I remember from times long past, sitting with my family at a gate in a terminal waiting to board a flight to wherever we were going and carefully studying all the people who arrived at the same gate we were at. I used to look through the growing crowd to pick out who the most likely hijacker would be. Not a normal diversion for a young lad, but I was well-behaved. Much later on in life, as I sat awaiting a connecting flight to Hawai’i, I came to the sad conclusion that I was the most likely would-be hijacker. The rest were either too young, too old, or too newly-wed. I think it was at that point that a shift in my way of viewing the world occurred. I stopped watching the world go by as a spectator, and jumped headlong into the persona of the villain of a story. In short, I began to view people I saw everywhere as my victims. Please bear in mind that I am, in fact, a devout pacifist. Violence begets violence; no good can come of it.
Nonetheless, this study in evil, as I sometimes refer to it, serves as a great writing exercise. Most novels contain some form of antagonist (I say most because of Vonnegut). I like to believe that all characters are in some way evil. Some are compelled into evil, like MacBeth, or Richard III, or Bunnicula (oh, God! – those poor vegetables!). But to my mind, the best antagonists are evil for no other purpose than being evil. How many kids did you grow up with named “Iago?” – That’s what I thought.
Characters who are monomaniacally evil are far more fun to write of because they have an unlimited capacity for doing bad things. Bad things don’t have to be hijackings, of course. They can be simple, elegant, and timeless. Betrayal is a great example; tax evasion, not so much. How many times in literary fiction, movies, television and even reality have we seen betrayal? And yet the betrayed are always so unsuspecting.
How many of your favorite books would be so great or memorable were it not for the antagonists (leave Vonnegut out of this)? The next time a character in your novel does something truly despicable or dastardly, mark it. Enjoy it. Toast it.