Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The "Bad Guys"

This has been a crazy couple weeks.

I work as a felony prosecutor in Texas.

So, I see a lot of "Bad Guys," as my kids call them.
With most defendants, I can look past the stuff they've done and see the person behind. I often still send the person behind to the pen, but even so, usually I can see the person behind, and sometimes I feel sorry for them.

But every once in a while you come across someone who has done something so terrible, so evil, it eclipses the person behind the act. They lose all status as a person who made a bad choice. They become, in the minds of anyone who knows what they've done, evil. Maybe it's a defense mechanisim we use to distance ourselves from someone who has done unspeakable things. Or who knows, maybe that act really does make a person so evil that there is nothing defining left about that person except the evil they chose.

This past week, I saw evil. I will not burden anyone else with details of that evil, even second hand. But, it wasn't bad choices, or acts of frustration, or lack of choice or insanity. It was pure, chosen, deliberate, uncomprehendable evil. And like evil does, it tortured and destroyed the helpless, the innocent.

Dealing with evil makes me exhausted, and somewhat hopeless. Every time I think surely there could not possibly be another living person as depraved. Then, I get proof that there is.

It makes me angry, and it makes me afraid for the children I have brought into this world, who are helpless and innocent right now. I desperately want to shield them from ever having to face evil. Always, even when they're grown, and no longer helpless or innocent.

So, to avoid dwelling on gruesome details, on the flashes of horror that play in my head after a brush with evil, I try to intellectualize it. Make it acedemic.

Which means I now have a debate going with myself. Which is more effective as an antagonist in fiction? The person who makes bad choices, who you can understand even when you disapprove of their acts? Or the person who has chosen to do such evil things that they are what they do--simply, incomprehendably, evil. The reader cannot identify with them as anything but the big bad.

And finally, is evil contagious? Does it spread? It doesn't usually in fiction. But in life? I'm not so sure.


  1. It's hard to make the antag pure evil and keep them human. Mostly you need to bestialize them and morph them into a monster, something that no longer looks or acts human, or maybe transpose the character onto an animal, such as Jaws or Cujo.

    Or maybe possess them with a monster such as The Exorcist.

    Take the characters in Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal was gruesome, but he was a gentleman, and he cared genuinely for Claire. He was still human.

    James, the bad-guy missing an S on his name that freaking almost made me burn the book, and I still can't write his character name without cringing (still wrote it as James), he was a child-like simpleton with a warped obsession, but still human. Remember his little dog? There was humanity left in him. He wasn't completely drained.

    I pondered this topic on an earlier post, how we make our bad-guys somewhat attractive, often alluring, especially with vampires. It's to humanize them so we can relate.

    When the antag becomes pure evil, de-humanized, and they are still in human form, then we ourselves start to feel like the monster, because those monsters look just like you and me.

    That's not a good thing to inspire in the reader.

    - Eric

  2. I was trying to think of a human character in anything I've ever read who was pure evil. No humanity left.
    I couldn't come up with one. Sometimes we don't get the explanation of why, but there are still sparks of humanity--something redeeming is left.
    I think you're right--writing the antagonist any other way just makes it too much for the reader. And I guess even in life, evil has a mother who once loved it.
    Thanks for commenting--your comments are always interesting and well thought out.