Writing Excuses 7.1 When Good Characters Go Bad

Welcome to Writing Excuses Season 7!

Let’s start with a trip to the dark side! How do you take a good character and make them evil? And why would you want to do this? Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard answer that second question first, and then walk you through the process of doing this. We cover establishing the character, venturing onto a slippery slope, and connecting these and other elements to important pieces of the story.

We talk about the types of “evil” a character can fall into, using character examples like Oedipus, Othello, Boromir, and Doctor Horrible, and how you might incorporate tragic flaws into their downward-trending paths. Finally, we offer examples where we’ve seen it done poorly. Hello, Anakin!


Come up with a list of three things that are important to your main character. Push one of those things out of alignment so that it will draw your character to the antagonist’s side.

Hard Magic, by Larry Correia, narrated by Bronson Pinchot

31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.1 When Good Characters Go Bad”

  1. Loved this episode. Your new season is off to a great start!

    For an example of that “first small step down the slippery slope,” a militantly law-abiding protagonist who runs a red light could actually be a good one. My first thought when you brought that up was: “He’s rushing the story’s most likeable character to the hospital.” Make it urgent enough, and the audience will feel a surge of anxiety as soon as they see the red light, afraid that the protagonist is going to stop and wait AGAIN. Then, when he breaks his established moral code and zooms through, they’ll cheer him on all the way.

    Personally, I find that kind of moment a lot more cathartic than the other kind, where the protagonist is just pushed until he snaps and says “no more Mr. Nice Guy.” I’m sure they can both be done well, but the latter often makes the hero seem petty or weak-willed, or like he just gave up because the plot said so. (On the other hand, when a hero is pushed so hard that we *want* him to snap, and he’s given the perfect opportunity to get back at the villain… but he resists temptation *just one more time* and triumphs anyway… that can be even more satisfying. But that’s probably off-topic for this ‘cast.)

    Thanks for all your excellent work, lady and gentlemen. :) Here’s wishing you an awesome new year!

  2. Very helpful podcast. (well, they all are, but this one is perfectly timed). I’m writing a short piece based around a rather trivial task – anger management, just an ordinary person (in an different type of setting) wanting to be able to control the fuse a bit better. And this makes me wonder where I could go with that direction…. Merci et Bonne Année!!

  3. Wheel of Time would have been very good to bring up here. The journey Rand takes is a very logical one, and yet it takes him to a very dark place.

  4. This one was well timed for me. I’ve got a story that was working out except for “that one character”. Your advice at the end was perfect. I need to show the character being normal and show what normal is for his society to contrast against his fall from grace. Without that he comes across as a flat villain and that was bugging me, especially when I wanted him to redeem himself at the end. Thanks guys!

    And tangenting back into comments from last week’s episode where I rather unsympathetically flaunted our “luxury” of being able to rewrite; Howard, you can teraport your way out of the corners you paint yourself into. Okay, maybe not teraporting, but time travel, parallel universes, and altered memories can work great in your genre!

  5. The other problem with the “prequels” is that Anakin is never likable to start with. I guess he is as a cute little kid, just generically, but by the second film he’s a jerk — and I never really believed that he was someone Padme could have loved. We are told he’s a hero in the Clone Wars, but we aren’t really shown enough of his heroism to believe in it. He’s an ass to everyone around him, unlikable, and thus his fall doesn’t seem tragic, it just seems obvious.

  6. Hmm… iTunes is giving me connection timeout messages about this podcast. I can’t download it. I’d think it was just me, but I am getting all my many other podcasts just fine. I’ve tried unsubbing and resubbing. Just letting folks know.

  7. A very interesting take on this is found in the character arc for Elphaba in the musical “Wicked,” based on Gregory Maguire’s book.

    To make a long story short (and spoilers ahead), Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, decides in the second act that she must oppose the Wizard of Oz. Her reasons for doing so involve her personal quest for justice and freedom for the Animals of Oz. By making the Wizard her enemy, Elphaba becomes the state boogeyman, and she knows that she will be vilified by the Wizard and Madame Morrible.

    After a flashforward, Elphaba is indeed seen as evil incarnate by the people of Oz, but keeps telling herself that she is the hero because of her quest for justice. This comes to an end when her lover Fiyaro is killed because of his relationship with her. This leads to the song, “No Good Deed,” which has some fascinating lyrics related to the theme of a good character turning to evil.

    No good deed goes unpunished
    No act of charity goes unresented
    No good deed goes unpunished
    That’s my new creed
    My road of good intentions
    Led where such roads always lead
    No good deed
    Goes unpunished!

    Doctor Dillamond:

    One question haunts and hurts
    Too much, too much to mention:
    Was I really seeking good
    Or just seeking attention?
    Is that all good deeds are
    When looked at with an ice-cold eye?
    If that’s all good deeds are
    Maybe that’s the reason why

    No good deed goes unpunished
    All helpful urges should be circumvented
    No good deed goes unpunished
    Sure, I meant well –
    Well, look at what well-meant did:
    All right, enough – so be it
    So be it, then:
    Let all Oz be agreed
    I’m wicked through and through
    Since I can not succeed
    Fiyero, saving you
    I promise no good deed
    Will I attempt to do again
    Ever again
    No good deed
    Will I do again!

    Whether or not she really does turn to villainy or simply suffers the kind of breakdown appropriate to her character in that nadir moment, I will leave to the opinion of the individual reader. But if we take her at face value, Elphaba seems to be fully ready to admit to becoming the villain, without the self-justification that was discussed on the podcast. She is questioning the very fact of goodness in a world that seems to reward the wicked and give victory to the evil.

  8. About characters that conclude at some point “OK, I am the evil guy”; you said this would be cheap. I agree as long as the character still has (and sees!) a *choice*. Wether he has is dependent on his situation and the way he took, though.

    For example, in order to topple the evil king (TM) you might have to become a ruthless warlord, kill honest soldiers and probably former comrades. It would be plausible to be carried away a bit, for the greater good. The character turns into the evil king himself over time; confronted with that or upon self-reflecting, he may even realise it. Now he has three choices. Stop what he is doing, change the way he does it or remain the same. Depending on circumstance, the first or even first two can be (or seem) impossible. Where does he go if he stops, as a traitor and war criminal? If he goes soft(er), can he keep his band together or will his own people turn against him? Can the task even be achieved without being ruthless? Of course, the decision-making at this point will also reflect how much the character really changed.

  9. Not to keep harping on the Prequels (even though I totally will), but I couldn’t agree more about the concepts being there and it was (mostly) poor execution. In particular, I thought that, when you look at the whole story, it’s a duality that Lucas sets up showing two different outcomes. Anakin becomes a Jedi and is pushed towards the Dark Side and ultimately succumbs. Luke experiences a similar journey and after becoming a Jedi, is pushed towards the Dark Side, but he resists. One of my (many) ideas is to take the core story (and the “fall from grace” and “personal redemption” themes are some of my favorites) and put my own version together because the ideas he had are so compelling and would like to play with them.

  10. I’m a newer listener and I am wondering if there is a spot in a forum or something where people post their responses to the writing prompt?

    I’m loving the podcast. It’s inspiring me to finally sit down and write instead of just thinking about it. :)

  11. Loved the Podcast. Got me back into writing again, hah.

    Which led me to a bit of a conundrum. I am no longer privy to Microsoft’s Office suite, and trying to write some short stories and the beginnings of my first attempt at a novel in Notepad++ just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps in a future podcast you guys can cover what software you use on the business end when you work. As well as things that have aided you, or hindered you, etc, in the context of writing software, environments, etc.

    In any case, I can’t say again how much I appreciate this site. 7 years now in the Infantry has stifled my creativity, and I fear my intellect. It’s always great to tune in here and get motivated.

    1. Go get Open Office and use that word processor. Don’t try to do these things in Notepad.

      Alternatively, go ahead and use Google Docs. I’ve done that for a lot of the things I wrote in 2011, and it worked pretty well. Then again, I trust the cloud not to steal my stuff.

  12. If you want to use software that does not get in your way, try any decent text editor and LaTeX. For a fiction book, the amount of commands you are going to need is around 5. LaTeX can be compiled to PDF, HTML and even EPUB.

    Plus, you can use a versioning software, for example subversion or git. Don’t want to clutter your disk with wickedly named files, don’t you?

  13. One thing this made me realize.

    It’s really fun to throw moral ambiguity into a story: people doing good things for bad reasons, bad things for good reasons, people who seem good but turn out to be selfish, etc. This adds complexity and makes it feel more like real life, so it’s very tempting to do this all the time. But after listening to this, I think there has to be some bedrock moral code that the reader buys into, some incorruptible ceneter. Otherwise the trajectories of the characters have nothing to brace up against.

  14. Thanks Howard, and Raphael.

    I think I’m going to go ahead and try out Open Office. Before I read your response today, I went ahead and tried out Dramatica. It’s billed as professional software for professional writers. Personally, it feels far to intrusive in my opinion. I got a feeling Open Office is exactly what I’m looking for.

    Anywho thanks again!

  15. I tried Scrivener for NaNoWriMo this year and liked it a lot.

    Just to throw out more places to look for examples of good characters going bad, LOST is a great place to examine character arcs. The show has descent into evil, climbing out of evil, redemption, triumph of good, dropping a villain from evil to darker evil, a nice full circle everyman character, and on and on.

    Most recently I thought Magento’s plunge from being a not-very-nice person to a super villain in X-Men: First Class was wonderful. We know where the character goes (like Anakin) but still find ourselves rooting for, and understanding him.

  16. I’ve used Open Office for years. It’s one of the first applications to get installed on each new computer I get.

    Another tool I’ve experimented with but haven’t used as heavily is yWriter. It was developed by a programmer who was trying NaNoWriMo one year. It supposedly works very well for outline writers and it’s free too.

  17. I don’t remember why this thread is about software, but I am head-over-heels in love with a little thing called Freemind, which is free from Sourceforge. It’s a “mind-mapping” program that I use for outlining and brainstorming. You can very easily drag and drop bits of your outline, and you can fold and unfold parts of it to have the spacial layout just how you want it. OMG it’s amazing. The only downside is that I like it so much I tend to play around with it and call it “working” when I should be actually, you know, writing the story. (And for writing I use a free lightweight WP called Bean, for Mac.)

  18. You mention the poor job done with Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side. There actually is a much better story of this. In the series Legacy of the Force a main character that had existed for about 30 books and was a central character (Jacen Solo, son of Leia and Han). Not everything about the writing is perfect but Jacen’s fall and his motivations were done in a much more relatable and believalbe.

  19. I want to say thanks for these (if you actually read them).

    I was 30,000 words into my book when I stumbled across this. I was really impressed and I thank you for your advice, jokes, and ideas. I have tossed much of my book. Not tossed, but it will require a rewrite as I modify it to improve my story, and the characters in it.

  20. The example that comes to mind after listening to this podcast is Prince Arthas from the Warcraft universe. A bit obscure for some but given the fantasy lean I’m sure a lot of you probably know it. His character as playable in Warcraft III is ultra good and his transition to going bad is him being too singularly focused on his end goal of eradicating the demon that killed his countrymen. This singular frame of mind is really great as the tool for letting your character go bad because it creates this obsession in their mind of doing the right thing but not noticing when you’ve crossed the line. The turning point is when Arthas realizes an entire city in his kingdom has been contaminated with foodstuffs that have an undead plague in them. The entire city’s populace is infected and will turn into mindless, evil undead and so Arthas, knowing this, decides he MUST purge the city of all the inhabitants to save them from undeath. A righteous goal and I’m not sure I would do things differently if I were in his shoes. At this point his lead paladin absolutely refuses to obey Arthas’ order to cull the city and Arthas disbands the order and sends them away. It’s revisited in the expansion as you get to play that turning point and you have to make sure he makes the same decision and goes through with it in a time traveling scenario even though it’s the pivotal point that makes him into a monster it has to play out that way or other present day things would never be. It really is a great descent into darkness as the character is doing what he believes is right and can see no other way. And honestly there really was no other way.

Comments are closed.