Authors, readers, and book reviewers often agree that in many novels, the “evil” character is the one who is the most carefully developed and most believable individual in the entire story. I’ve never been quite sure what that means, but I do have several observations on the topic.
First, C. S. Lewis commented repeatedly that writing The Screwtape Letters was the most unpleasant experience of his story-writing career. Every day, he said, he had to get himself into the mind of Evil, and write from that perspective. The experience wore him down, made him unhappy, and, once he finished, he resisted any suggestions that he write other stories like that one.
I think I get a taste of his experience when I read detective stories in which the crimes committed are so disgusting that I find I want to stop reading. And sometimes I do stop; I just put the book away and don’t return to it. Or sometimes I find that I can just skim the disgusting parts and still appreciate the fictional detective’s skill in figuring out who the criminal is, and taking action to apprehend him.
In my first novel, The Face of the Enemy, there were two primary characters on the side of Evil. One was an unremarkable bureaucrat who seemed to be pulled along the “wrong” roadway without ever truly wanting to be. He was a man who never seemed to have the strength to resist.
We know people like this, don’t we?
But the other was such a terrible character that everything he did and said seemed to be sinister, including his persistent and willful intimidation of the bureaucrat I just mentioned. However, I think that I was able to write this person because the sinister plans he put into place had nothing to do with the disgusting things you and I could read about if we chose certain kinds of fiction (or nonfiction): tales of perversion, brutality, unspeakable cruelty, and the like. My evil character was never interested in things of that sort. He wanted to defeat Christianity itself, if he could, and was willing to have someone hurt or even killed in order to achieve that. But those were means to ends, rather than something he actually liked being involved in.
My focus, in writing about the Evil side of Good-versus-Evil, is summarized by an observation made by a reader of the first novel in the Rebecca Series:
It is more than interesting that this novel characterizes “the most effective lie” as that which is “very nearly true,” and “the most effective Evil” as that which is “very nearly Good.”