As writers is can be difficult to contrast good and evil effectively. Evil is a difficult topic. We all know what it is when we see it but it can be hard to define when pressed. For example we can all agree that murdering someone in cold blood is evil. But what exactly is cold blood?
In Princess Bride why do we understand when Inigo Montoya kills the six fingered man but hiss at the idea of Prince Humperdinck killing his bride and blaming the country next door? Before I answer that question I will ask another question.
What do these three events have in common:
1) A male celebrity is recognized by fans on the street. The fans (mostly women) rip his clothes off, he escapes the mob, but is severely bruised and shaken.
2) A woman is stalked by a man who works at a coffee shop across from her work. She only met him once and he never asked her out, but he fallows her everywhere and sends her flowers every week.
3) A black man is denied membership to an exclusive golf club due to the color of his skin.
Answer: The commonality is that all of these people, the male celebrity, the woman, and the black man, have been dehumanized by other people. The fans, the stalker, and the club all ignored these peoples humanity and treated them accordingly.
So back to Princess Bride, besides the obvious reasons that Inigo Montoya is avenging his father and challenging the six fingered man to a fair fight, another reason the audience feels it’s okay for Inigo to murder the six fingered man but wrong for Prince Humperdinck to murder the princess is the fact that Inigo respects who his is killing and Prince Humperdinck does not.
Prince Humperdinck doesn’t care that the princess loves someone else, he doesn’t care that people love her, and ultimately he could have picked anybody to fill her place! She was just a pawn in his game. People don’t like that.
Instinctively humans seek to be recognized as individuals by the people around them. Its positive to be loved, sought out, understood, appreciated, acknowledged, and remembered. Its negative to be rejected, snubbed, or rebuffed. But what makes peoples blood boil is when they are rejected, rebuffed or persecuted for something that they can’t help, and they can’t change.
How many bad guys have you seen or read about that say “It wasn’t personal.” And that has only made you hate them more, not less for what they did? Humans hate being dehumanized. We don’t mind being treated differently. After all we treat our uncle Bob differently than our mother and we should because to do otherwise would mean we didn’t see them as different people.
Which is why almost all the stories throughout the ages have had the bad guy be the kind of jerk who ignores peoples feelings, ignores their humanity and never gives anyone proper respect. The reverse is also true, good guys tend to acknowledge others, reinforce social bonds, and respect others. (The exception to this is the modern anti-hero which is another topic entirely.)
Is the rejection and lack of respect for others the only way for a bad guy to be evil? No. But it can be an effective tool, especially when the bad guy truly rejects the humanity of someone but the hero embraces it. The someone in the story need not necessarily be the hero, after all the hero can be defending others. But the rejection needs to be real and arbitrary to be truly effective in inspiring antipathy in the reader, and the hero needs to be genuine in his or her embrace of the same human. It can seem pretty hypocritical when the bad guy hates homosexuals and the good guy uses epithets like ‘gay’. I often saw that kind of thing in 70’s shows. The episode would be about advancing female rights, but the only woman on the show was a secretary that had jokes made at her expense. Or it would be about how black people were just like white people but at the end of the episode the black person who had been oppressed would disappear and there would be jokes made that were racist.
Discussions about bigoted behavior can become inflamed quickly especially when words like racist, sexist, or bigot get tossed around. Probably because no one likes to be seen as a bad guy and unfortunately we are none of us immune from making snap judgments about others. Just as this discomfort can work against you when in conversation it can work for you when creating realistic characters. Writers need to be able to embrace uncomfortable emotions and understand them so that they can share them with others.
The difference between someone who is a bigot and someone who has a bad generalization about others lodged in their head is pretty simple. The bigot will not change their mind. No matter what happens, no matter what evidence is put before them, they will stubbornly cling to their bigoted ideas. As a writer you can use this to present the difference between someone truly evil and someone who made a mistake.