Your Inner Bad Guy

Guest  Post by Julie Wu

I have never struck a child.  I would like to think I never would, no matter what.  No matter if I had been born in 1920, had eight children, an absent husband, and lived in an occupied country during World War II.  I would like to believe that there is a huge, unbridgeable gulf between “a child abuser” and someone like me.

And that belief is a problem, because one of the characters in my book, The Third Son, does beat her son. Repeatedly.  She singles him out, even siphoning food from him to her other children until he becomes malnourished.  “I don’t understand why she’s so mean,” my readers have said, reading my drafts over the years.

I have worked hard to make all my other characters well rounded, believable.  In a previous draft of my book, the narrator was omniscient and all the main characters had a point of view.

Except this mother.

She was a monster who did not deserve a point of view.  There are monsters like her, I thought.  Not everyone is likeable.  The fact that she was modeled after a real person who hurt someone I love made me empathize with her even less.

No one could possibly be that mean.”

Well, yes, they could.  I stuck to my guns.  I wasn’t going to water her down.  Hitler was real.  Joan Crawford was real.

Over the years I have swallowed my pride and used all kinds of criticism to improve my book.  Opening needs to change?  Done.  Second half needs a new plot?  No problem.  Hardly a page of the original manuscript exists.  But the mother never changed.

Until now. My tenth year of working on the book, now under contract.  My editor has called me to the carpet one last time: fix the mother.

Finally, I realized I have no excuses.  I must round out this character.  But in order to do that, I have to bridge that gulf.  I need to do something I’ve never wanted to do before—get inside the head of the abuser.

I’ve realized the mother has always been hazy in my mind: essence of mean old woman.  I prefer to think of her that way, distant from myself in every way.  I have to force myself to think of her as she actually is—young, intelligent, with her own thwarted dreams. She does have eight children and a husband who is rarely home.  She lives in a country that is not only occupied by a foreign power but is also repressive, a culture that condones physical punishment.  Her days are marked by toil and fatigue, by fear, loss, and guilt, and never knowing how she will do it all.

It’s uncomfortable to think of her this way.  I know why I resisted doing so for so long.  Understanding her, empathizing with her, identifying with her—it’s a slippery slope, and it makes me wonder if there really is a great gulf between me and her, between the good guys and the villains.  How much is character?  How much is circumstance?  How much differently would I really have behaved in her shoes?

I have gotten off my high horse, because the backstory, the view from the inside—that’s the difference between a monster and the face in the mirror.

Will you believe this mother now?  I think so.

And I hope she makes you as uncomfortable as she makes me.


Julie Wu’s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Spring, 2013.  The Third Son takes place during the tumult of post-World War II Taiwan, where the disfavored son of a Taiwanese politician fights his brother for the woman he loves and for the chance to make a life with her in America.

Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine.  Also a physician, she has published creative nonfiction in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.



  1. Joan Mora says:

    Such a helpful post! I, too, have an evil character that many of my readers have questioned. You’ve given me the push to dig deeper–to get the view from inside, as you wrote, and make him more believable. My query drill will be a bit postponed–but the story will be stronger when I’m done. Thanks–and I look forward to reading The Third Son!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thank you so much–Joan, Necee, Javed, Carlen, and Christiane! I’m so glad this post strikes a chord with you, and thrilled to hear it helps you think about your own bad guys!

  2. Necee says:

    Hi Julie–I read this with great interest as one of my protagonists is faced with the questions you are asking of yourself: what is the gulf between good guys and bad, and given certain circumstances, what are we each capable of? I’m also happy you’ve shared your process of writing and rewriting–over ten years–and how you’ve believed in your book enough to stick with it. Give me hope. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Javed says:

    Hi Julie, thanks for sharing a matter that is important and tough – how to deal with a malevolent character who must still have humanity somewhere in there, but without any confusion of their ill intentions.

  4. Carlen Arnett says:

    Read this with real interest, Julie, as I have one or two “baddies” in the long story I’m working on. Amazingly, the picture chosen to illustrate your post here is one I have taken as a mask for the bag-girl hero of my tale, The Little Robber Girl. She appears from time to time in my profile pic on my Fb page!

    Thank you for setting me thinking.

  5. Dear Julie, what a great post. The struggle to grant every character a multi-faceted personality, it’s our daily bread. Love the photo. She looks like she could sing “I wanna be evil” in an Eartha Kid raspy voice.

  6. Leslie Greffenius says:


    Not too long ago, I was working on a short story I titled “The Doctor’s Care”. When people asked me about it, I told them it was about a pediatrician pedophile. Just those (last) two words made many – besides me – cringe. The perfect occupation for such a guy, isn’t it? And so I had the nasty task of trying to get into his head, which was very scary, I suppose, for the same reasons you describe so well: I would never even come close to sexually abusing a child. Even the desire to do so is sick. Even the attempt to empathize with a person who would do such a thing is suspect. I’m not sure how well I succeeded in portraying my doctor, and I’ll be very interested in reading your portrayal of the wicked mother in “The Third Son.” Thanks for this excellent post!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Leslie! and wow, I’d surely have a tough time with a pediatrician pedophile, too! I think most people would have an easier time sympathizing with a murderer. I suppose that’s the genius of Lolita.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Julie, this is a fascinating subject that resonates with me, too. I’ve also been circling around an issue of bad mothering in my book without even realizing it. I look forward to meeting your monster, whom I suspect I’ll “admire” on the same grounds as I did Leslie’s pedophile — as a character, not a neighbor.