It’s too easy to make your villain or an extremist character one-dimensionally evil. Making them well-rounded characters, with well-developed motivations, backstories, and distinguishing characteristics is a skill that doesn’t come overnight, but it’s worth it to learn how to develop it.
The primary antagonist of my first two Russian novels, Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, started out as a good guy, the one who was supposed to eventually marry Lyuba (then called Amy), the one she was supposed to like best of all her suitors. Gradually, he changed into a worse and worse character, which involved a fair amount of rewriting and revising the original sections of the first 7 chapters. But after his personality switch, I never made him into some cartoonish, simplistic villain.
Boris starts out kind of like Esau. He’s more uncouth and impulsive than a truly mean, uncaring guy. (Side note: I’m very uncomfortable with the vilification of Esau, and Ishmael, in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic elaborations and interpretations of the Bible. Nowhere in the straight Torah text is it ever suggested that Esau is such a monster and anti-Semite.)
Boris is essentially a decent guy who wants to do the right thing, but he has some troubling hints of a darker side. However, those negative character traits, like a quick temper and gluttony, have always been held in check by his parents and teachers. Once he’s out on his own, expelled from gymnasium, in hiding near Ryazan, his parents in Siberia, he no longer has anyone to hold him in line, and combined with his frustration over his plight as a White, his evil inclination gets the better of him.
Over the years, he goes through some periods where he’s fairly good, but he’s always sucked back into sinning. The taste of sin is so sweet, and it’s easier to go with what’s familiar than to tackle the hard work of self-examination and permanent repentance. However, many of his dark periods and sins are motivated by what he feels to be good intentions. He can actually be a bit funny to write, in a dark way. He’s not some one-dimensionally evil person with no motivation behind his depraved acts, and he certainly wasn’t born evil.
Even a villain who’s intended to be a static character shouldn’t be one-dimensional or without motivation. You can give the villain an interesting backstory, and imbue him or her with distinguishing characteristics. Urma Smart, the town psycho of my Atlantic City books, didn’t start out a fire and brimstone fanatic in league with a deranged pseudominister and constantly launching sick schemes against her so-called enemies. And Urma might talk the talk, but she doesn’t completely walk the walk. She always wears the pants in her family and railroads over her passive, weak-willed husband for years, for example.
Urma’s daughter Samantha is a very complex character. At first glance, she’s as fundy as her mother, but deep down, she just wants to be a normal kid. Sam doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to her fanatical mother, and it takes years before she finally finds her voice and breaks away from the crazy, joining a mainstream Methodist church and becoming a moderate Republican. Originally Sam was too pure and good for words, before I changed the storyline to make her and her mother fundies. Then I completely rewrote it so that she and Urma were rather one-dimensionally annoying, fanatical pains in the ass. Finally Sam emerged as a well-rounded, conflicted young woman, and became so much more interesting in the process.
Even if you’re writing about a group of people we can all agree are/were villains, like Nazis or Bolsheviks, you still don’t have to make them cartoonishly evil or buffoonish. The majority of people in those movements started out as ordinary people who were attracted to the leader’s promises. They didn’t think of themselves as villains or hate-mongers. And there were some Nazis, like Oskar Schindler, who belonged to the party but privately used that position to help people. Obviously that wouldn’t have been anywhere near the majority, but it makes for a very interesting character and story if written properly.
I tried to give distinguishing characteristics to the Nazis and NSBers (Dutch Nazis) in Jakob’s story. It would be too easy and simplistic to show them all as beady-eyed villains or incompetent buffoons. Some of the features included a face full of liver spots, ugly measles or chickenpox scars, a disgusting deep, hacking cough, a high-pitched voice, a huge Adam’s apple, and an oddly-shaped nose. They weren’t just trotted out as faceless symbols of evil.
Even if we’re not supposed to be cheering for the antagonist, it helps to understand where s/he’s coming from and to make him or her a fully fleshed-out character. After all, they’re humans too, and no real person is pure evil. Don’t write your characters like people out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one is as purely evil as Simon Legree, as unquestioningly subservient as Uncle Tom, or as pious as Little Eva. Seriously, there’s something really wrong with you if you’re happy you’re sick and can’t wait to die.