First, a note: I'll be taking a short blogging break for a week. No posts next week, but I'll be back the following week. Probably. If I get over my jet lag reasonably quickly.
I haven't done a post in this series in a REALLY LONG TIME. No time like the present, yes?
One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference. But you should still listen to me because I'm VERY SMART. Onward!
Kill the Sadistically Evil VillainWho this character is: They're the bad guy. The endgame villain. The one who's behind the scenes doing evil things because he or she is IN LOVE WITH BEING EVIL. There's no real reason for it. They're just bad. Really bad. They enjoy causing pain. They're sick, twisted, sadistic. For kicks. They just hate joy and want to destroy it at any possible opportunity.
Alternatively, they're "just crazy." This is problematic characterization for a number of reasons, but the most prominent is the implication that insanity or mental instability is an inherently bad thing that makes you violent and evil. One does not have to be "crazy" to be a bad person, and having mental health issues does not necessarily make someone dangerous or villainous. Mental illness that results in violence is a complicated, delicate issue.
Why this character doesn't work for me: In essence, this is a stock character created to fill the antagonist role without being fully fleshed out and given a real motivation. They're just baaaaaad. And that's boring.
Having a character who delights in being evil can be a lot of fun if they're fleshed out and appropriately portrayed. More often than not, though, it feels like the author just needed someone to get between the couple or stop the hero from achieving his goal too easily, so they created this character to basically step in and go "MWAHAHAHA LOOK AT ME I AM SO TERRIBLY EVIL AND I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY."
So basically they're like an unfunny Dr. Evil.
How to make this character work: For Pete's sake, give your villain some sort of motivation beyond badness for the sake of badness. Preferably avoid using the "they went mad and turned sadistic" trope, too. If they relish their evil, give them a little backstory to support that.
If people enjoy causing pain, there's a reason for that. Explore that reason. Even sociopathic serial killers often have some sort of external motivating factor, but why not push a little further? Why not attempt to make your villain likable, or even sympathetic? There's nothing like getting your audience to feel like they understand what makes the bad guy tick and maybe even feel for him, even if they don't approve of his actions. And hey, there's nothing wrong with writing a Glorious Asshole. Sometimes a character who delights in his asshole status is a lot of fun and makes readers laugh. But that at least involves humor.
There are an infinite number of motivating factors for a villain. Greed. Power. Revenge. Fear. Jealousy. Love. If you want to get really thematic, think about the choices your protagonist has to make, and what would have happened if they'd made the "wrong" choice. Maybe they'd turn out like the villain.