Although a good number of criminals are definitely less than average in intelligence, fiction is full of brilliant, evil people. The criminal mastermind is a stock character in genre fiction and we love them. We want our scary, demonic, monstrous, villains to be extraordinarily smart, because it makes their stories more compelling.
There’s another kind of character, I’m been thinking about lately — evil wits. These are people, both real and fictional, with sharp wits, sardonic humor and the ability to cut everyone else down to size with a clever quip or funny comment. We love them and we fear them. In real life they are the friends we tiptoe around when we’re feeling vulnerable. If they are true friends, they temper their comments when they see you can’t take the teasing, but in fiction they are usually relentless.
These are difficult characters in fiction, because they defy empathy while being the most amusing person in the room. The reader can’t really cheer for them or pull against them. Think about having an Oscar Wilde/Edgar Allan Poe/Dorothy Parker at a party. You’d hang on their every word and hope they never turned their attention on you. They are the ultimate critics and they can be scary!
Bullies can be evil wits. I think the worst bullies are all evil wits — they are capable of something called “relational bullying.” It’s subtle and devious because you can’t put your finger what they are doing, you just know you are being targeted. I remember one such bully — long before I knew there was a name for his behavior. He managed to make his victims complicit in their own bullying. It was almost impossible to fight back when his verbal onslaught began. The choice always seemed to be consent to being the subject of his humor OR becoming a crybaby instead. No respectable teenager wants to dissolve into tears in public so… there wasn’t a choice.
I’ve been playing with an idea for a bully character. This person would be far outside my comfort zone. I wonder if he’ll bully his writer/creator?