Making a most-excellent devious character

I have been slipping into the head and heart of one of my character’s, the one I think of as, ‘the evil doctor’.  What stops me lately is the need to stop and look into his past, as most of us often do in our daily lives.  I’ve been wondering how much of his origins, weaknesses and humanity to reveal.  Yes, the story needs to move forward, but he has to be fleshed out.

I’ve considered the classic bad characters I love, and my favorites are the ones where I’ve been shown some, albeit tiny, sliver of humanity.  A wavering in that last step to killing everyone and dominating the world, as it were.  Even if they aren’t my favorite characters up until then, their last actions stay with me long after the story is over.

In books, writers tend to hide the human side of a bad guy a bit more, and instead, offer up a less evil character as a sidekick of sorts.  Often it’s an underling, not just a scapegoat, but someone who’s got a hand in the pie as well.  For example, I never find myself rooting for or wanting to know more of Bob Ewell, who knowingly accuses an innocent man of rape, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s crystal clear he isn’t going to be anything but a lying coward.  However, I do feel sympathy for his daughter, Mayella.  Why should I?  Because she grows flowers in her dismal corner of the world in search of some beauty?  Because she’s young?  Because she’s also the victim of her father?  Yes, yes, and yes.  If the first two don’t get you, the last one just might.  In the end though, she doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing, and she remains on the dark side.

If I want to look at a truly nasty piece of work, there’s old Bob Ewell. Why don’t I give a fig for Bob?  Because I’m only shown what amounts to felony child rape, perjury and bigotry for his part.  Someone to despise, pure and simple.  When the writer takes an unflinching look at a truly evil character, that’s what makes it feel as if I’m behind their eyes, cringing, as evil deeds are done.

Does there need to be a truly horrific bad guy, and a slightly less evil character, to give the reader free rein with their hatred?  Would readers hate Joffrey, of George R.R. Martin’s, Game of Thrones less, if we didn’t have The Dog to demonstrate simple kindness once in a while to make Joff look worse?

Who are some of your favorite literary bad guys and gals and what makes you think of them after the story is over?  Do you root for them?  Or simply revel in the danger they create for the main characters?

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