Okay, let’s start here:
You live in a volcano. But it’s not just some random volcano. It’s a paradise island with a volcano in the center. And this isn’t just a garden-variety volcano. Oh, no.
It has all the amenities! Media centers, living quarters for hundreds, elevators, brushed metal finishes EVERYWHERE, all of the modern amenities, a fleet of weaponized helicopters, yachts with secret speed boats carried inside of them like a mother and child, and advanced scientific equipment.
Suppose you are the supernatural personification of evil. You have the horns, the giant bat wings, the fire licking out of your eye sockets, and the attitude. You can pose as a beautiful human when you want to, and often do to lead people astray. But your all-consuming anger doesn’t keep you from enjoying your sardonic view of life and your charming ways.
People like you and want to be like you. You can charm people when you want to, but even when your evil plans are revealed, you have a plan B, C, D, and so on through YYY. Only a deus ex machina can stop you.
And even when you are stopped, no one will ever forget you.
What is not to like about being evil?
Why is evil so fun to read about?
Go all the way back to Milton. Satan was by far a more enjoyable character than anyone else. He was relatable.
Contrarywise, good protagonists can be dull as a beige room.
I think a lot of care is spent in making the antagonist fascinating, sometimes at the expense of making a fascinating protagonist.
And why not? Who doesn’t want a fascinating character in their story? The antagonist is usually the one in control of the story and the protagonist, no matter how much a person of action they are, is moving in reaction to the plans of the antagonist.
Who wouldn’t want to be in control like that? Evil people don’t seem to worry about keeping the lights on, getting together grocery money, or paying off the student loans.
Here’s the deal: actual evil people are terrible to be around. Let’s look at the modern go-to’s of evil: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong.
Hitler: The Guy Who The People You Don’t Care For Are Like
Hitler was a terrible person to be around, even if you were friendly with him. That is, unless you liked sitting down for a five hour, non-stop haranguing from some barely-educated peasant who had the most backwards ideas on what art is supposed to be or how women should behave.
You would not be allowed to dispute anything he said, no matter how ridiculous. You would also not be able to leave for the bathroom. You’d have to sit and act enraptured while he shat his words into your ears. He wasn’t suave or charismatic in person. He was a colossal bore. Oh, and a psychotic maniac who flew into a screaming rage under the slightest provocation.
Stalin: Georgian Heartthrob
Stalin was boorish, but more treacherous. He’d smile at you, pat you on the back, share a vodka with you, and next thing you know your image has disappeared from all official photographs. One day sharing a drink, the next getting your teeth knocked out in a dark basement, then (at best) killed. Why? Who knows! You coughed when he was saying something. You looked like the relative of someone else he killed. You’ll never know and probably neither will he.
Mao Zedong: Alias Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman Mao, Codename Green Teeth, an Uncle Creepyhands
Chairman Mao’s teeth were rotting out of his head and if you were woman then there was a great need for you to prepare for attempted rape. If you were merely a man, get ready to sit in meetings with him while he’s buck-bare naked. Oh, and he was also a pedophile.
Don’t see people like this in a novel often, do you?
Evil: Dumber Than You Think
The thing is, I think truly evil people are stupid on a fundamental level. This isn’t to say they aren’t clever. They can be very, very canny. But at the core of their machinations is a profoundly stupid base.
You don’t often get truly brilliant evil masterminds in the real world. Oh, they exist. But most of the truly evil people in the world are undereducated autodidacts. They deeply studied for confirmation bias rather than for actual learning. They could declaim until the world ended on subjects that they read up on, but had no grasp of nuances or opposing views. They were boors. Boobs, even.
So why not show this? Why make a villain an erudite, witty, and brilliant person whose only fault is a lack of morals and compassion?
I think part of this is due to the strong anti-intellectualism in the United States.
Quick question: when a computer suddenly gains sentience or when a person suddenly gains a huge boost in intelligence, what happens? Yep. They immediately become evil.
Intelligence = evil. That’s the general message. This is also not reflected in real life. Usually the most intelligent people, the real geniuses, are also compassionate, self-reflecting, with deep humanitarian impulses.
By every standard, Bill Gates should have built a death laser and an army of sex robots to enslave the world by now. Instead, he’s giving away billions of dollars to education and humanitarian causes.
(Linux people, you can write your own “Microsoft is evil” jokes and mail them to yourselves to guarantee copyright.)
So if you are portraying a supreme evil, keep this in mind: real evil is stupid. Fundamental wrongs like racism have idiocy as their basis.
Want to write a cool villain? By all means! Make them interesting! But a cool-as-sh*t antagonist like Hannibal Lecter often comes across as an evil Mary Sue. Want to make evil memorable? Make it real – real dumb.