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What Makes the Best of the Worst

Written by Timothy J. Petro


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The greatest, the worst, the toughest, the kindest they come in more forms than a rainbow. More than one can remember or predict. In the end, these characters, no matter how diverse their personalities, are classified into one of two categories: Good, and bad.

Evil is defined only by intent, but so is good. Yet most evil characters do not know they are evil, and many good people do not think they are good. Likewise, some excessively "good" characters turn out to be evil, while some evil characters are more "likeable" than the good ones.

Most of us are in between; neither good nor bad, but gray.

For any novelist or writer, character development is one of the hardest tasks in creating a believable story that everyone will read. The characters are the heart and lifeblood of everything you do. Without the reader caring about them, what point is there in even telling the story? We are the world; our hearts make the bread and bones of our society, and our thoughts take us to our dreams.

The places we see do not pull us where we want to go; quite simply, the characters do.

In every story, there is a driving force of hatred or love. This undeniable force is usually of only one or two characters, very few for a whole book, but the scenes of the story in which they prevail can be the most emotional sequences of any story.
I'm not just talking about your standard Joe Shmo characters, but the truly great ones. Epic good and bad characters, the ones we love to hate or love to care. How do you write them? How is it possible to make a character that is so incredibly evil, or in hindsight, so incredibly likeable? There is a way; to understand it is to understand the humanity that reads your stories.

Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty, Rand al' Thor and The Dark One, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Hamlet and Claudius, Han Solo and Jabba the Hut.the list goes on and on. Clearly, these sorts of characters exist.

I won't go through the same ideas portrayed in the previous essay I wrote on basic character development. In other words: name your character something that sounds evil if he or she is evil, or good if the person is good. Avoid indescribable names. I will add that you can sometimes play with the names, so one sounds dark and evil when the character is really good and likeable (this is called "reverse irony"). However, we won't go there.

Additionally, it is important to give character attributes that people can relate to. Thus, if someone is impossibly beautiful, readers will be suspicious because they cannot relate. Good characters should be easily likeable, and have motivations readers can understand and grasp. Evil characters are often just the opposite. Yet they must remain human. A reader may not understand the concept of killing another person for wealth, but they do understand greed. Everyone does. That trait is universal among all characters and readers.

But the truly evil characters are something more. There are two kinds of evil people I create: the followers and the leaders. The followers are standard bad guys, people that are clearly of evil intent, but not so evil that they loose their humanity. Put simply, they follow orders, feel pain, have doubts about the things they do, all the sorts of things that makes their humanity shine, even if it is covered by a layer of scat.


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