When we meet characters on the page for the first time, it’s much like greeting new people in real life. We size them up based on the words the author uses, items strung together that fuel our imaginations, and we compartmentalize them. Do we like them? Or, do we relegate them to that place we slot people we don’t like in real life?
In fiction, there’s a lot of pressure to create clearly likable characters, people readers can root for, cry with and cheer along. If the reader doesn’t care about a character, they won’t turn the page. It’s easy to make a reader care about good people. They’re noble. Maybe they’re flawed, but in an appealing, relatable way that gets readers invested in the story.
But what about villains? Shouldn’t the reader care about them, too? Because I’ve always loved me some bad boys, I heartily assert that yes, they should care.
Bad people are trickier to write with nuance, because the reader is predisposed to dislike them. Anything the character does that is outside of the reader’s idea of ‘what is right/fair/just/acceptable’ risks aliening a whole segment of readers from the story. If a bad character can seduce readers in a believable way, it makes the story multi-dimensional. If I can make a reader relate to a bad character, I have a little internal celebration. Sympathetic bad people are writing crack to me.
I spent much of my earlier life on stage and only started writing again two-and-a-half years ago. I can’t help but approach writing as a student of theater. Some of my methods of character development incorporate theatrical tools. When I portrayed a character on stage, I always did a lot of homework outside rehearsal to achieve the desired performance. Here are a few tools that help me create complex bad characters, though they can work for any character.
Most people are not born villains (psycho/sociopaths excepted.) It is far more common for a thief to steal something trivial at first, for a murderer to commit a passionate act without thought of consequences, for a liar to grow their deviant art over time. When I decide where those things happened with a character and map a trajectory, I can always work in words and phrases that allude to that ‘sunlit time before she was a bad, bad person.’
Decide what’s to love about the character. As a writer, I love every character I create. If I don’t love her, I can’t make the reader hate her. With one bad character, I loved her sense of style and envied the way she carried herself. She was grace in the midst of chaos. In another case, I admired a bad guy for going for a noble dream, and I felt his heartbreak when he compromised.
People usually have reasons for what they do. As the writer, I have to know those reasons and build them into a believable motivation. A character becomes more complex when they don’t choose obvious motivations. Torturers do not have to enjoy what they do. People who embezzle aren’t always greedy. Mothers can make selfish short-term bargains for their children, thinking they will be able to better provide for them in the end.
Think of life examples. While I don’t base characters on a specific person, I do borrow from experience. If I know someone who has struggled with a particular issue, I interview that person for motivational clues. I study my own encounters with bad people, and I objectively try to understand the situation from their points of view. When I really inhabit a character, I can take a reader anywhere.
Throughout life, real people do good things and bad things. They dream of taking action but resist the impulse. In that teetering place in my own psyche, I usually find the perfect character in the person I could’ve been if I’d made a different choice.