Just like the hero needs some weaknesses to be relatable to, the bad guy needs some redeeming qualities. Otherwise, they become a two dimensional cutout and when they’re gone, they’re gone, and quickly become forgotten.
To write a good bad guy, we need to understand that even the worst people in the world have something that makes them human. Hitler, undoubtedly one of the biggest monsters that ever walked this planet, liked dogs for instance. Others might be devoted family men despite being a serial killer. So, someplace, somewhere, each bad guy we create has to have some human elements about them just so we can see something in them more than a two dimensional card board cut out. At the very least, we want to be able to look into their eyes, so to speak, and see someone looking back.
As a police officer, I became very aware that each person I ever arrested had some humanity to them (with the possible exception of one person, and in retrospect, I know what his deal was). We had one guy in town that had graduated at the top of the class, went to Vietnam, and came back addicted and generally regarded as the screw up of the century. He was a drunk, did stupid stuff (like stole the moneybox at a dance, right in front of everyone) and was generally looked down on by the community. Yet this man was also one of the most generous souls I’ve ever met. If you needed a coat, he’d give you his without a seconds thought about it. His word meant something also. The man was incapable of telling a lie, or if he told you he’d do something he did. He once called me and said he’d heard there was a warrant out for him. I confirmed there was. He said he’d be down at 7 AM the next day to take care of it. He was there at 6:59. It was the differences that made him interesting as a person.
I was rewriting the section in the Lawman when I realized I’d done just that. In it, Max has just killed his wife in the kitchen, and apparently had a chance to come to his senses. Her lover is hiding under the bed when Max comes in. Max picks up the man’s underwear and tosses it under the bed, telling the man that he needs to put that on when he comes out. His last act before leaving his house forever is to take his wife’s favorite blanket and cover her body with it. When Will and company are investigating it, the Coroner comments about that, and Will’s explanation is, “he loved her”. That opens a glimpse into Max’s mind, one that Will is able to use later against Max.
Another character that runs with the nickname of “El Pedrito” is a drug pusher, raped a girl at gunpoint and keeps a young girl’s panties in his glove box. Scum of the Earth, right. Yet, he says “please,” and thank you” and seems to be a doting parent to his children. While it’s difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for him and what happens to him is just desserts, I found it added an unexpected dimension to him. That someone who could do such things would still remember basic manners is unusual.
Now, to the guy who I’d vote out of the human race if I could. He’s one of the few human beings I’ve ever met that truly frightened me. Wild Bill Shakespeare wrote “The eyes that the eyes are the window to the soul”. I can honestly say this man didn’t have one. You looked into his eyes, and my dog has more humanity then he does. He had the eyes of a shark, made for one thing, to kill and to take life.
It seems he kidnapped a girl, raped her for hours on end, and then did an autopsy on her while she was still alive. And then he bragged about it to hardened convicts. Apparently he scared them so badly they told the jailor to get him away from them or they would kill him. Several even testified against him asking nothing in return.
I’ve very glad we caught him when we did. He could have been one of the all-time great serial killers. Maybe I’ll write that case up into a novel someday. But to humanize him? He had no remorse at all. He walked into the courtroom, waving at the crowd like he was a rock star in front of his audience, and enjoying his celebrity status.
About the only way I could think of is to show how he got that way, and that might not even work.
But that’s part of the fun of writing.