The Best Bad Guys

When I was in sixth grade, my classmates and I learned all about melodramas, those stories where an obvious hero saves an obvious damsel in distress from an obvious cackling, mustache-twisting villain. I remember having to create melodramas, which is funny to ponder now as an adult, knowing twelve-year-olds don’t need help creating drama. Maybe the teachers assigned this particular task so we could clearly identify protagonists and antagonists, no matter how cheesy the result.

ImageI’ve read several posts that say your bad guy can’t be all bad, which makes sense. No one, unless they’re a complete psychopath, I suppose, is 100% bad. I really got to thinking about this last night when I came home to my husband watching Gladiator. Obviously, Commodus was a wickedly bad guy. If he had a mustache, he would be twisting it. I started trying to find his good points. He wanted to rule Rome, but why? He wanted to be remembered as great, but how?

Think of the stories you know with obvious antagonists: Voldemort, Darth Vader, The Joker, The White Witch. What was their higher purpose? If their primary job was just to make life hell for the protagonists, they wouldn’t have been very interesting.

My favorite antagonists are those who are less obvious: Magneto (he’s Professor X’s buddy, for crying out loud), Megamind, Gru, and Elsa.

Yes, I said Elsa. Did you know your daughters were idolizing a bad guy? Granted, she didn’t know she almost destroyed her little town. Back up, though. Our protagonist is Anna, and in every moment after Elsa accidentally ice-shot her in the head, Elsa made Anna’s life difficult. Snowman? No. Party? Let’s not. That guy you just met? Marrying him would be a bad idea (even though everyone agreed, she still got in Anna’s way). I think Elsa’s character is the primary reason Frozen is such a compelling story. After Hans gives us a more tangible bad guy to loathe, Elsa has to rise above herself and be the hero. Brilliant.

Gru put us in the awkward position of rooting for the bad guy. He wants to steal the moon? That’s horrible! But he has to be more horrible than Vector! Magneto’s fighting for the well-being of his own kind – that’s noble, right?

I think the best antagonists are the ones that make us question our own moral codes, who make us analyze our possibly black-and-white categorizations of “good” and “bad”.

Do you agree? Who are your favorite antagonists?


2 thoughts on “The Best Bad Guys

  1. I’m not sure I need good qualities in a bad guy. I hear it makes them better, too, but does it really?

    We root for bad guys all the time – if they’re charming. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Ray Lotta’s character in Goodfellas, MICHEAL CORLEONE – all bad guys. (Michael has his own brother Fredo killed, for Peters’ sake.)

    Tony Montana… Hmm. Another Pacino character, so there’s that, but Tony was probably a bad guy without redemption. The only thing I can think of was that he put on that hat to make Michelle Pfeiffer laugh when he first went to pick her up in a car she described as a “nightmare.” Otherwise, all bad.

    I believe even Satan was a fallen angel, so he was good once…

    So while a bad guy might be a better bad guy if he’s got some good qualities, if he/she has too many qualities they can be the hero.

    But what was Freddy Kruger’s redeeming quality? Or the bad guy from No Country For Old Men – that dude was seriously bad. I think he had zero redeeming qualities. He may not even have bathed.

    I’m pretty sure he bad guy from Silence of the Lambs was eerily bad. He tortured and killed young women and danced naked in a very bizarre fashion while doing so. He raised moths for fun. That’s freaking evil-bad.

    The shark in Jaws was the ultimate bad guy, ZERO redeeming qualities or higher purpose. He just ate everything he saw. The girl, a license plate, Quint’s boat. he tried to eat the protagonist, Chief Brody. And people have nightmares to this day about going swimming, (even in bathtubs).

    I can see it both ways, is what I’m saying. I’ve written bad guys who I don’t think had redeeming qualities, they just felt like they got screwed over by the protagonist. My current bad guy is just greedy. He’s out for himself, and if kicking a puppy would advance his goal, he’d do it. Does he know he’s bad? Yes. Does he care? Hell no.

    Your bad guy can’t be all bad? That’s different from saying he has a higher purpose. Commodus had no good points. He killed his dad. He wanted to do it with his sister. He wanted to rule Rome because he was greedy. Even his name sounds like a toilet: commode-us. That’s how bad he was. Toilet-naming bad, by his own parents.

    The bad guy existing only to hurt the good guy, no, but only because that’s unrealistic… but the guy in the black hat and twisty mustache from 6th grade is remembered 20+ years later, isn’t he?

    Gru developed redeeming qualities, that’s why we liked him – and why he kinda became a not so bad guy.

    Bad guys are bad. They may have a reason to be going after the good guys, but redeeming qualities only make them a little more interesting if you can’t find something eviler for them to do. Like torturing and killing young women while dancing naked and raising moths. Or trying to eat Chief Brody.


    • The shark from Jaws…really?
      Commodus wasn’t bad in his own mind. He thought he’d make Rome great, even if his methods were batshit crazy. They don’t need to be redeeming to us, just to themselves.
      I would agree that Freddie Kruger and Silence of the Lambs guy were complete psychos. But those are rare. What would our stories be like if every bad guy were like that?


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