Storytelling

How to Realistically Depict Evil

Darth Vader and Luke from Empire Strikes Back

Even really evil people like to help their kids.

Evil is a difficult subject for storytellers. The over saturation of works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, where evil celebrates itself with cartoonish glee, has caused many storytellers to eschew the idea of true evil in their work. Shades of grey* seem a much better fit when trying to model the complexities of our world, and indeed there are many fun dualities to use instead of good and evil. However, despite the complexity of morality, evil does exist in the real world, and some storytellers want it in their stories. That’s probably why Kiran asked us this question.

A lot of writers use good and evil in their stories, but some of them pull it off better than others. What is your advice for writing with a good-evil duality?

I’m not going to look at the good half of this equation today, because most storytellers can portray it without a problem. On the other hand, portraying evil is a challenge. Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy evil is hard to take seriously. If you want the evil in your story to truly resonate with the audience, you’ll need to make it realistic. 

That means it’s time for a guide on what evil is, and how it should realistically manifest in stories. This article will not be the final word on evil, that’s a matter for philosophers, but it will help you create evil in your stories that audiences will recognize from the world they live in.

What Is Evil?

Before we can portray evil, we must first define it. Merriam-Webster* defines evil first as something “morally reprehensible.” That’s a start, but it’s not enough for our purposes. After all, morals change depending on who has them. For some people, romantic attraction to one’s own gender is morally reprehensible, but it’s nonsense to say being gay is evil.

For our purposes, we will say that an evil act is one that causes harm and isn’t necessary to prevent more harm. That sounds complicated, but it lines up pretty well with how most people live their lives. Injuring or killing an attacker in self-defense may be very sad, but few would consider it evil. In the same way, attacking enemy soldiers in a war is usually considered necessary as part of conducting said war, but planting a bomb in a civilian market is almost universally condemned as evil. That’s because it’s hard to justify how planting that bomb is necessary in order to prevent harm.

My definition leaves a lot up for debate. Is bombing an enemy nation’s vital infrastructure evil? On the one hand, it might be necessary to stop that nation from continuing a war of conquest. On the other hand, it will almost certainly kill civilians who had no willing participation in the war. I won’t be covering potentially gray areas, like extremist rebels fighting an oppressive occupier. I’ll be focusing on acts which are inarguably evil, as they are the most difficult to wrap our minds around.

The Causes of Evil

Spec fic junkies are used to the idea that evil is a universal force that comes from some kind of extra dimensional hell-world or the dark side of an all-encompassing energy field. These supernatural sources for evil are convenient for giving readers a bad guy to hate, but they’re not realistic. To make the evil in your stories fit with what happens here on Earth, you’ll need to understand that evil comes from inside of us.

A casual reading of history, or even current events, will show that we humans are capable of evil on a grand scale. But most people you meet certainly don’t seem like they’re on the verge of committing a terrible atrocity, so what causes all that evil to emerge? Despite what some cynics will tell you, humans don’t immediately descend into nastiness and violence when things get tough. In fact, we humans can be at our most altruistic while in the midst of terrible crisis, as reading accounts of natural disasters will often show.

Instead, there are two main sources for evil that are most useful to storytellers.

  • Bigotry: This is any form of mistreatment, intolerance, or hatred towards people who are different than one’s self. Bigotry can be about race, gender, sexuality, the list goes on. Often, bigotry focuses on easy-to-identify visual characteristics, but it can work on invisible differences too. Many Jews are not visually distinguishable from non-Jews, but that doesn’t prevent anti-Semitism. Regardless of the specifics, bigotry dehumanizes some other group of people, almost always a less powerful group.* Once that happens, acts that would normally be inconceivable suddenly seem reasonable against the targets of bigotry.       
  • Extreme selfishness: This goes beyond the people who look out for their own interests first. This is the oil company executive who is already filthy rich but actively works to discredit Global Warming research to get even richer. It is also the angry lover who kills their ex out of jealousy.* These are acts that seem incomprehensible on paper, but they happen all too often in the real world.

One place evil does not come from is mental illness. This is a stereotype of circular logic, because it’s tempting to believe that only people whose brains do not work like ours could be capable of acts that seem morally repugnant. But of course, people without any diagnosable condition whatsoever have performed evil acts throughout human history, and this stereotype does nothing but stigmatize the mentally ill. Put it to bed.

No Person Is Pure Evil

No one, no matter how bloodstained their record, is evil all the time. A mass murderer may have a great circle of friends who meet up every week to watch the local sports team. A genocidal tyrant may dote on their children, showing the little ones every kindness imaginable.

At the same time, people who appear saintly can have a dark side. The good samaritan who donates to charity and works with the homeless may have a hidden streak of racism that leads to viciously assaulting a stranger.

It’s a matter of interpretation whether a person can actually be evil or if they can simply perform evil actions. But either way, most people will fall somewhere on a spectrum, rather than existing in extremes at either end.   

For storytellers, that means it’s important to show evil characters occasionally not being evil. A villain who spouts evil at all hours will feel silly and unrealistic to the audience, because almost no one is like that in real life. Another option is to highlight the evil that ordinary people are capable of. Neighborhood residents whipped into a frenzy of fear can easily turn on those who are different. 

Characters Should Justify Evil Actions

Only Sith Lords spread evil for its own sake.* In a realistic world, even the most evil villain will have some motivation for what they do. Evil is usually a twisted means to an end and not the end itself. Evil characters might be motivated by a desire to spread the One True Religion, to avenge an old injustice against their nation, or to keep their race from mixing with those seen as inferior. These motivations might sound noble on their own, or they might be obviously repulsive.

Justifications for evil are likely to come in several distinct flavors.

  • The evil wasn’t the character’s fault. The character was simply following orders, or they were caught up in mass hysteria and didn’t know what they were doing. Depending on how self-aware the character is, they may or may not actually believe this justification.
  • The evil was in the service of a greater good. A character might justify exiling their town’s elderly residents by saying that the town will now prosper because it no longer has to care for people too old to work. Storytellers must be careful with this justification, because it’s easy for the audience to get the wrong message. They might think the evil character is right, that good was actually served. It’s important to show that evil acts are never justified. In this case, a town that sends away its elderly residents might lose vital knowledge and experience needed to get through a crisis.
  • Times were hard, so the evil character had no choice. This justification is popular in any situation where resources are scarce, and it is especially likely to appear in post-apocalyptic settings. In real life, people use this justification to excuse atrocities during war or famine, even though in almost every case, cooperation would have produced better results.      

Real people love to make justifications like these after the fact, and realistic characters should do the same. Those characters were likely raised with the same standards of morality as everyone else, and committing evil will likely bother them on some level. That’s when justifications come out.

Evil Is Often Structural

While individuals are capable of evil all on their own, the most difficult part of depicting realistic evil is that it often doesn’t come from any one person. Instead, evil can be the result of huge systems built up over a long time.

Consider the British Empire, one of the most powerful states to ever span the globe. A long list of terrible atrocities occurred under British rule, from the North Atlantic Slave Trade to human-made famines in India. This wasn’t because British soldiers and citizens were particularly vicious and cruel, but rather because British policy encouraged the exploitation of colonial holdings to feed imperial power.

While governments are a common source of structural evil, it can come from any sufficiently large group. A big corporation might force people out on the streets to increase profits, even though no individual at the company relishes the idea of enlarging the homeless population. Individual police officers might or might not be racist, but when department policy calls for more intense patrolling of minority neighborhoods, racist abuses will occur.

Because no single person is solely responsible for structural evil, it’ll take more than a hero with a magic sword to fight it. In order to triumph, your heroes must either reform or bring down the structures that are causing the evil in the first place. While there’s still plenty of room for personal confrontations, you’ll need to make sure the roots of the problem are addressed, or the evil won’t feel properly vanquished.


Realistic evil is pervasive, corrupting, and difficult to root out. In contrast, the Sith Lords of Star Wars and Uruk-hai from Lord of the Rings seem easy to deal with, and people like that. But if you want your story to pack a punch and be relevant to the lives of your audience, then realistic evil is the way to go. It’ll make your story more challenging but more rewarding as well.   

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. GeniusLemur

    One of the most important things to understand about realistic evil is that no real person, no matter how evil they are, thinks of themselves as evil. No one looks in the mirror and says “I am a villain.” Al Capone claimed bootlegged because he just wanted to make people happy. The classic writing advice there is “everyone sees himself as the hero of his own story.”

  2. Carly

    Vengence can lead to that.

  3. Cay Reet

    “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Well, in their own mind, since the same goes for female villains.

    It’s a great article again. There are many reasons for a person to become evil (just as there are many reasons why your protagonist can become a hero of sorts) and often it’s not that big thing, but a chain of much smaller things.

    It also plays a role what kind of story you’re writing. Superhero stories need a villain who is just as ‘super’ as the hero. Fairy tales need a clear distinction between good and evil. In the ‘noir’ genre, good and evil often blend into each other. The protagonist is ‘good’ and the antagonist is ‘evil,’ but their actions aren’t that different. The more complicated the world, the less clearly good and evil usually are separated.

  4. Alverant

    Good article, but I would change one thing. I think the main cause of evil comes down to selfishness. Even bigotry can be put in terms of being selfish, “My desire to not be bothered by THOSE people is more important than THOSE people wanting to exist.” Even manifestations of chaos like the Joker has the “My whims are the most important things in the universe!” attitude. Evil is a fundamental lack of empathy.

    • Cay Reet

      A lot of things are motivated by selfishness. ‘I want my kidnapped girlfriend back’ is no less selfish, but a motivation you will find for the hero, too.

      I agree that evil includes a fundamental lack of empathy. You can’t be empathic and evil at the same time.

      • Alverant

        That’s assuming she wants to be rescued. If she does, then it’s not really selfish. If she doesn’t, you have the game Braid.

        • Cay Reet

          It doesn’t matter whether she wants to be rescued or not … if the hero’s wish is to get back what he considers his, it is selfish. If he’s thinking about what might happen to her and wants to make sure it doesn’t, then it’s not.

          • SunlessNick

            Although if the only reason the hero wants to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend is to get back what he considers his, I’d be reevaluating his status as a hero.

          • Cay Reet

            @SunlessNick

            I would reevaluate his status as hero, too, but he still could be the leading character and protagonist. Wanting his girlfriend back, because she is is, doesn’t immediately make him the villain of the story. And he could, of course, have a change of heart later in the story. It would still make his immediate motivation selfish.

    • Carly

      You got a good point there.

  5. JackbeThimble

    By human-made famine are you referring to the Bengal famine? It’s highly dubious whether that can be described as an act of malice (unless their evil act was in establishing democratic provincial governments in India that were inexperienced and unable to work together effectively, or in the incompetent management of the first few months of the war against Japan that resulted in one of their most productive agricultural provinces being overrun). In general over the course of their rule in India the British had a record of preventing famines that was better than any previous ruler.

    • JackbeThimble

      I made the mistake of commenting on something I had only a passing familiarity with before looking into it more thoroughly. After having researched it more I realize that the sources I had trusted before were largely wrong and, consequently, so was this comment.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey man, good on you for checking your sources. If you’re interested in history, may I recommend the Crash Course History series on Youtube? They’ve done World History, US History, and World History II.

  6. Pyrut13

    What about sociopaths and psychopaths? How does one realistically depict them?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Interestingly, there isn’t a strong definition of what constitutes a psychopath or a sociopath, it’s more a collection of behavioral traits. Most notably, having a lack of empathy. So in that case, most behavior we consider psychopathic would fall under Extreme Selfishness.

  7. SunlessNick

    Are you planning to do a corresponding article on good? I’d be interested to see it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hmm. At the moment I don’t have any plans on it, since I think our audience has a pretty good idea of what constitutes “good,” and anyone who really disagrees with me wouldn’t get much out of the article anyway. Though if you have a specific question, send it our way, maybe that’ll spark something.

      • Pyrut13

        Maybe how to make it so that your hero isn’t super-cheesy or whatever in his goodness or something?

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