When it comes to putting a perfectly nasty bad guy (or woman) into an author’s story, some writers start having problems getting the character just right. Should the villain be evil through and through; should he have distinctively bad looks or a snickering laugh; should she stand out in crowd? Just exactly how do you craft a villain that is believable, but instantly works as distasteful in the reader’s mind? (Unless, of course, the writer is penning a mystery – then you want to cast some doubt as to whether the bad guy is up to something or not.)
The first thing to remember is that, from the villain’s point of view, what he or she is doing is perfectly reasonable, even if it comes to murder. If he is trying to get access to the Pharaoh’s throne, as happens in my novel, The God’s Wife, it’s entirely reasonable for the character of Zayem to want to get it by any means possible because the prize is so rich. We may look at rape and attempted murder as going over the moral line, but to Zayem, and his scheming mother, Meryt, it’s all part of an intricately plotted plan to put Zayem next in line to rule Egypt.
If writers start making antagonists go to ridiculous lengths to get what they want – staging all-out wars, poisoning the entire palace guard – they are going to look unbelievable. Stealth and craftiness always please the reader more.
Also, while bad guys love to brag, try to avoid the chattering enemy scene that happens far too often at the climax of the book. This is where the villain ties up (or incapacitates in some way) the protagonist and then spills out the whole of his or her nasty plan while he plans to blow up the fort or wait for the train engine to run her over. It’s highly unbelievable that the antagonist would actually start blabbing like this, even though you see it in the movies all the time. It’s just a lazy way of spilling out the rest of your plot, so you don’t have to do it in your own narrative.
It’s better to show the nasty one’s plan unfolding on its own. In The God’s Wife I show Zayem and Meryt as they work on Neferet, the God’s Wife of Amun. They try to marry her off to Zayem, because anyone who marries her, in her lofty position, would be in line to be pharaoh. When Zayem’s rough style of wooing doesn’t work, he gets meaner and more violent, and I show step by step how Meryt and Zayem try to trap Neferet into an unwanted marriage.
There’s no need for him to spill out his plan. By the climax, we already know what nefarious plans he’s had.
As for looks, there’s nothing wrong with making the antagonist ugly. Zayem has horrible teeth. But there’s much to be said of the sly irony of the gorgeous, sexy bad guy, which I use in the other, contemporary part of The God’s Wife. The book is about split souls, and Neferet has a doppelgänger in the 21st century. What happens to Neferet in ancient Egypt is happening in a strange mirror image in modern times. Her Zayem is a handsome stranger named Sharif who comes and goes as he pleases and stirs up strange desires.
Never think that the evil characters in your work in progress need to be like cartoons. Fill them up with as much life as your protagonists. Give them a full range of emotions. They have needs and wants too – just not ones that are socially acceptable.
Do that, and I guarantee your writing will grow by leaps and bounds.