If you’ve watched shows like Criminal Minds, or NCIS: (insert city name here), you’ll know that the criminals on those shows are creepy bastards. Usually they’re not arrested until the end of the show, just in time to wrap things up for the end credits. The criminals are smart, and somehow able to cover their tracks, even when they’re leaving clues. Absolutely none of them have anything that could be defined as a character. They exist to commit terrible crimes, twitch a lot and stare menacingly into the middle distance until such time as they’re caught.
It makes for a good crime show, but there’s nothing really ground breaking when it comes to defining how a bad guy/gal actually ticks.
However, Fargo (the TV show) is firmly embedded in the theory that people who commit a crime are, for the most part, more than capable of recognizing that they’ve done something horrific, but in the spirit of keeping their self-image intact, they ignore it, or justify it. For these characters denial really is a river in Egypt. Which is a great lesson for any writer looking to create a memorable villain for their story. Don’t think of these characters as villains. Think of them as people who are still convinced that they’re pleasant enough, even when they’re shooting people in the face.
In Fargo’s world, the reasons for murder are straight forward. Fargo’s murderers are nice, ordinary, law-abiding folk from Minnesota. But just under their facade of normal lurks a character flaw. They hate their wife, but won’t get a divorce, and they hate their brother but won’t break off contact. They love their wife just a little bit too much, to the point where they’ll do anything for her, even bad things. They envy their brother but won’t broker a peace and fester with resentment about how they’ve been done wrong.
Once the flaw reveals itself, usually in a moment of impulsiveness, the person–rather than own up and admit what they did–dig themselves into a deeper hole, all the while thinking that one of their schemes will eventually solve their problem.
Worse for all of these supposedly normal people is that in their attempts to fix their little problem, they inevitably run into people who are capable of doing some truly monstrous things. While justifying it to themselves. Psychopathic contract killer for hire? Just a man who is honest with himself about how the world functions. Crime family orchestrating shake downs and drug running for money? Why, they’re just a family trying to protect their own. Mysterious Russian dude with an eating disorder, bad teeth and a penchant for executing anyone who stands in his way? A put-upon middle manager who can’t understand why people aren’t enamored with the thought of becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Let’s review our ‘bad guys/gals’ from Fargo.
Season 1. Lester Nygaard is an insurance salesman. He lives an ordinary lower middle class life. Lester seems to be a mild-mannered guy. He doesn’t fight back when his childhood bully hits him. He puts up with his wife constantly belittling him. At any moment, Lester’s rage might erupt but he tamps it all down. Lester is finally pushed over the edge by a washing machine that has an awful spin cycle and the unkind comments from his ever pushy spouse. Lester has a brief moment in which he could step away, but doesn’t. Next thing you know, he hits his wife on the head with a hammer. Having already unknowingly made a deal with the devil in the form of a psychopathic contract killer, Lester attempts to cover up his crime, and the contract killer is happy to oblige. In the interim, Lester denies his involvement with the murder, and keeps up his facade of being a nice guy, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Lester might just be a psychopath himself. And of course, just when Lester thinks he may have managed to get away with it, karma ensures that he doesn’t.
Season 2. Peggy Blumquist is a beautician who dreams of having… well, of having some sort of amazing life somewhere else. She reads magazines (lots of them), while trying to get the money together to attend a seminar so she can ‘self actualize’. Her husband, Ed Blumquist, is a butcher by trade. Their lives are again, lower middle class. Ed dreams of owning the place where he works so he can progress up the ladder of the American dream. Unfortunately for both of them, Peggy manages to run into another human being on the road. The human being ends up with his head through the car’s windshield. Rather than call for help, Peggy drives home in complete denial. She parks the car and goes about her evening. Ed later investigates the garage and finds said human alive, but Ed, somewhat startled, kills the guy. What they don’t know is that the dead human being is the son of a crime family. And again, rather than admit what they’ve done, the couple proceed to double down and try to clean up their mess, only to make the mess far bigger. Ed loves Peggy enough to do anything she asks, and Peggy knows enough to manipulate Ed to go further than he should. Ed is too devoted to Peggy to tell her to stop and Peggy is in total denial about what she’s done. Their paths inevitably cross with people who are true killers, and Peggy’s capacity for murder comes to the fore.
Season 3. Ray Stussy is a probation officer who resents his wealthy twin brother. Ray’s resentment soon crystallizes into a plan to obtain what he thinks is rightfully his and he blackmails an addled parolee to steal from Emmit, Ray’s brother. This goes horribly wrong when the parolee goes to the wrong address and murders an innocent man. Meanwhile, Emmit has his own issues to deal with when he realizes that he’s inadvertently managed to form a partnership with a shady corporation. Both men try to dig their way out, until their paths intersect, and only one brother is left standing. But not for long. Inevitably karma once more catches up to the remaining brother. Both of them fail to acknowledge the fact that they willingly got themselves into their situations in the first place by refusing to deal with their reality. Emmit fails to perform due diligence on the company he borrows money from, and Ray refuses to grow up and get on with his life.
As most writers know, the art of writing a truly compelling ‘bad guy/gal’ is to ensure that the bad guy/gal is unaware that they are bad. Bad people should always believe they’re doing the right thing. Or, if they have the capacity to realize that they might be doing the wrong thing, they’re able to dismiss this thought and maintain their self-image. In Fargo, all of the characters are desperate to survive, desperate to keep their lifestyles intact and more importantly, desperate that in the end, they can still think of themselves as okay people who just made one tiny mistake that happens to be murder. Which they didn’t intend to do. It just sort of happened.
If you need a master class in how to write fully rounded ‘bad’ people, you should watch Fargo.