Jon McGoran: How Bad Is Too Bad?

Jon McGoran writes a cracking thriller — I love the ecological spin his first two books took, books with murder at their heart but that also deal with biotechnology or honeybees. Original voice with an original premise. He’s back with a new Doyle Carrick book, and he wanted to jump in and talk about a real juicy subject: BAD GUYS.

* * *

There is a piece of writing advice I often hear, that your bad guys shouldn’t be all bad. This makes good sense. Nobody is all anything, and depicting them as if they were makes for shallow and unbelievable characters. But there’s a related dictum that bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys — that in their minds and in their stories they are the stars, the protagonists, the good guys. To this I say: yes, yes, and …maybe not so much.

When writing any character, no matter how minor or major or good or evil, it’s important to keep in mind their point of view, their motivations and justifications. But make no mistake, some people are just assholes. Look at the news. Look at any comment section. Look at human history. There are plenty of villains out there who are pretty unabashedly villains.

There are some very interesting antagonists in fiction who are conflicted and misguided, doing terrible things for what they consider justifiable reasons. And I love them, the sick, twisted, confused bastards. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of jerks out there knowing full well that what they are doing is wrong. And that doesn’t mean they’re twirling their mustaches and cackling while rubbing their hands together and contemplating “evil” (that’s “ē-vĭl,” not “ē-vəl”). Most of them simply want something, and they are willing to let bad things happen to other people in order to get it. They know the collateral damage is wrong, they just don’t care. Or they don’t care enough.

I write a series of biotech thrillers in which some of the villains are people in control of big corporations. Much of the wrongdoing in the books is collateral damage these characters are willing to accept in order to achieve the goals of the company.

I, personally, am not an bad guy (I’m pretty sure). But there are parts of my brain that think like one. I take great delight in coming up with dastardly and ingenious schemes (I don’t have a mustache to twirl, but I’ve been known to wring my hands and cackle). Every now and then, though, I find myself thinking: “That’s pretty harsh. Would someone really do that?”

And after a moment of reflection, I am plunged into an emotional abyss as I realize that yes, of course they would. That kind of wrongdoing goes down every day. Think Enron, the mortgage crisis, the daily willful and tragic violations of workplace safety regulations that get people killed to save a few bucks, even Volkswagen, doing its best to carpool us all to the carbon tipping point.

A few years ago, a book called Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children detailed how the lead industry worked to hide the dangers of lead paint. For fifty years — from the 1920s to the 1970s — they pushed back against regulations and forestalled the banning of its products. One expert says that, among other consequences, the lead exposure from that delay led to a five-point drop in the American population’s average IQ — doubling the number of children considered “retarded” and reducing by one half those considered “gifted.” But the lead companies made tons of money.

Maybe the best example of the worst was in the 1970s and 1980s, when companies like Nestlé marketed infant formula in developing countries by sending sales reps dressed like nurses into the maternity wards. Breastfeeding was “old-fashioned,” they explained to the new mothers, and infant formula was the “modern way.” Never mind that breast milk was free and infant formula prohibitively expensive, or that many of these mothers didn’t have access to clean water to mix the formula. The “milk nurses” would even give the mothers free samples to last just long enough so the mothers would stop lactating and were no longer able to breastfeed. Countless babies dies of malnutrition and parasites from unsafe water, but sales skyrocketed. Brilliant! (Nestlé continued to provide villain-fodder a few years back when Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck defended privatizing water supplies with the assertion that humans do not have a right to water.)

People sometimes ask me why I write thrillers about big food and biotech corporations. Partly it’s because I think it’s fascinating and important. But I also think it’s scary. Part of what makes thrillers thrilling is tapping into legitimate fears of real threats. Corporate malfeasance is far from the scariest threat out there, not compared to the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram. But I’ve seen some bad stuff done in the name of shareholder dividends, and I’ve seen it directly impacting more people than any terrorist attacks.

The people responsible for these things might be kind to their friends, loving to their families, and generous to their charities — as with all people, they are complex and multifaceted beings. But when they make decisions that hurt thousands or millions of people, they know they’re doing evil. In their minds, in their stories, they might think of themselves as the stars or the protagonists, but they know they’re not the good guys. They’re the bad guys. They’ve chosen to be, and they’ve chosen to be okay with it. And lots of times, that’s the biggest part of what evil is.

* * *

Jon McGoran is the author of the ecological thrillers Drift and Deadout, from Tor/Forge Books, and their sequel, Dust Up, is out now.

Detective Doyle Carrick is awakened in the middle of the night by frantic banging on his front door, followed by gunfire. Ron Hartwell, a complete stranger, is dying on his doorstep.

A halfhearted investigation labels the murder a domestic dispute, with Miriam, Ron’s widow, the sole suspect. Doyle discovers the Hartwells both worked for a big biotech company and suspects something else is going on, but it’s not his case. Then Miriam tracks him down and tells him her story.

Miriam and Ron had been working in Haiti and visiting her friend Regi Baudet, the deputy health minister, when they stumbled upon a corporate cover-up of tainted food aid that sickened an entire village—and was one hundred percent fatal. They were coming to Doyle to blow the whistle. Before Miriam can say more, they are attacked by gunmen and she flees, then disappears.

Doyle tracks her to Haiti, a country on the brink of political chaos. Working with Miriam and Regi, he must untangle a web of deceit and unconscionable corporate greed in order to stop an epidemic of even greater evil before it is released onto an unsuspecting world.

Jon McGoran: Website

Dust Up: Indiebound | Amazon



  • I have to take issue with “they know it’s wrong.” I don’t think they have any grasp at all of right and wrong. They no doubt know that others regard it as wrong, but this clearly means nothing to them. In short, they are sociopaths. The world is full of them.

  • Thanks, beencalled! And I think that’s a valid point, Elaine, but a subtle distinction. Interesting thought though, the difference between knowing is something is wrong because of your moral compass, and knowing something is wrong because society deems it as wrong.

  • April 21, 2016 at 9:28 AM // Reply

    I like to remind myself that every villain is the hero of his own story–which helps me keep his motivations straight without going overboard into Snidely Whiplash territory. So many people are capable of justifying to themselves all kinds of heinous actions. I don’t know how they sleep at night, but apparently they do. Great post!

    People sometimes ask me why I write thrillers about big food and biotech corporations. Partly it’s because I think it’s fascinating and important. But I also think it’s scary. Part of what makes thrillers thrilling is tapping into legitimate fears of real threats.

    THIS. So much this.

  • Thanks, Sarah! And I think that CAN be true, people rationalize things so much, but then there’s so many people who really just don’t care. Who know things are wrong and it just doesn’t bother them. There’s that fine line between actual sociopathy and self-centered asshole-ism. And Julie, yes! I think a lot of the worst ‘evil’ that happens isn’t the intended effect, it’s what people are willing to accept as collateral damage.

  • Great post. It’s always amazing how, though we know the things these bad people do are wrong, and they do them for personal gain, they mostly seem to get away with it – just look at Flint, or Exxon Mobile, or VW…

  • I knew a person who told me (I don’t know why she told me – in my mind, it’s equivalent to the bad guy monologue at the end of a story where the villain explains his whole scheme in order to brag about how clever he is. People say it’s ridiculous when a villain does this, that this would never really happen – but it *really* happened to me lol) that her neighbor told her that if she left her 1-year-old son in his car seat strapped in wrong, he would smother. So she did. Left him in there all night. And he strangled himself trying to get out and died. She cried to people, claiming it was a horrific accident. Cried about how she wouldn’t be able to afford the funeral. People felt absolutely *terrible* for her. So they fixed up her house. Gave her thousands of dollars to help her pay for the funeral. She got the haircut she always wanted (shaving half of her head), claiming it was an “ancient mourning ritual” (but she’d wanted that haircut for months, she told me! But she was afraid people would give her crap for it, now they couldn’t without sounding like buttholes). Other people shaved their head like her in their support. Then she told me how much better she was than me in every way because she had more money now than I did… And I remember the laugh she gave when she said it… It was hard to wrap my mind around, and took me a while to realize it, but she did it on purpose. Her baby was getting in the way of the lifestyle she wanted because he was sick all the time. And not only did she get away with it (there is no tangible proof that it was nothing but a terrible accident) she’s been hailed a tragic, brave hero by everyone (except closest friends and family, who are scared of her) and she was given tons of money and temporary maids. Now that all of that attention has worn off, guess what? She’s pregnant again.

    Oh! Oh! And at the funeral, in her eulogy for her son, she talked mostly about herself, and told everyone that she’d seen God, and everyone should be jealous…

    This is a real person. When I try to tell people, they tend to not believe me. It’s easier not to, I guess. But she’s a fine example of someone who *knows* they’re horrible, but doesn’t care at all, as long as they don’t get caught. It’s what she chooses to do, because it’s how she gets what she wants. And yeah, like those creepy company people, there were times where she’d do really nice things for me, to this day I’m not sure why she would. Then she’d try to pit me against my husband and steal ideas I had for stories. I have to start my book series completely over because of her. Unfortunately, these people do exist.

    And people wonder why I hate people.

  • Great post. What you say about bad guys… case in point. Himmler. Yes, he of final solution fame. There was a fantastic documentary about him on the BBC recently, which used the letters between him and his wife throughout their lives to try and shed some light on what the hell he thought he was doing. It is quite clear from those letters that while he considered himself to be doing something that would be of great help to humanity and that killing 6 million people was an unpleasant but necessary side effect. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing. To me that is just incredible. He was kind to his children. He was kind to other people’s children. If you didn’t know what he was doing behind the scenes and met him socially he would come over as an all round good stand up guy. You know, a bit like Donald Trump, only with higher principles.*

    The book looks interesting too. Thanks for the heads up.



    * sorry it’s just that all that stuff he said about Muslims wearing armbands to denote their belief …

  • All of these entries are wonderful. Jon, I enjoyed your take on developing “bad guys.” It has given me something to think about. Seriously think about.

  • Nevereverveverever understimate the power of the sunk cost fallacy. People will do spectacularly heinous shit because they feel like they have no choice in order to hold on to what they already have/finish the job/save face because of slightly less heinous shit they’ve already done. (Zer0es deals with this principle really, really well.)

    One of my current projects in revisions and shopping out has a terrorism and militia subplot, and while I was developing the militia story I almost tossed the project. Talking about it, I said, “I just can’t conceive of people being that delusioned.” My fiance gave me a funny look and said, “Uh… yeah they would.” I dug in and did some more research, and yeah, they would.

    As it turned out, as I kept writing the unwillingness of other characters to believe that those people would be that deluded and do those things was a large part of what allowed them to get as far as they did before they were finally stopped. Which is, unfortunately, absolutely true to life.

  • Great point about the sunk cost fallacy, Beth. And I think that is closely related to the kinds of incrementally worse acts that lead someone to the capacity to do something really despicable. It is easier for humans to do things just a little bit worse than what they’ve done then from zero-to-eeevil.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds