This was a question a good writer asked me in a creative writing class. He said he knew everything about the book he had planned — and he could certainly put sentences together well — but he didn’t know why his bad guy was bad.
I told him, of course, that the bad guy usually doesn’t think he’s the bad guy, that the bad guy is the hero of the story he’s starring in in his own head.
Now comes to my attention this book, VIOLENCE: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, by James Gilligan, MD. I’m reading it, in part, to inform my characterization of Bad Guys beyond what I can imagine myself doing. And it paid off quickly.
Gilligan says, in the introduction (yes, I’m one of Those People; I read introductions; sue me):
the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.
Or — dare I expand his claim? — the universal cause of BadGuyNess.
Later, he says:
Human nature being what it is, one’s own violence is almost always perceived as defensive, while other peoples’ is likely to be seen as aggressive.
I’m also put in mind of the bald-faced hornets who built nests around my mother’s house. Although they ignored us, showing us absolutely no aggression, even when I repeatedly walked within two feet of their nest, we called in experts to murder them. It was a preemptive strike of shock and awe, doing violence to them under the flag of defending ourselves from the violence we expected from them. Although they had obviously never perceived us as threats (more fool, they, poor things), we couldn’t know what we — or the neighbor children — might do that they would perceive as threatening, and what might cause them to defend themselves through violence to us (or the neighbor children).
If that isn’t a tangled web of good guy / bad guy rationalization, I don’t know what is.
And that’s usually why the bad guy is bad: He isn’t YOUR guy. He’s pathological: deviating from a normal condition — for a given definition of normal. And you get to set up what’s normal, and you get to decide what The Bad Guy sees as the injustice against him or the threat looming over him.
And always remember: With great power comes great responsibility.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write the basic storyline of your story from the point-of-view of a Bad Guy who thinks he or she is the Good Guy.