People Really Are That Bad, Except When They’re Not

By JAMES R. RIFFEL

How many times have you been writing about your antagonist and thought, “Oh, that’s just too cold, no way he’d do that” and considered moderating his behavior? Don’t bother. People’s behavior can be as obnoxious, devious or violent as you can imagine, and more.

I came to that conclusion during my eight years or so of covering the criminal courts around San Diego. There are a lot of really rotten people in the world. An example—I recently wrote a news article about a former IRS agent who became a tax preparer, bilked clients out of $11 million to pay for a luxurious lifestyle and, when he was caught, tried to hire someone to kill four witnesses who were going to testify against him. The “hit man” went to the FBI. The defendant pled guilty to a dozen felonies in federal court. After filing the story, my editor called up to declare the guy Citizen of the Year.

I’ve covered cases with defendants who killed multiple people, got in fatal car accidents after imbibing alcohol and stole money from little leagues. Feel free to make your antagonist to be as depraved as you want or truth really will be stranger than fiction.

Yet, such people are usually bad only when they’re being bad. People aren’t necessarily good or bad 100 percent of the time. Some of the most heinous people I have come across have their good moments.

The most high profile case I’ve been a part of was that of David Westerfield, now on California’s death row after sexually torturing young Danielle Van Dam until she died in 2002. Make no mistake, for his actions in that one 12-hour period, Westerfield is right where he belongs.

But that’s not the entire story. Westerfield was a design engineer for medical devices and is credited with coming up with several exercise implements that helped patients rehabilitate things like back and neck injuries. The same deviant man who made a 7-year-old girl die in agony also relieved pain in tens of thousands of people he never met.

In fact, of all the cases I covered during that time period, I can only come up with two off the top of my head who had absolutely no redeeming value in some other way. One killed his girlfriend by strangling her with a wire coat hanger and another drunkenly raped his elderly aunt, who had let him stay in her home while he was down on his luck. Otherwise, most of these crooks loved their mothers, raised children, gave to charity and made people laugh. At night they broke into homes and raped women, or dealt heroin, or set fires on hot days. When arrested, family and neighbors would say “That’s not the so-and-so I know. He’s not like that.”

The truth is, criminals generally hide that side of themselves from friends and family. Most of them have substance abuse issues, many have mental health problems. Some are just screw-ups. The ex-IRS agent, according to his lawyer, has a son with special needs. Maybe that sent him over the edge.

The lesson for writers—when people are bad, they can be full-throttle 110 percent bad. Let your imagination run wild. But give them some normal qualities, too. The depth of character will make your writing more interesting, and it’s simply the way we imperfect human beings are.

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About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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4 Responses to People Really Are That Bad, Except When They’re Not

  1. Funny, Husband was just saying the same thing the other day when I told him about my new heroine. He knew some ‘really bad’ people when he was younger, and said for all the bad things they do, they were some of the politest people he ever met. Odd that.

  2. If writers are to make antagonists act 110% bad, are they to make protagonists act 110% good? If not, why not? Moral behavior is dull? Are readers more excited when they imagine uninhibited behavior? And if that’s the case, what does that say about readers (ordinary human beings)?

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