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The Devil You Know

July 14, 2015

When I was a child and I first saw Star Wars I thought Darth Vader was really cool. He was dressed head to toe in all black and had a red lightsaber. Little me liked the color red. He seemed to make the movie for me. And I do like villains in stories more often than I like the good guy. Mostly because the villain’s the most interesting. He doesn’t live by the rules and they’re not afraid of anything. It’s not until I got older that I appreciated the subtleties in making a truly good villain in a story. There’s a few schools of thought on how to make a villain the big two are: making them as impersonal as possible for the menacing factor. Basically the true horror of their plots is that you don’t know where they’re coming from. And yes, that can be terrifying depending on the type of story you’re doing.

The other is making their background known, but if you reveal too much of a tragic life then you run the risk of making your villain seem more interesting than the hero or worse–becoming the hero of your story. And tragedy has its place in storytelling. My first example of a bad guy was a tragic hero fallen from grace and seeking redemption. I didn’t think about that when I was little; to me, he was just a cool bad guy.

I’m thinking of this now because I am currently outlining my novel and I want to come up with someone that’s a real asshole that’s just fun to despise, but I’m not sure which route to take. I could do both and give him a backstory that his mommy never loved him and his father pushed him to be the best. But that just strikes me as so dull. In my opinion the scariest kind of bad guy is the one that you know they went through a shitty upbringing, you know they had multiple opportunities to stop, and just didn’t care. They’re fine with being who they are and have no regrets. See, with a Sauron or a Palpatine you can’t reason with them because that’s who they are. They never had an opportunity to be anything more than that. They’re just evil.

However, you have just a person that cannot be reasoned with and fully fleshed out and that’s terrifying. I think that’s why I liked Vincent D’Onfrio’s portrayal of Kingpin so much. You knew precisely where he was coming from and his motivations, but he was this menacing presence because you couldn’t reason with him. It was going to be his way and whomever got in the way must be killed. That’s infinitely more scary than an evil that’s just evil to be evil.

What do you think?

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