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The Appeal of Evildoers

We try to be good, but we love to see evil in action.

Of a fictional kind, of course.

Which is why the death of Larry Hagman, at the age of 81, was a blow to those who relish depictions of outsized characters who are unashamed to take what they want.

Hagman, of course, became most famous for his role as ruthless patriarch J.R. Ewing in the long-running television series, “Dallas,” and its recent successful reboot. Before that, he had starred in the 1960s sitcom, “I Dream of Jeannie,” in which he played an astronaut. He was adept at silly farce, such as in this series, which ran five years, which is perhaps why his portrayal of J.R. was so compelling: Hagman found the humor in hateful behavior (by all accounts, he was a decent man in real life).

Around the time “Dallas” launched, a British miniseries based on Robert Graves’s historical novels of ancient Rome, “I Claudius,” was finding an international audience (not as commanding by a long shot as Dallas, but popular nonetheless). In it, the leading villainess is Livia Drusilla, the third wife of Augustus Caesar and the mother of the emperor Tiberius. Sian Phillips, the actress who embodied the evil Livia and was struggling with motivations for portraying her dastardly behavior, was told by the director to “just be evil,” and in doing so, Livia became the hated character viewers most loved to watch plot, scheme and kill.

Fictional villainy is quite rewarding. In real life, not so much. But to look at people who scheme to get what they want gives us ordinary folks someone to root for: good people are usually far less driven. And we like to see people with a plan, however diabolical, and to see them carry that plan out.

Back in the nuts-and-bolts world of writing your book and building your platform to grow your audience, these driven characters might teach you something about focus.

You don’t have to be bad to get ahead, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be single-minded about it.

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