That statement is more true that you'd like to think.
Look at some of the most despicable people in recent history: Andrea Yates, Gary Ridgeway, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Kermit Gosnell. Some would say these folks are subhuman, their deeds were so awful, so evil.
But what's their story? What were the events in their life that played a part in shaping who they became?
That's the question I try to get at when I create villains. I don't want to create just another bad guy doing bad things. That's one-dimensional, it's cardboard. There's so much more to people than just what they do.
There's the why, the how, the background, the psychological damage, the emotional turmoil.
The villains I create need to be defined by more than just what they do. I want readers to experience who they are. They have reasons for what they do. Those reasons may make sense (in a very demented, twisted way) or they may not. But all the time those reasons are tragic.
In villains I want to show the fallen state of mankind, how low we are capable of going if that self-absorbed, sin nature is allowed to thrive, unhindered, unshackled. But I also want to show the tragic groundwork that was laid to enable that kind of fall.
I want readers to understand that these people, these monsters, are more than what their deeds portray. They're people, hurting, confused, lost, and warped beyond most of our imaginations. They are to be feared, yes, but not only because of who they have become, but because, as the 16th century preacher and eventual martyr John Bradford said, There but for the grace of God, go I.
The creation of villains is a delicate process.
You wouldn't think it would be. You'd think it would be akin to ramming a half-ton pickup through a shop full of glassware. You'd think it would be messy work, all murders and mayhem and carnage and cursing.
But it's not. Not if you do it right.
Fictional characters are a bit of an oxymoron. They're fictional, only they're not. All writing originates from what we experience. What we see, hear, feel, taste. Stories we hear, research we do, memories we have, nightmares we dream. It all derives from our experiences.
So the characters we develop are mostly collages of people we've met, folks we've observed, and/or bits and pieces of our own psyche/personality/concoctions.
And this is where it gets hairy with villains. You see, I'm not a villain, at least as far as you know. I obey laws, respect other people, follow rules, and basically try to stay out of trouble except those times my big mouth gets away from me. And generally, I try not to rock the boat too severely.
So how do I create villains who are serial killers, psychopaths, narcissistic nutjobs, and all-around bad guys? And how do I create them in such a way that they walk right off the page and urge you to not only hate and fear them, but feel sorry for them and understand the world they live in?
I tap into my own inner villain. He's in there. In fact, he's in all of us. That little Adolph Eichmann waiting for permission to show himself.
The trick to creating believable villains is to get in touch with Eichmann without letting him roam free. And it's a balancing act. Very delicate work.
To give my villains texture and personality and believability I have to see what they see, hear what they hear, think what they think, and feel what they feel. And it's not a pretty place to be. It's brutal work, depressing, sorrowful . . . and dangerous. To spend too much time there is to toy with evil and that's never a safe thing to do.
So I walk a line, that line between doing my best to remain pure and upright and innocent and delving into carnality and selfish desires and murderous thoughts.
The work of creating villains needs to be handled with care. It's claimed more than one victim.