When it comes to writing evil characters, I want to make them interesting, almost understandable, but not necessary sympathetic. It’s not a simple process.
For some of the process, I turn to my Dungeons & Dragons hobby. When you create a D&D character, you choose an alignment with two qualities. One is either lawful, neutral, or chaotic, the other is good, or evil. So, that gets you some interesting combinations:
Lawful Good–best example in popular media right now, is Captain America. If you were to put Steve Rogers in a D&D game, he would probably play a Paladin who used divine powers to smite evil. Damn, I love the word smite. Jerry Ashe comes pretty close to Lawful Good. Zofia certainly calls him a Boy Scout often enough. The cops are ideally lawful good, but I think Levin, with his world-weary ways, might lean towards neutral because fighting crime sometimes seems like a losing battle and the best he can do is keep evil from taking over.
Neutral good–Neutral may struggle against order just because rules can be restrictive. A neutral good person is likely to do good deeds, but not necessarily follow the law if it gets in the way. I think I’d call Zofia neutral good, but she has her chaotic days.
Chaotic Good–free spirits. Someone who will leave the house saying, “I’m going out to commit a felony. Or get ice cream. I’ll know when I get there.” Marie is more chaotic good than Zofia, but the two of them were definitely chaotic in high school, causing mischief for the sake of mischief. If you don’t mind the Avengers comparison, Agent Coulson is the perfect example.
True neutral–true neutral can come in a couple of flavors. Someone who believes good and evil need to be in balance in order for the world to truly function. Then there’s the people who don’t give a damn about anything.
Lawful Evil–lawful evil ends up in charge too damn much of the time. Hitler, for example. Mussolini. My friend Alex. Anybody who willingly joined Hydra. Politicians who stay bought once they’re bought.
Neutral Evil–Assholes, basically. Not necessary malevolent, but definitely out for themselves. Politicians who don’t stay bought. Your average comic book villain. Captain Cold, from the Flash’s Rogues Gallery is a great example. Sociopaths. Narcissists.
Chaotic Evil–and we’re back to the Avengers. Loki all the way here. Changing over the DC universe again for a moment, we have the Joker. Some chaotic evil characters have the delusion that they’re really Good. Or that Somebody Did Them Wrong, which gives you a martyr complex that can be tough to take. Real martyrs just get on with it and die.
Evil is a challenge to write, especially if you want to give the character depth. Selfish is pretty easy, chaotic can be downright fun, but interesting characters need layers. Those layers, if done well, could make you almost sympathize with the character, even if you can’t quite forgive the atrocities they’re capable of. Insanity is almost a cop-out.
And this almost has to bring up the discussion of “is evil born or made?” I don’t know. I know good people can be driven to do evil deeds.
A long time ago, after a party wound down, I walked someone to their car, talked a while and found my roommate in deep conversation with her then boyfriend. As I walked up the stairs into the living room, my roommate (a lapsed Catholic like myself) asked me, “What is the basic nature of man?”
My reply, “I think I’ll have another beer.”
After I cracked a can of beer open, I joined them in the living room and said, “I think mankind is basically good, but also basically selfish and greedy, which is why it’s so easy to be caught up in evil things.” This is not an exact quote, this was over 20 years ago.
The conversation kind of deteriorated from there.
I put aside Catholicism in 1997, started reading Buddhism in 1999. I still believe humans are born good. I also believe it’s the ego that causes problems. That our desires cause us to make choices to do evil that ultimately make us unhappy. So the desires can get bigger, but they never fill the need.
I doubt sometimes, though. I read about Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, the Green River Killer, Ronald Dominique, or the Angel Makers of Nagryev, and I have to wonder, “Could anything have truly made someone that way?”
I think of all this when I write.