle. And a famous character might simply pay someone else to do their dirty work. Or they might need to be in disguise.
Means for characters can potentially also be about weaponry. Your French medieval society would only have rudimentary use of gunpowder. For example, Joan of Arc lived during a time of gunpowder use but didn’t necessarily use it herself. However, your evil character might just be a jerk or a person who calls others names. If that’s the case, then you should know which slurs were used when.
And pay attention to age! Evil five-year-olds are very different from evil fifty-year-olds.
Your complex evil characters have limitations if they live far from your other characters, unless they have access to fast transportation. Furthermore, modern or future characters can attack in cyberspace or its equivalent. Or maybe they can attack over the phone or via letter if you go back in time far enough. There’s got to be some ancient Roman who attacked with words written on stone tablets, or via messenger. And if there isn’t, write one!
Attacks in person mean your complex evil characters are at risk. The victim might hit back. Or there could be shrapnel flying around. Plus there’s always a possibility of police involvement. People for real “commit suicide by cop”. Maybe your evil characters do something like that.
Not every character gets punished, just as not every real-life criminal is caught. How do you want your story end? Or do you maybe want to open up the possibility of a sequel?
And even in prison or under a doctor’s care, not everyone changes their ways.
There are also issues with imprisonment. During a lot of history, it was just barely this side of torture, if it was at all. Even the best-run prisons, with the least amount of corruption, have dirt and danger. Also, there’s the question of suicidal evil characters. Currently, the American prison system is supposed to have good safeguards. But suicides still happen. Or murders which look like suicides.
Your complex evil characters might want to avenge, well, nearly anything. And even if you used that as their motivation before, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it again. It can still work.
There’s a reason why this post is divided into motive, means, and opportunity—just like in a police investigation. You may want to consider such steps in turn when writing. They will keep you focused and help you to address areas you might accidentally overlook or gloss over.
Complex evil characters can be memorable. Just ask Hannibal Lecter.