Bad Guys II: How Do They Think?

Posted: October 9th, 2014 under Craft.

“The line between good and evil,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “runs right down the middle of every human heart.” That’s a starting point, but some people have that line apparently stuck closer to one side than the other. In a society where honesty is prized, how does a dishonest bad guy justify dishonesty to himself or herself? In a society where kindness is prized, how does someone justify cruelty? Or, conversely, in a society where cruelty is prized, how does someone justify kindness? From the point of view of a storyteller, a bad guy character is a character and that means the bad guy has agency–acts for reasons that make bad-guy sense. Saving the mentally ill bad guy, bad guys use the same internal thinking processes (but not outcomes) as good guys. That’s what this post is about: how do bad guys come to the decisions and behaviors they exhibit in a story–the ones that define them as bad guys?

One way to consider bad guys is to take another look at good guys. What is “good” anyway? Traditionally, lists of virtues have been used to describe good behavior. Courage or fortitude, without which no other virtues can be sustained in difficulty. Prudence, the ability to gauge the likely outcome of behavior and thus consider whether an action will produce a good effect. Temperance, the ability to manage one’s own emotional state so as to think clearly and act rationally. Justice, the ability to see what is fair, especially in balancing one’s own needs and desires against those of others. Others have been added by various religions and cultures. Faith, hope, charity, modesty, humility, kindness, cheerfulness, and on and on. But from the point of view of a writer, you can get a lot of good bad-guy motivation out of character problems relating to the cardinal virtues plus some basic tools from 20th century psychology.

Let’s take the virtues first and consider how, in a bad guy, something goes awry with them. The opposite of courage is cowardice, or uncontrollable fear. A bad guy who is terrified of something will do anything to escape it: will both refuse to do something that risks him or her, or actively do bad things to avoid the threat of what he or she fears. A person overcome with fear will trample someone else to get away from danger, will kill someone else on command to save his/her own life or the life of someone he/she cares about. Bad guys like this can be controlled easily by worse-guys. This is why courage is often considered the root virtue, because it takes courage to hold to any other virtue. Second-level and minor bad guys are believable motivated by fear-for themselves or someone else. The less courage they have, the more easily they’re manipulated. Fear contaminates thinking (as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer…the little death that brings total obliteration…”) Fear is one of the primary emotions, flooding the brain and body with stress chemicals. If the fear is strong enough, it is impossible to gather and evaluate data, impossible to follow the demands of logic.

Prudence. Prudence has a prissy sound these days, but it’s actually related to, of all things, engineering, via both planning and failure analysis. Prudence is a way of foreseeing outcomes, and then choosing the best one. Setting the breakables out of reach of small children–and teaching them not to set their glass on the very edge of the table. Prudence has several opposites: lack of foresight, carelessness, haste (which interferes with analyzing the possibilities), recklessness. But prudence requires the ability to think ahead–something not everyone has (children are born capable of fear, but not prudence) and not something every child is taught, depending on their family and cultural values. Since prudence is not innate, a child must be capable of learning it, and must be taught it. Like all learned skills, prudence is not automatically generalized from one situation to another. Someone can be prudent with money, but reckless with personal safety in one way or another–or the reverse. A crook without prudence may not have prepared another escape route, or may take an obviously identifiable stolen object to a flea market. Minor bad guys in a story may be deficient in prudence because they’re not capable of thinking ahead, carelessness, or recklessness. But your major, first-class bad-guy will not have gotten to the position of power/wealth/strength presently held by lacking all prudence. The main antagonist will be able to plan, sensibly cautious, and become reckless to a dangerous degree only when he or she has amassed enough power to be overconfident.

Temperance. Temperance is necessary for self-discipline, and thus a lack of it means discipline falls apart. Bad guys deficient in temperance cannot control themselves–if not in all areas of their life, in some of them. Their performance varies markedly with their feelings of the moment. They’re handy in stories, because they reveal Bigger Bad Guy’s secrets inadvertently to canny allies of the protagonist when they’re drunk, angry, or taunting good guy’s allies. Main antagonist-level bad guys have a measure of self-discipline (and temperance) but may also have learned that being perceived as explosive personalities helps keep subordinates in line. In real life there have been very successful bad guys who–in respect to anger–had no discernible controls. But anger, like fear, clouds thinking: bad guys who operate out of either of these emotions will make serious errors in time. Temperance, like prudence, is not innate–and like prudence, some individuals cannot learn it, even with the best examples and instruction. It’s also culturally variable–some cultures expect more self-control than others, and all expect different amounts from different subsets of the culture. (In creating fictional cultures, play around with this. Who is allowed to be emotional–and which emotions–in public? Who isn’t? In our culture, anger and grief are gendered emotions: men can show anger; women are not supposed to. Women can cry; men are not supposed to. Though this is changing, that division is still strong.)

Justice. Since justice requires the ability to balance one’s own wants and needs against those of others to achieve fairness–and that requires other cognitive and emotional and cultural components, justice is an easy virtue to lose (or never have in the first place.) And yet we now know that animals below the level of primates, let alone humans, have an innate feel for what is fair. It’s not always the same, but it’s always based on tit for tat, the kindergarten level “One for me, one for you.” Culturally, “fairness” and ‘unfairness” are perceived differently from culture to culture, and within cultures by each segment of it. One of the commonest causes of disputes among children is violation of their understanding of fairness, whether in a game, in the division of cookies, or treatment by adults. But–and this is critical to understanding bad guys–their naive understanding of fairness–the inborn part–is easily, in humans, converted to a cultural definition, while still, underneath, the biological tit-for-tat is still operating at the emotional level, producing those stress chemicals that underlie both fear and anger. A child may learn–and appear to accept–that one gender is privileged over the other, that one skin color is privileged over the other, that the rich are entitled to walk proud and sneer at the poor, but the child who is not privileged will harbor that biological urge to make things fair, one way or another. Similarly, the privileged child may conclude that he/she deserves everything, not just a larger share. Perceptions of unfairness drive a lot of bad-guy behavior in real life and in fiction. At the mental-illness end, extreme narcissism fuels a drive to power and control, and in sociopathy and psychopathy destroys any feeling that the rest of the people are as real as the big bad guy.

Naturally, in a story you’re not going to lay all this out in case histories…not in the story proper, at least. But even these four virtues and their lacks, provide both conscious and semi-conscious motivations for a wide variety of bad-guy behavior. The excuses people make to themselves about their behavior relate to one or more of these, as much as to the positive vices of greed, selfishness, cruelty, etc. “I was scared–he said he’d beat me up after school if I didn’t steal Sam’s pen.” “I didn’t know the bullet would go that far–it’s not really my fault–” “I was angry–I wasn’t myself–I didn’t mean to really hurt her.” “It’s not fair, the way they treat us. The way I see it, I *earned* that copper wire.” Mixed excuses–those that draw upon excuses from several missing virtues–are common: “I didn’t know the bullet would go that far, and anyway it’s not fair for people to build houses so close to the woods.” Bad guys frequently deny the reality of their mistake (“It wasn’t me!” “It was an accident.”) or deny the reality of the good/bad standard altogether.

Good-guys can and do sometimes behave like bad guys, but one difference is that good guys own their mistakes–they see them, admit them, connect their behavior to the sources of their error, and don’t do that again. They aren’t perfect by any means, but they have enough of these virtues to function, on the whole, as good guys, and they know (and admit to themselves) when they’ve screwed up.

Next time: how some knowledge of modern psychology can help you write good bad guys, and the pitfalls of confusing psychoanalysis with characterization.


  • Comment by Iphinome — October 9, 2014 @ 6:35 pm


    *sings* The seven deadly virtues those nasty little traps oh no my liege they were not meant for me.

  • Comment by Oz Ozzie — October 9, 2014 @ 6:58 pm


    In the real world, badness is not so constrained – mostly, people who are sort of well intentioned but motivated by different outcomes get in the way of your own mostly not so badly intentioned goals.

    That’s harder to write though.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 9, 2014 @ 8:47 pm


    Iphinome: I remember that song. I wanted to like all that music, but I had a problem with it. Already a history major.

    Oz Ozzie: I’m talking about the craft of writing, which is based on, but different from, everyday reality.

  • Comment by Iphinome — October 9, 2014 @ 9:25 pm


    I understand how that would be a problem. There’s nothing historically accurate about Camelot.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 9, 2014 @ 10:31 pm


    Also I didn’t like the guy–I forget his name–who kept showing up on television to sing some of the songs–he was supposedly a heart throb actor/singer but he gave me heartburn. I don’t remember which character he played, or even if he was in the original production (yes, I AM getting older–also I used to walk out of the room when he came on because I hated his voice, his smirk, even the way he walked.

  • Comment by Amy — October 10, 2014 @ 1:45 am


    Robert Goulet?

  • Comment by Oz Ozzie — October 10, 2014 @ 7:01 am


    “I’m talking about the craft of writing, which is based on, but different from, everyday reality”

    I know. interesting isn’t it. But is it wrong to write it? The craft of writing sort of divides the world into good vs bad, which we like to read about, but it also feeds our problems in the real world, I think.

    I’m particularly interested in the notion of being ‘outside’ – there’s an inherent danger in this – it’s easier to fall when you are outside the structures of society, but it’s also easier to do the right thing. Maybe this is why the dragon is obsessed with wisdom…

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 10, 2014 @ 7:32 am


    Amy: That’s it, I think. Thank you.

  • Comment by Annabel — October 10, 2014 @ 10:45 am


    And then there are the bad guys who are “just obeying orders”, and carefully not thinking about what they are actually doing.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 10, 2014 @ 10:53 am


    Annabel: They are, however, thinking about those orders, who gave them, and why they have to obey that person. Layers and layers–motivation is–except in rare circumstances–one simple thing. Hungry–>drive to take-out place–>get hamburger, fries, drink. There are choices, and competing pressures, at every decision point.

    Mostly readers do not need to be told, or even shown, all the motivations: readers have enough experience of the world to make up plausible motives for ordinary people doing ordinary things. They become participants in the story that way. But more important characters’ motivations should be revealed over time, as needed. Not in a psychological infodump, but bit by bit.

    Of course, this requires readers who will read more accurately, more deeply, than some do.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 10, 2014 @ 12:31 pm


    Oz Ozzie: It is wrong to write fiction? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the craft of writing divides the world into good v. bad (although some writers to)–personally, I divide it into far more pieces than that, with a lot of flow between them. Which is why, in the kind of writing I enjoy, it’s possible to explore more variations on more themes. Unfortunately the “black & white v. shades of gray” thing got started back when I was a kid, and I’m definitely a full-color-vision person…there’s not just black and white, but violet, blue violet, blue, blue green, green, yellow-green, yellow, orange, red, purple-red and all the shades in between. It’s the variety and complexity of behavior and motivation that fascinate me.

    One of the curious things about someone feeling like an outsider is that it’s not the same thing as being outside…and both the person within a defined group and the one outside face challenges in doing the right thing–among them, deciding what the right thing is. We are all outside something, and inside something else–I’ve been an outsider all my life, except that in other things I’m an insider. In some of the places where I’m considered an insider, I feel like an outsider still. Through life most people in US society shift from one affiliation to another, but some affiliations we can’t change (race, for instance) without the assistance of a different affiliation. But in and out of neighborhoods, occupations, regions of the country. Where I grew up, among diverse cultures, “the right thing” depended on whose house you were in at the moment.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — October 10, 2014 @ 2:02 pm


    While it is true that Ms. Moon uses the device of good vs evil, there is much more to the stories than just good people fighting bad people. The day to day problems of Paks and all the others are quite an important part of the writing. The creation of a plausible world is worth reading for itself – indeed, much of the desire for more of Ms. Moon’s writing is not so much to learn how the not so main characters fight evil but how they grew into what they became.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — October 10, 2014 @ 2:06 pm


    Typo? “Women can dry; men are not supposed to.” Feel free to drop this comment Elizabeth.

  • Comment by Suburbanbanshee — October 11, 2014 @ 12:17 am


    People who just have different goals or who just get in each others’ way are not bad guys. They are antagonists or even enemies, but not bad guys. There’s a difference, both in fiction and in life. Similarly, a bad guy with the same goal as you, who is on your side, is still a bad guy.

    And if you don’t believe that evil people exist, I’m sure you don’t read either true crime or international news.

  • Comment by Iphinome — October 11, 2014 @ 7:09 am


    For what it’s worth this was the best rendition of the song I found on youtube.

  • Comment by greycats — October 12, 2014 @ 3:07 am


    Mostly we already know what evil is and have little trouble identifying a villain early on. Some writers dislike leaving the matter to chance, however. In Jack Vance’s Demon Princes, the first volume, one of the characters defines the evil man as one “who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.” It’s a shoestring definition, but it works well enough–especially if one (a reader or a character) has to decide who’s evil and who’s not in a limited time frame.

    Bad guys have character traits (those inverted virtues) that impel them to do bad things. Depending on the type of narrative, the reader may or may not need to know why the baddie is doing those things and they don’t have to be big things, at least initially. We’re not surprised when Barra turns bad because we know that she had been “prickly,” always hurting people, long before she did anything overtly awful.

  • Comment by Victoria Wehe — October 12, 2014 @ 5:14 pm


    Roddy McDowell as Mordred sings the 7 Deadly

  • Comment by Iphinome — October 13, 2014 @ 6:38 pm


    @Victoria Wehe But Robert Goulet was Lancelot Du Lac so it would make sense that he’d have been on TV singing songs from the show.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 15, 2014 @ 7:10 am


    I like your comment on justice and the innate sense of “fair”. In fiction, negotiating justice is one of the major plot driving forces that separates the good guys from the bad guys, and so also a way to reveal character.

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