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Depicting Evil

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Sep 15, 2011.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

    When writing characters, it's always better to show than tell. What are some ways to demonstrate that a character is truly, diabolically evil without falling into the realm of cliche?

    Any fresh ideas?

    Also, what are some of the best examples of an author doing this from published novels and stories?
  2. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

    i think the,best way is by showing tje bad person doing bad things, though I don't like writing the completely evil character, maybe a truly evil minion, but not primary villain.

    A lot of what I have been reading lately does not have a bad guy, just people trying to make it in a world that doesn't care if they live or die.
  3. Bass_Thunder37

    Bass_Thunder37 Scribe

    Well, I demonstrate it quite outright, with a hideously obvious display of his evil.

    Michael bashed in the gate with his sword's pommel. And that's when he saw something he wished he hadnt. King Kassidus stood atop a pile of burning corpses. But they weren't being burnt by normal fire. This fire had sparks of green in it's midst. Obviously an enchantment. The effect being, the bodies were alive, feeling the pain of burning to death, missing skin and chunks of muscle as the inferno blazed through them. Yet the Warlock-King was unfazed by the embers. He scooped up a handful, and it began to dance on his fingertips.
    "This is the price they chose to pay," Kassidus hissed with a snakelike tongue,
    "When they made a protest. It's not protected by our law. Wait, is it? I don't care, but aren't these corpses just horrifically gruesome?" Ronin's mouth was gaping at this sight.
    "Do-do you get off on this scary crap?" He and Victor calmly high-fived.
  4. To avoid cliche, I believe showing the villain as someone who does not see his actions in the same manner as everyone else. I'll take the joker from the newer batman movie. Unlike the normal portrayals of the joker, this one was insane. All the actions lacked the normal motivations like greed or lust for power or control, just chaos for the sake of chaos. For me, villains are the easiest characters to create. The come to life in no time bringing along an entire psychological disaster with them. They don't have an evil laugh, and they do things based on a different moral standard than most people have. Killing another person for pleasure only works if the villain is enjoying it like most people enjoy some form of normal event. There isn't a "oh, look at me, I'm so evil I'm going to kill someone." More likely "Look at his eyes. They go so wide as he comes to understand that his life is over. It is a shame that death is so short."

    Most evil does not see themselves as the evil, but as the way things should be.

    Examples in fiction: Jennifer Roberson did a shape changer series in which the antagonist was another group of people which were mages, and fit the idea of evil. They saw anyone not part of themselves as lesser, and to be treated in any manner they chose. They took great pleasure in killing and torturing the 'good guys", which were the shape changer race. They were evil, but never in a cliche manner.

    Witch World by Andre Norton, had a race that came from another dimension, of which had been destroyed by themselves. They killed without emotion, and took over peoples minds so they could use them as mindless soldiers. Their differences in manner and the coldness they had in regards to everyone made it easy to tell they were evil.

    There are a lot more, but overall, most evil doesn't think of themselves as evil. Their actions are usually justified to their own mind and other people should think as they do.
  5. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Just put up a challenge, inspired by this and the "Worst Villain" thread. Check it out. ;)
  6. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    Michael Moorcock's Elric Series depicts evil pretty well, especially Stormbringer (the sword that devours souls of its victims). There are examples cruelty and such that does it pretty well.

    A few thoughts about depicting evil:

    Actions and motivations, even indifference and deciet can help depict evil. I think attempting it in one fell swoop is a mistake.

    Another technique is to use a foil character, one that is used enhance or better depict a character through contrast.

    Example: Cinderella is demonstrated to be caring, lovely, graceful, etc. But inclusion of her nasty stepsisters serves to highlight Cinderella's positive qualities.

    The same can be accomplished with evil. For example, a character could be nasty and cruel, until it's learned that the character is actually an underling of someone that is even worse--and gives the underling second thoughts about what's being done.
  7. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    In response to the question: I actually don't use "villains" much; I prefer my "evil" to be situational. For instance, there's abundant "evil" in a war setting, even if no single individual is villainous per se. Or conflict might involve equally "good" individuals: think Achilles and Hector, Odysseus and Aeneas in the Trojan War--the tragedy is that they are bound by circumstance to oppose one another, when under different conditions they'd probably be best friends.

    When I do use a villain, I generally demonstrate the evil in almost casual, offhand ways. A military leader who is presented as a respectable officer might, after politely interviewing a captive, might conclude by saying "Damn shame I can't spare someone to escort you to our POW facilities" and slit the captive's throat. The decision even might seem perfectly rational under the circumstances... but it's not something a "good" person would do--and the "evil" part is that he does it without remorse, hesitation, or even consideration of possible alternatives; he might not even remember it later, in terms of having done it to a specific person, so little does the act effect him. An alchemist (natural philosopher, "scientist") might not concern himself about where his experimental ingredients come from--nor have it register that he's recently used more left thumbs of babies than could reasonably be expected to arise from natural infant mortality and graverobbing. A "hero" would try to interrupt the summoning of an Elder God by rescuing the virgin from the altar... but the ceremony could be foiled equally, and probably more easily, by shooting the sacrifice from a distance before she was placed there, or at least before the ritual reached the correct point. (I can think of plenty of reasons why the chief celebrant might not make as good a target, should anybody raised that objection... the simplest would have to do with the angle of the shot.) Preventing the god from manifesting: good. Method: not so much.

    One of the most "evil" people in history I can think of was the source of a popular saying: Simon de Montfort, leader of crusades against the Albigensians in southern France. When the army he led captured the city of Beziers, he was asked by his men how they were to sort out the heretics they were seeking from the rest of the populace. His reply: "Tuez les tous, Dieu reconnaitra les siens"--"Kill them all, God will recognize his own." And they did: the entire population of 20,000, a great many of them seeking sanctuary in the cathedral his troops torched. I'm sure we've all heard, probably at some point jokingly used the modern equivalent: "...let God sort them out." I stopped using it when I learned its origin.

    That's the "evil" for me: not the psychotic or megalomaniac--though they have their places--but the casual expedient, committed almost as an afterthought.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2011
    Amanita likes this.
  8. mythique890

    mythique890 Sage

    For me, the villain is the most difficult character to write. To write a good character, I have to be able to get into their head, and I find evil villain heads uncomfortable.

    I was asking for advice about this the other day on another forum and someone said something that struck me, which was basically, "Everyone is the hero of their own story, even, or maybe especially, the villain." Good villains don't do what they're doing because it's 'evil,' they do it because they think it's right and/or justified for them to behave in that way.

    But as far as pure evil, I actually like the villains in the "Peter and the Starcatchers" series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. In the fourth book (Peter and the Sword of Mercy) there are two characters who are evil pretty much because they get their kicks by causing pain, but they don't go around doing it all the time. That's scary to me because it happens in real life. It's very young fantasy, but they're still good. To be honest, the original reason I checked them out is because they're read by Jim Dale (audiobooks: they are how I keep my house clean without going crazy). He is the best reader ever.
  9. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Hee hee. I'm comfortable with "uncomfortable." (Usually: there is one RPG character I've been forbidden to ever play again, because of what he was doing to me....)

    I might modify the "everyone is the hero" notion slightly: I'd say that more often villains are the heroes of their own stories than heroes are. The person who questions what he's doing is far more likely to turn out heroic, on the usual construal, than the person who acts in confidence of his rightness. Even then, I'd say that's far from universal... there's no reason a villain can't believe what he's doing is "wrong," but do it anyway, for whatever rationalization or apparent justification he can adduce. History is replete with examples. (For one: Simon de Montfort's monarch purported to hate what Montfort was doing--but did nothing to stop him, and was quite happy to accept his share of the spoils of Montfort's conquests. Does that make him "evil"? Perhaps, perhaps not. Does that make him a "villain"? Probably... certainly in the eyes of some it does. For another--and at the risk of unfairly terminating this thread before it runs its natural course: a certain European nation experienced a form of collective insanity within living memory which, while it may not have made most of the individual inhabitants "evil," unquestionably made the whole a "villain" for much of the rest of the world, for quite some time. Actually, I can think of more than one that fits this description, if the "living memory" qualification is massaged only slightly....)
    UnionJane likes this.
  10. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Depicting evil? Surely not an easy task as many books failing at it show.

    I believe (and the results of some psychological experiments agree with me) that most if not all humans have a potential for evil within them. Under the right (or maybe wrong) circumstances it shows and perfectly ordinary people turn into monsters.
    As strange as it sounds, I also think that the insane serial killer who thinks of torturing children to death as an art makes people less uncomfortable than being made aware of this does. And making people uncomfortable is what evil in fantasy should do. ;)

    Therefore I like villains with backstories that make sense but don’t read as if the author tried to justify his villain’s behaviouer. Too much ambition or too strong a desire for revenge are good ways of doing this. So is any form of fanatism.
    Especially in the fanatism case the author needs to show a bit of empathy for his character. „This is just some insane follower of the religion of evil“ doesn’t work. Other people in the story can view him that well but the author should show a bit more depth. The other extreme isn’t good either, though. Something like: „Yes, he’s killing those people but he’s doing it because they’re destroying the environment and therefore it’s okay.“
    The readers must understand that these people need to be stopped but he shouldn’t forget that they’re human.
    Balancing this is the author’s task and a difficult. Someone on this forum, I think it was you, Ravana, has written an excellent post on such villains.
    That’s how intriguing evil works for many, but it is rare in fantasy works.

    Another interesting reason for doing „evil“ is tampering with powers the person can’t control. This can happen for various reasons such as ambition, curiosity or impatience and many more. Any of it can turn out very interesting.
    This is an approach, fantasy gives plenty of possibilites for and it’s more common as well, I think.
    My villains usually tend to be a combination of the two.

    I’m still trying to improve my skills in depicting them realistically, sometimes using traits of my own that might be turned to „evil“ in certain circumstances as well.
    I’m also trying to find out as much as possible about real life war criminals, torturers etc. The wars in former Yugoslawia and other conflicts of our time are my main source for this but I’m looking further back in history as well.
    It can be really shocking to read what some quite respected historical people have written about women, other ethnic groups, or their current enemy in some war. Sometimes it’s acutally hard not to get offended while doing this though, but your last post, I didn’t find offensive at all, Ravana. Did I ever come across as that sensitive, or was this sentence directed at the forums in general?

    Edit: The really common way of showing that characters are evil by introducing them doing something evil, doesn't work too well for me. The thing that stuck in my head from Bass Thunder's example was the fact the flames had green sparks in them. I've been wondering if there had some barium or copper-salts been used in the enchantement. ;)
    The death of fictional people doesn't touch me much at all, as long as the author hasn't given me any reasons why I should care about these people before.
    Therefore another common cliche, the one where the villain has killed the hero's parents, works much better for me. (If done well of course.)
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2011
  11. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    This isn't exactly all that far back into history, but you might find it informative: the complete transcripts of the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials.

    Avalon Project - Judgment of the International Military Tribunal

    Better still, for your purposes, might be the links across the top of the page: a collection of documents in, as they put it, "Law, History and Diplomacy," going all the way back to 4000 BCE. (It's a bit sparse in the 1400-1599 periods, for some reason; most of the other periods are positively loaded.) Yale has put some real effort into this site; it's well worth it for anyone interested in any of these topics. Some of which will undoubtedly creep into anybody's writing, at some point.

    There's a standard saying on internet forums that whenever someone brings up the Nazi regime, the thread is over--the idea being that at that point, whatever comparison is being made has descended into unjustifiable hyperbole. Which is usually true: in this case, though, it's actually topic-appropriate. But that was why the "risk of unfairly terminating this thread" comment. ;)
  12. Guy

    Guy Inkling

    As far as researching evil goes, some good sources are The Banality of Evil by Philip Zimbardo, pretty much anything by FBI profiler John Douglas and stories about what is currently going on in places like the Congo and Sierra Leone.

    In my stories I tend to explore the theme of what separates the hero from the villain. My conclusion is not much. Both my heros and villains possess great power. Both stuggle to control it. The hero succeeds (barely) and the villain fails. His failure is ultimately due to his refusal to honestly assess himself and he instead immerses himself in rationalizations and justifications. It is my theory that most human evil is the result of self-deception.
  13. Matty Lee

    Matty Lee Scribe

    Evil needs to be meaningful Making your villian a racist, or a rapist on the side is cheap. What is the purpose of your portraying evil? What do you think evil is? Don't necessarily show people something obvious. Everyone knows killing babies is wrong (although the people who do it and the reasons for it can be surprising) but show them an evil that they need to see, one that sneaks up on them. Your story should tell us something about evil: Why people fall into it, why they stay there, what does it feel like to be there? We should get a 360 degree view of this thing called evil.
  14. CicadaGrrl

    CicadaGrrl Troubadour

    Depends on my books, but in general, evil wants something. What makes them evil are what they are willing to do to get that. Are they willing to kill? Extinguish races? What? Occassionally, Evil characters are like the Joker--Chaos. Loki. The trickster. It doesn't matter why. Maybe it is just interesting.

    However, in general, the evil has an an agenda. The evil acts follow that agenda. The agenda is usually against the good guys' agenda. Violence--whether by the head evil or by minions, should reflect the agenda. For instance, my book, Rebirth, was just published by platteriverpress. The villain, Annie, had a child die of cancer on her. She became obsessed with raising and using an ancient celt to save her daughter. But the celt got away. Annie isn't lying down on this one, so she uses her magic to track down the celt and the characters who have taken her in. Annie has a bit of a terminator style of getting what she wants.
  15. UnionJane

    UnionJane Scribe

    For an excellent and thorough discussion of villain tropes, I recommend looking to Writing the Paranormal Novel. The way the discussion is staged makes you consider villains as characters, how they work in a story, and how to put a fresh face on them.
  16. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    That phrase is a common military comment, I knew it had an origin, now I know where. I actually thought it from the English crusades.
    It is easier to kill all then to sort out the bad. But the price in doing so is so the souls of the ones that do it.
    War creates evil, no man that considers taking anothers life in the name of duty ever views life the same.

    If you want to see evil, watch the national news daily. Evil will rear its ugly head somewhere in it. Are we more evil then any time in history? Or is it we cover more of the evil with our world news?

    Ultimate evil should be very limited just as ultimate good. There is rarely black and white, the black is not perfectly black, nor the white completely unstained. The antagonist must be in the mix somewhere, sometimes even both sides fighting for good, just a different view of good.
  17. DameiThiessen

    DameiThiessen Minstrel

    Most traditional ideas of evil in fantasy tend to fall in the "Overlord" or "Henchman" category, and depicting them usually goes along the lines of showing them mercilessly killing or torturing some poor innocent villager or something. Personally, I don't believe that pure evil exists and I prefer the term "antagonist" more than "villain". Too often you see young writers using evil as a replacement for motivation, and the antagonists really don't have much more of a reason for doing what they do other than they're the bad guy and that's what they do. But I digress.

    Some popular techniques to depict a character as evil are:
    A) Not showing them often, keeping them in the darker corners of the story where people are afraid to go. This works especially well when coupled with
    B) Making their influence known through surroundings (an evil king you never see directly, but you see evidence of his evil in the land he rules) or characters (henchmen, law enforcers, possessed persons, etc.). Think of "The Exorcist", how the demon was never seen directly, only through Regan. What it was doing to this poor little girl can only be described as evil.
    C) Personify a sin or a belief, or many. Pick something like greed, or lust, or gluttony, and show us the pain it causes other characters in the story and why it is evil. This can also become their motivation, adding some sense to the character other than "He just likes killing hundreds of people for fun because that's just what he does and he has millions of followers because they're just like that too and they're scared of him 'cause he's evil."

    It is unrealistic, lazy writing to say a character is JUST evil and that's JUST the way they are. There has to be some rhyme or reason to it or else the reader isn't engaged enough in your story, as there is no hook to keep them reading.
  18. Elder the Dwarf

    Elder the Dwarf Maester

    If any of you read Gemmel, I think he does a great job in almost all of his novels. From the way he portrays power-hungry Agamemnon in his Trojan War series to Alexander in the Lion of Macedon/Dark Prince (although Dark Prince was not one of my favorites) and especially the villains in the Drenai series. Love all of the Drenai books.
  19. Zak

    Zak Dreamer

    To avoid cliche, you must not just clothe your villain in black, have him/her kill innocent people that simply brought a bad message, and give him/her an evil laugh. You must give him different moral standards.

    You must take time when developing your antagonist, because without them, there is no story. Also, to avoid cliche, maybe you could make it unclear on who the real villain is? Possibly your protagonist is actually making the wrong moves? Is the villain really doing something evil, or something to support man(or otherwise)kind?
  20. Evil is comely. Evil is often functional. It tends to be subtle, and generally falls under the guise of wayward altruism. Hitler wasn't trying to be a monster. He sold himself as a visionary and a protector, a man of the people. He lauded a brighter, more fruitful future for mankind. More often than not, people tend to run toward true evil, praising it with every step until they see its true face, and then in cowardice continue toward it.

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