No matter how cynical of a person you may think you are, there is still something inside, perhaps buried very deep, under a week’s worth of dirty clothes and fast food wrappers, that enables you to believe that there is at least a small percentage of ‘good’ that inhabits other members of the human race. Now, before you protest and start rambling off examples of people that, in your mind or in the eyes of society, are deemed to be ‘pure evil,’ I want you really think about whomever you were going to say. Were they married? Did they have families? Children? Did they take care of an ailing parent? Have pets?
Then look at pop culture. In Star Wars, the biggest, baddest, well, bad guy, was at one time a loving husband and in the end (*spoiler*) he showed that the good in him could be brought back up to the surface for the love of his son. The show Dexter taught us that serial killers are simply misunderstood and that there are good ones among them. (I was slightly disturbed that I was rooting for him by the end of the first episode.) We are taught that every single one of us has at least a certain percentile of what is considered ‘goodness’ and we find comfort in that.
We are able to close our eyes at night and sleep fit in the knowledge that our 10 year old isn’t going to slit our throats in the middle of the night. We go to the grocery store believing that the little old lady that just scooted past us, leaning heavily on her cart, isn’t strapped with a bomb that will level a city block. We trust the teachers at our children’s schools, the bus drivers, the fast food worker flipping our burgers. Why? Because there is no one that is all bad. Right?
But, for story purposes, what if there was actually someone out there that had no spark of light that could be conceived as ‘good’? The thing is, this is multifaceted. We need to push past all of our upbringing that there no one is ‘all bad.’ But, let’s say we do decide to try to create a character that is evil in its purest form. How did this person get to where they are today? Are they 15 years old? 25? 85? How did they get to be 45 years of age without it being discovered that they were cold, empty, and completely devoid of any type of sympathy or empathy? Is something like that even possible?
Then we have to look at motive. So much of what we construe as evil stems from an event or series of events that happened to our character to become the reason for the evil act. A lot of people that abuse others were once abused themselves. Others do evil acts in the name of religion. Some people do thing because voices in their heads tell them to. Do any of these reasons make these people truly evil? Or simply twisted into doing evil acts based on events in their past or for psychological reasons?
My point is that evil just isn’t as evil as it used to be. We’ve broken it down scientifically, gave excuses, found reasons and invented drugs to curb feeling and urges that make people, well, bad. We feel bad for them, we sympathize with them, we humanize them and strive to help them. But how do you create a truly evil character? Is it even possible? Then it begs the question: what is the definition of evil? Does the crime determine the level of evilness that someone has within them? Can an act be evil but the person is not?
These are all questions that need to be addressed individually, depending on the type of story that you are writing and just how deep down the rabbit hole you are willing to venture. While creating ‘sympathy for the devil’ may be what is popular right now, I have to ask what made it that way. Was it science? Was it the need to be assured that in the end, everything will work out because, gosh darn it, no one is all bad, right? Some writers, directors, move makers, think that if you throw enough blood and gore at something that it will make it more evil, more nefarious. I don’t believe that to be true. Again, the act may be more vile, not necessarily the person behind it.
Just one more quick thing. Who determines how bad a person is? The mother of the offender? The sister? The wife? The child of the victim? The prosecutor? I suppose in the end, it is all a matter of perspective.
I personally believe that there are a very select few that are evil, let’s say, a 9 on a scale of 10. But that’s an awful percentage to play Russian Roulette with. Alas, here is the true question: how do we tell which ones are the 2s and which are the 9s and how do we use that to our advantage in our writing?