The problem with perfect characters…
Authors have been fed bad advice since the beginning of writing. One of the worst offenders, in my humble opinion, is that ‘good’ characters must be good and ‘evil’ characters must be one-hundred percent evil.
This is all wrong.
If you think about your favorite characters in movies, TV, books right now, are they perfect? Do they never do anything stupid, make mistakes, or do bad things? How believable is a character that’s totally good seem?
Want a real-world example? That person in your life who’s always happy, upbeat, bubbly, and full of energy… are they exhausting? Would you want to read an entire story based on them? I highly doubt it, because we view perfect characters as disingenuous. They feel fake. Boring. Exhausting to keep up with. They’re one-dimensional, never experience up days or down days, and otherwise leave us feeling bad about ourselves and annoyed at their constant sunshiny attitudes.
How do you avoid making characters who are all sunshine… or all darkness? By creating characters that are, like all humans that exist, some mixture of good and evil. If you’re ready to learn to create balanced characters readers will love to spend an entire book with then read this article—it might just save your characters and your story!
Characters shouldn’t be good or evil, but a mix of the two—here’s why:
Characters are a very complex topic.
Many authors think their protagonist (the main character) needs to be all good. They should be a perfect shining beacon of light in a dark and troubling world. They need to be superman, all the power in the world, no consequences, no flaws.
But the perfect main character makes for a boring read.
Here’s a secret: a bad guy with no backstory or reason for being evil is just as boring as the perfect main character.
Well, most stories have two types of conflict:
Internal Conflict and External Conflict.
These can be summed up simply by saying that internal conflict refers to each character’s struggle within themselves. External conflicts refer to the outward force exacted on characters by the world or circumstance.
So a character who has recently lost a loved one and loses the will to go on would be dealing with an internal struggle.
A character who must survive a catastrophic weather event would be facing an external struggle.
It’s important to note that there is a lot of room for crossover and most things are not strictly internal or external conflicts. For example, a character who lost a loved one and struggles emotionally might also struggle with external factors: fighting with siblings over inheritance, lack of funds to put their loved one to rest in a way that honors the deceased, or court cases if the loved one was murdered.
Likewise for our external conflict. Living through a blizzard, for example, will test a character’s internal resolve and challenge their ability to fight through pain when all seems hopeless.
Understanding conflicts can really help your story, because once you create a character, pitting them against their flaws is an excellent way to build tension.
All characters should be flawed.
Yes, even your main character. From being clumsy to being naïve, to being an alcoholic, or lacking compassion for others, flaws come in all styles and levels of evil.
A great example would be Sherlock Holms. He’s undoubtedly a sociopath, but readers love him. A seemingly bad trait makes him unique and he’s a fantastic character in spite of this flaw.
How does this equate to good and evil?
Simple. Some flaws make a character evil, right? And I’ve just proven that a rather evil flaw makes a timeless and beloved character even more amazing, right?
But here’s a little secret—everyone is a mix of good and evil.
You, your grandmother, your best friend, all of you have done good things—and evil things—in your lifetime. Because humans as a whole are naturally both good and evil, characters need to be as well. Otherwise, they’re going to either be boring to read, or they’re going to feel flat to readers.
We like complex characters. They make us feel something, or allow us to see what we don’t want to be, or allow us to feel less alone with our own internalized evils. Everyone thinks evil things, not everyone says them. So a character thinking evil thoughts while choosing to do good things adds some conflict and depth to a story and makes us feel at ease with ourselves.
How do I write a good and evil character without readers hating them?
Think about it; you’re asking readers to spend three hundred (give or take) pages with this main character you’ve created. How to you make a character who’s both good and evil that readers don’t hate?
Well, there are several modes of thinking here:
A character can internally be a jerk, but still choose to do good things. Sometimes they’ll slip up and do something evil, but so long is it’s not unforgivable, this is acceptable.
Now, there are some unique instances where characters do evil things that are considered acceptable. Dexter is a great example: he’s a forensic cleaner who murders people. When readers find out he only murders people who deserve it, they’re on the fence; is doing a bad thing for a good reason forgivable?
Generally, yes. The same question is often postulated when people ask if it’s okay to steal bread to keep yourself from starving. Now, if we take motives into it, this is a selfish, though potentially forgivable act. If they’re stealing bread to keep their child or sibling from starving, it’s bound to be viewed as a heroic act, though most people on the surface say that stealing is wrong.
Context can make evil deeds understandable, and even forgivable.
What about the villain?
You want your reader to hate the villain and want him to get what’s coming to him, right?
Let me challenge you: create a villain the readers love or love to hate. A straight up bad guy who’s evil for the fun of being evil is boring. A bad guy who is only bad because they suffer from mental illness is rather lazy writing and bound to put off readers with mental illnesses (which is a stunning amount, according to the current consensus numbers).
A bad guy who is bad because he’s experienced devastating trauma is much more interesting.
A bad guy that you understand, empathize with (and could imagine becoming if you went through what they went through) is bound to grab readers by the heart and keep them invested and flipping pages to find out what happens.
Evil characters add depth and complexity to your storyline, btu they need to be as multi-faceted as your main character. Don’t get lazy with the bad character, because your readers will notice and will likely not be happy.
But how do I choose what good or evil traits my characters should have?
Most authors like to find flaw lists. Google is great for giving us lists and lists and lists of traits for characters.
But I think that’s a backward way to handle the topic.
How do real people become flawed? Do we look at lists and pick and choose who we are?
No. We all have a backstory.
Your character should too. They should have a list of life events and how those events influenced their outlook on life, how these experiences damaged them, and what good or bad coping mechanisms they’ve picked up as a result.
Maybe your character spent their whole life being humiliated, mocked, bullied, and abused for telling the truth or being themselves. This would logically lead to a character who’s afraid to speak their mind… or someone who lies. A lot. Lying is a flaw, and one that makes a great character arc as the character comes out of their shell and learns to trust, and thus heals and becomes honest.
Or, if they’re the evil character, punish them every time they tell the truth. Increase the punishments. Making lying the only option, and second nature. Make them come to hate everyone around them and they go from lying out of fear to lying out of hate, anger, or revenge.
There are countless examples in real life, movies and TV shows, and even books. The best characters are the ones you relate to, whether they’re mostly good or mostly evil, if we can understand the character, elevates their story to a whole new level.
Readers will root for a character who shows improvement. They’ll mourn a character who grows progressively worse. Either way, you’re making them feel something.
And good writing comes down to just that: making readers feel something.
Let me say that again, louder for the people in the back.
Good writing makes readers feel something.
Readers love to experience new things. Go on fantastic adventures. Depart from the real world for a bit. But this doesn’t mean they want everything to neatly fall into place. They want their books to be as gray as real life tends to be.
Because nothing is ever simple. Our childhood bullies, they were abused at home, or bullied themselves.
That mean girl in school who put us down? She made us miserable, but all along, she hated herself.
That rich kid we envied… they didn’t have loving parents around because their parents worked all the time and they were raised by nannies.
Every experience we remember we remember from our point of view. But we’re not the only ones experiencing them. At a certain point, more self-aware people understand that the ‘evil’ characters in their real-life stories were not the evil characters in their own stories.
None of us think of ourselves as the bad guys, yet there are certainly bad guys in this world.
This is how you write characters readers love or love to hate. You make realistic characters. You make flawed characters. You make evil characters who think they’re in the right and think they are the heroes of their stories. And you write ‘good’ characters who either choose to make evil choices or have to make evil choices.
Life is complicated, people are complex, and your characters should be too.