The Darker Side of Character

By Megan Burkhart, a professional writing student at Taylor University

Not all protagonists are heroes. Though we love the innate goodness that beloved heroes have, sometimes our stories call for the morally gray or even evil characters to take the lead.

We’ve had a couple posts on this blog relating to these topics, including writing villains and writing the antagonistic protagonist. Check those out for specific tips. In this post however, I’ll be focusing on the psychology of a morally gray or evil character. That sounds super deep, but I’m just going to scratch the surface and get into three things that are important to understanding how your character thinks, makes decisions, and how he got to be the way he is.

1. Childhood

What was your character like as a child? Did he suffer losses? Was he an outcast? Did he have friends or family, and was their impact positive or negative? Usually a morally gray or evil character has a dark past that involves some childhood or early teenage trauma that changed their worldview/perspective on life.

Everyone has their reasons for acting the way they do. Make sure that your characters have compelling and logical reasons behind their actions. And remember that change doesn’t have to happen overnight. Sometimes it does, but more often, it happens slowly. The shift to the dark side can take days, months, even years of injustice or cruelty experienced by the world, people, or nature.

Get into the psychology of your character. When you get into his head, the reader will be able to get into his head as well.

2. Choice

Choice is a major part of character. You might even say that characters are the sum of their choices. With darker characters, this gets interesting. Often, they feel they have no choice but to kill, steal, and destroy to get what they want. When this is the case, their wants/needs are probably misguided. Or, perhaps their wants/needs are perfectly valid, but an extremely self-righteous hero is standing in their way. Let the conflict begin.

Choice not only plays an important role in the story itself, but in each character’s backstory you want to ask yourself: What choices has my character made? How did each choice effect him and get him where he is now?

And most importantly: How is he coping/living with the choices he’s had to make?

Exploring this element of your characters can provide depth to both the perspectives and themes in your story.

3. Intentions

Intentions go hand in hand with choice. Every decision/choice a character makes has intentions behind it. Whether it’s for good or evil depends on the character.

With darker characters, their intentions don’t have to be entirely bad. As I mentioned earlier, what they want may be completely valid, but they’ve twisted or tainted it somehow. They may be protecting those they love or trying to make the world a better place (at least in their mind). What does your character intend to do? What is his goal?

His goal can be something he’s wanted since he was young or something more recent. His grudge against others or the world may have been simmering since he was seven or developed just last week. Regardless of what it is, it needs to be clear. When readers know what a character wants or intends, it allows them to either root for or against that character.

The reader becomes invested in your character, which is exactly what character building is about. So, invest some time in fleshing out the darker side of your characters. Make them complex and driven. Give them something to fight for or against–even if they’re fighting a war within themselves.

Every character has a story to tell.


Megan Burkhart (writing under the pen name Megan Lynne) is an award winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her recent awards include the 1st place Tar Heel Award for her speculative fiction novel and an honorable mention in the 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition in the inspirational category. Megan is also a junior agent with Cyle Young Literary Elite and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing. Find out more about her at

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