This is a follow-up to another question. I asked "Should my readers be able to identify with the bad guy?" and got an excellent answer which explains the continuum of "identifiability" for bad guys.

In his answer, Standback also cited George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" as an example of complex conflict, which was spot on: I loved those bad guys, and even wanted to re-use the idea of following one character per chapter, which I saw for the first time in Martin's books.

So my bad guy, Pio, is in the mafia, and he's after a peer of his. He's already managed to put the blame on Salvatore for something bad he's done himself, and now that Salvatore is out of jail, it's time for Pio to kill him. Pio is ruthless, macho and brutal, but I still want to take the time to explore his psychology. There are certainly reasons for his traits which are just exacerbated instances of our own "dark sides" (or at least my own, anyway.) And he's probably going to have some good moments as well - maybe he'll fall in love? Or learn a valuable lesson and feel the burn of shame for a little while?

Ultimately, though, he's still the bad guy. Is it a mistake to try to explore his psychology? What should I do or avoid in order not to spoil the main conflict of the book?

  • Let me counter with a question. On your previous post, I suggested you define your villain's role in the story. Now that we're talking about a specific villain, what do you see his role in the story as being? What reaction would you like him to provoke from the reader?
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 19, 2012 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


Absolutely not a mistake to explore his psychology. GRRMartin is a great example; by the end of book 4 I really felt for the Lannisters, and they have done some evil things. You don't have to make Pio so sympathetic that we're necessarily rooting for him to kill Sal, but we should understand Pio's motivations. His motives should make sense to the reader given what we know of Pio.

So: Why is he ruthless, macho, and brutal? Was Pio's father Raimundo heavy-handed? Did he smack Pio's sisters and mother around and turn a blind eye to Pio's misdeeds? Did Pio run with a group of similar thugs as a teenager? Or was he a homeless orphan who had to steal and rob to feed those sisters after his mother died in childbirth and his father was killed in the war? Maybe he has a touch of the bi and he acts "macho" to overcompensate? (there's your potential to fall in love; he dimly realizes his feelings for Mario are not just for a paisano, but something stronger, and he feels like he has to strangle that impulse in himself because it's a sin, or because it makes him weak, etc.)

What I wouldn't do is "excuse" your killer. If Pio is the bad guy, he shouldn't be killing Sal because, say, Sal killed Pio's mother. He shouldn't be killing Sal because Sal is his best friend from the cradle and is now dying of Alzheimer's, or cancer, and death is a release. Pio shouldn't have a mental disorder which absolves him of responsibility for his actions.

We can understand that Pio feels like he has to kill Sal to keep Sal from spilling the beans, and that Pio might even regret having to kill him at a family wedding because it's rude or unprofessional. We should not think that Pio is "right" and Sal really does have to die.

  • Thanks Lauren, the idea of not "excusing" the killer is certainly a good point, I hadn't thought of that. Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 13:07

It's important to remember that the reader is a "willing participant" in the process of storytelling. A certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief is something the author can reasonably expect his reader to supply.

In practice what that means is you don't have to provide every last detail about the background, personality, motivation, etc., of every character. Concentrate on the interesting elements, and only provide details in other contexts where it's necessary because the reader might otherwise have trouble convincing himself it's all "plausible".

In short, decide what the real story is that you're trying to tell. As a rule that story shouldn't be a "towering saga" trying to create a whole new universe with every detail spelt out. Give the reader some credit and assume he wants you to "skip the details" so long as you don't insult his intelligence (by expecting him to accept that the bad guy is actually a really nice chap who happens to be a psychopath every third Tuesday of the month for no particular reason, for example).

TL;DR: Don't try to cover too much ground. If the details aren't central to the story, omit them unless you think the reader won't be able to imagine either what you were thinking of, or a plausible alternative. Help the reader to become actively involved, by giving him scope to "flesh out the tale" (but keep him on a reasonably tight leash, obviously!)

  • I didn't know about the notion of "willing participant", thanks for that. Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 16:43
  • @Carl Seleborg: The reader needs to be skilfully encouraged and guided, obviously, but he'll enjoy the tale more if he's been "actively engaged", even though he won't normally be consciously aware of this. The bonus for you if you get this right is that the reader fills in exactly the kind of "background details" that seem right to him - rather than always taking yours, which may not always work so well for everyone else. Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 17:04

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