Are people ever truly “evil”? Many people commit evil acts, but are these a sign that the perpetrator is evil, or are their actions so far beyond what civilized people might consider “normal,” that we have to conclude these evildoers are insane? Can we hold the insane responsible for their actions? Are they “evil” or damaged, deserving of loathing or pity?
This question, which must surely fascinate all crime readers and writers, has intrigued writers for centuries. Written in around 420 BC, Sophocles's tragic hero Oedipus committed patricide precisely because he tried to run away from the oracle's prediction that he would kill his father. It has always seemed to me that poor Oedipus had no chance, really. Whatever happened, he could not escape his fate.
Brutus, in Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar,” says, “Men at some time are master of their fates.” So, perhaps people in Shakespeare's day believed in personal responsibility more than the ancient Greeks did.
We now seem to be coming full circle with the notion that our behavior is controlled for us, not by the gods of ancient Greece, but by our genes. So, how will this impact our response to “baddies” in future?
Will we feel sorry for Moriarty because he couldn't help it?
Or like Mary Shelley's monster, will all our villains become objects of pity—men and women who were born good, but were corrupted by the cruelty of others?
The existence of “evil” people in real life is not something on which I'm qualified to comment, although I've visited closed prisons and spent time with Serious Crime officers discussing harrowing cases. Certainly Myra Hindley comes close.
But whatever the current thinking in the real world, I can't see us abandoning our nasty killers in fiction any time soon. The more evil a “baddie” is, the tenser the book becomes, as readers are more desperate to see them caught.
So how do we, as writers, negotiate this quagmire of expectations to create a memorable “baddie”?
To some extent, our characters will be judged by what they do. A serial killer is unlikely to elicit much sympathy in the reader, especially if he or she threatens the life of a likeable character.
Other than being seriously scary, a “baddie” is subject to the same requirements as any other character. He or she must be consistent so they are credible, yet without being predictable, and they must engage readers on an emotional level so people care about the character's fate.
Although possibly deserving some pity, I suspect readers will regard the villain in Journey to Death as evil.
I certainly wouldn't want to meet this character!
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Leigh Russell is the author of the internationally bestselling Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson crime series. She is married, has two daughters, and lives in north-west London. In addition to writing, she guest-lectures for the Society of Authors, universities and colleges, and runs regular creative writing courses for the prestigious Writers Lab in the UK and Greece.