Peggy Bechko: Into the Heart of Darkness


by Peggy Bechko

Our fiction writing, whether it be novels, short stories, screen scripts or whatever, needs good guys and bad guys. Either one can be very tricky, but for now let’s tackle the villain.

How easy is it to make your villain an unrepentant, painted-black totally negative figure with absolutely no redeeming features who no one can stand to be around? How easy is it to make it so that that ‘bad guy’ (or woman) makes very choice on the dark side, is so vile and depraved that he or she feels no remorse for what’s been done – ever – doesn’t car who gets hurt and manipulates and exploits every person, plant or animal that gets in the way?

Too easy.

Yep, at that point the writer has created a character who is so negative, so isolated, so unempathetic and terrible, so unbalanced that that character causes the reader (of book or script) to disconnect. Why? Because in real life the reader wouldn’t be able to grasp what anyone would see in this character. The reader can’t relate at all to that kind of villain’s goals or needs. And who the heck would care about his or her desires? No, this character has gone over the edge (egged on by the writer). This character can ruin your whole story.

What, you say? A serial murderer is a dark and tainted soul. Yep, that’s right, but if you’ll remember, most times that serial murder has a kitten, or he stops in the street to help an old lady across (presuming his target isn’t old ladies) or in his spare time he writes poetry or builds ships in bottles.

When you supply a dark character (no matter how unlikeable a character you’ve created) with a positive or redeeming attribute or two, something totally at odds with the ‘dark side’ of that character’s nature, you pen a more realistic and intriguing character.

Of course you don’t want your reader to applaud and cheer for the villain of your piece, but you do want to draw them into the story, get them to dig deep into their own psyches and understand, or make some attempt at it, what made him the dark soul that he is. When you create your darker characters don’t hesitate to reveal quirks, passions or sensitivities, maybe even amusing neuroses. Choose something, or maybe several somethings (but don’t go overboard) and let the reader into the mind of your characters. In the case of scripts you have to give visuals so the ‘reader’ is inclined to pass your script along but the tips here hold true.

Always look for balance. The ‘scales’ can tip back and forth, but if you, as the writer, don’t create a world and characters the readers can relate to in some fashion, then you lose them. And losing them isn’t good.

So, consider this post a reminder. Make your characters human. Even the dark and nasty ones. Most ‘bad guys have had family (they didn’t spring from an egg somewhere), possibly friends and pets; maybe the love of music or watercolors.

Give them a spark of light and all that darkness will be even more intense and intriguing.

Now go create a real villain, one who when he goes down you ask, “but who’s going to take care of the kitten?”