Want to Portray Evil? Keep Your Distance.

lecterWriting about bad guys can be tough because most of us are not bad guys and we don’t think like that. We have a hard time even imagining how a villain thinks. Yet, in many genres bad guys are necessary to the plot. So, how to portray them successfully.

What we have noticed about some of the bad guys that cross our desks is that they become unthreatening if the author tries to share their thought processes. It is really hard to be chilling and think about your mother, for instance. Yet probably, bad guys do think about their mothers. They likely have all sorts of mundane thoughts. That doesn’t work for the purposes of good fiction.

This may not be a universal truth but some of the really great bad guys of our times are observed entirely from outside. When FBI agent Clarice Starling first meets Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, he has been given a big build up. His security is extra tight; he looks at people like a “bird at a worm,” etc. Then all author Thomas Harris has to do is show him to chilling effect:

“Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand…

“Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

“She came measured distance closer to the bars. The hair on her forearms rose and pressed against her sleeves.”

In the last chapter of the book when Lecter escapes and is alone, Harris again resists the temptation to get very deeply into his head. Lecter refuses to taste the wine brought to him by room service because he finds the smell of the waiter’s watchband distasteful. He reflects on his appearance and the silicone injections he is giving himself to alter it. He thinks about how he will pay his hotel bill. And then he sits down to write some letters.

What he isn’t is self-reflective. He doesn’t think about his motivation or his goals or his intent. Of course, Harris is setting him up for sequels but even so, what makes a villain of this magnitude is that he is as bad as the reader’s imagination and not a personality imposed by the writer.