At the moment I am watching Narcos on Netflix. It’s a fictional series based on the true events of Pablo Escobar‘s life. A number of things in series have stood out for me, as a writer.

I’ve already written about Characters Who Do Bad Things. In that post we looked at how you can draw on your own experience to create a fictional person who robs, kills or commits any other crime/sin.

This is taking things further. Here we will look at “evil”. The evil personality never looks back over their shoulder and recognises the trail of blood and suffering behind them. Their eyes are fixed ahead, ambition drowning out all remorse.

Background

You need a foundation on which to build your evil character. This is neither a criminal background nor a childhood story which rationalises their behaviour. Before they are a villain, they are a human.

In theatre, the script writer or director lets his audience know when to hiss and boo by giving his character a mark of evil. For Shakespeare’s Richard III this is a limp, a crooked back. For others it is black clothing or a scar.

Pablo Escobar

Looking at the example of Narcos (the real Pablo Escobar pictured above), the antihero is a pot-bellied, round cheeked man with an amiable personality. You cannot help feeling as if you could be friends with this guy. He is charming before he is ruthless.

While he is not deformed, that does not mean he has the cut-jaw handsomeness of a Hollywood villain. International drug traffickers tend to look like any other middle-aged businessmen. That is because they are businessmen (although they trade in drugs, exploitation and violence).

Businessman
What real villains look like (not him specifically, he’s a stock photo)

Complexity

What makes Narcos a compelling show to watch, and similar books enthralling reads, is that this likeable character does incredibly depraved acts. How can your character be the epitome of human evil, but also someone the reader feels sympathy for?

I will use another example from real life to demonstrate this. Fair warning, it is a dark topic to discuss. Disturbing.

There are individuals in the world, now and in recent history, who commit some of the worst atrocities possible. In fact, they have at times carried out every one of the most depraved acts of evil imaginable.

But when people encounter them in the news, fiction or film their first reaction is pity. They immediately sympathise with those who carry out massacres and genocides.

How can all of us not only avoid blaming mass-murderers (and worse), but actively empathise with them?

Here is an example of the sort of people we’re talking about:

Child soldier

That is not a short soldier, but a child under the age of fifteen.

Double standards

We all have double standards. Child soldiers prove this point. There are many crimes for which it is impossible to forgive an adult. We are so eager to forgive children for apparently any crime that it has become a problem.

This article was published by an NGO dedicated to protecting children’s rights. If you read it, you might also be shocked to find at the end:

“the majority of children choose to become soldiers and are real players of the conflicts”.

Perhaps you think this only refers to their willingness to be recruited, which they later regret?

“The taboo of child soldiers for armies and the simplistic vision of the phenomenon in public opinion is a major challenge in resolving the problem, because it tends to want to grant a certain immunity to child soldiers, without accounting for the complexity of the problem and the conscious will of the child soldiers.”

How to write evil

This is where you, as an author, can create profound complexity which challenges the reader’s way of thinking and makes them want to absorb as much insight from your novel as possible.

Take a persona who fits the do-no-wrong stereotype: child, beautiful woman, handsome & charming man, religious figure, political champion. Now, add the amiable personality which continues this sense of “good”.

Turn the story on its head with evil. Shock the reader by opposing the character’s personality with their actions.

There is nothing wrong with a traumatic background or circumstances beyond the character’s control which explains how their moral compass became corrupted. Every child soldier is a victim of trauma.

But keep the crucial element of conscious will. Humans are not automatons. At some point there will be a pivotal moment when the character stops thinking “I can’t” or “I have no choice”, but simply says “yes”.

Pure sympathy lets the reader off the hook easily, and nobody said we have to be nice to them.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

My books:

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10 thoughts on “Tip #35: Writing Evil

  1. What a complex and disturbing phenomenon: child soldiers. Perhaps their immature brains are able to be manipulated beyond the human moral compass. I haven’t written a really evil character, thus far. Crazy, yes. Devious, yes. Pure evil, nope. I read a book called “A Child Called ‘It'” about severe child abuse: the author’s own personal story. I remember feeling physically sick at the horrors this child suffered at the hands of his mother. It’s a morbidly fascinating read, if you have the stomach for it. Anyway, that’s the kind of person I would have to “channel” to write pure evil. I don’t know if I could do it. Excellent post.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Child soldiers are more common than we might think. In the Latin American countries, in rebel groups and insurgencies, young teens often become involved. Why? Easy enough to understand: same reason youngsters join city gangs: they get to have some measure of respect and stature, nice boots and “uniforms,” sense of belonging, “something to do” in areas where they can’t go to school. This is in recent times, not long ago. I don’t think that I could effectively write basic evil either. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A really interesting post, and very useful. It is the complexity of people (as you mentioned) that I find both interesting, and also useful in constructing bad characters. Also good ones, although that’s not the point of this thread. I am aware that each and every one of us is capable of great good, great evil, and everything inbetween. When i want to construct a bad character (I haven’t yet done pure evil), I imagine ‘what would I do under those circumstances, if I decided that my desires were all that mattered?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When the very first reports on CNN came out about Pablo Escobar, the news anchors were chatting about Escobar’s reputation as a “type of Robin Hood.” But that phrase was promptly removed from subsequent news casts. Not politically correct to make references alluding to the man’s “other” side…the rule, never suggest there is any humanity in such criminals.

    Liked by 1 person

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