5 Physical Traits That Determine if a Character Is Evil

Movies are an audiovisual medium, so they've had to develop a bag of tricks to convey the depth of their characters. If a film adapts a book, it can't let you hear a character's internal monologue without making Dune, and nobody wants to watch Dune.

Universal Pictures, what have you done?
No ... just, no.

Instead, they cue the audience to more subtle details with sights and sounds. For example, in this movie I'm watching right now, the female homeowner is giving an audio clue that she is very much enjoying the installation work of her local cable guy.

But some details are subtler than that. A nuanced performance is fine and dandy if you're filming on a tight budget, but major motion pictures are costly, and they can't afford to let details sail over the audiences' thick heads. The characters' personal appearance must tell you everything about them, right down to the slightest imperfection on their skin.

Getty Images
Example: Just a quick glance tells you that this man isn't attractive enough to play a Cracked writer.

Directors use physical traits to share with the audience more than what they could with words. In the March 8 release of Dead Man Down, Niels Arden Oplev (director of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) does just this. He opens with Beatrice, played by Noomi Rapace, removing the bandages from her most recent surgery, which tried to save the face she once had. Now covered with scars, Beatrice's pain lays the foundation for what is to come in this thriller, which tells the story of two strangers irresistibly drawn to each other through a mutual desire for revenge.

A physical clue to someone's maleficent nature is known in Film Trope Land as a "red right hand" (and that's also the name of a particular act illegal in 49 out of the 50 states). Maybe you recognize these telling characteristics from every movie you've ever seen anywhere forever.

#5. Scars


Since we were inspired by Beatrice's scars, let's start off with the obvious: As in real life, scars let us know that a person has been through some decidedly real shit. But here's where fiction differs: placement counts. Receive a wound over your eye and, good or ill, you're the fierce bastard who walked away from a hand-to-hand battle.

(L-R) Disney, Eon Productions, ibid, Universal Pictures
Although whether you'll kill children to achieve your goals remains up to you.

But raise that scar to your forehead, and now you're some poor slugger who's taken his licks and come out stronger for it. In Sin City, Hartigan's an old man, but a hell of a fighter, as most men are when the prize is Jessica Alba, Cowgirl Stripper Edition. Even a villain like Renard in The World Is Not Enough is more of a poor dope in love who's slowly dying of being too impervious to pain.

The most prominent forehead scar in pop culture history belongs to Harry Potter, who was just a baby when Voldemort tried to kill him. The bolt on his brow remains a toehold for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to try again. On the plus side, it serves as an early warning system for Harry to detect when the Dark Lord is plotting evil or stubs his toe. It literally, as well as symbolically, toughened the teen up while blemishing his daily life.

It also gave him a great pickup line: "Yeah, I was that baby who was too tough for the world's most terrifying sorcerer to kill." A scar like that is a sweet deal compared to the acne all the other kids are getting. Sure, it left him with a telepathic pipeline to an evil sorcerer, but how dark could that really be compared to the thoughts of the average teenager?

Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images
"I- I had the chicken dream ... again."

And speaking of those two heroes, let's talk about shape and color for a second. Got a cool white "X" or a beige lightning bolt? Then chicks dig scars. But if it's a glossy, burning keloid, my advice is not to tell 007 your plan before leaving him alone to die.

Put a scar on a guy's chin? Same as the forehead: He's rugged. But move it closer to the mouth, and you have a lunatic clown like The Dark Knight's Joker, or a sneering twerp in Gladiator's Commodus. Think about it: The eyes and mouth are the most expressive parts of the whole human being. Since we're wired to recognize facial expressions, limiting or distorting them creates a dissonance that can disturb people. It's not as off-putting as having your face sliced open, but still.

The reality, of course, is that Commodus' scars are nothing more than a real-life microform cleft palate. Whatever that is, it has not stopped any of the women you date from pretending you are Joaquin Phoenix when you have sex at them, but the movie doesn't care. Gladiator, you might remember, had another scarred character: Cicero, played by Tommy Flanagan.

Chibs cleans up real nice.

Flanagan's real-life "Joker" scars are also known as a Glasgow smile because ... Jesus, are enough people doing that to each other that it has a name? Anyway, Flanagan's resume is a relentless string of tough-guy roles pretty much because something awful happened to him one night and Hollywood said, "Great!"

He's a swell actor, and it's great he's getting the work, but even when he plays a priest, there's a decent chance he's a gun-wielding priest.

Basically, it all comes down to "Does the pain these scars represent define the character, or does he persist in spite of them?"

#4. Slicked-Back Hair

Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

Hollywood prides itself on being cutting edge, but there's one thing that's been true ever since the '80s: The guy with the oiliest hair in the room is untrustworthy.

Blame it on one film: Wall Street.

20th Century Fox
Wall Street is to blame for everything.

As we've mentioned, once Michael Douglas started playing upper-class men in suspenders doing very bad things, people just went with it, despite the fact that when Wall Street was made, nobody on Wall Street dressed like that. But now it's gone beyond brokers and bankers. In fact, it's become such a prevalent image, you get satires of these Jell-O mold clods like American Psycho:

If you can't watch that scene because you're at work and your boss with the slick hair won't let you have any fun, I'll summarize: A half-dozen puddles of hair gel attempt to stand out from one another by seeing who can most closely resemble their oily idol.

You can see this in major bad guys like Hannibal Lecter, whose precise, widow's-peaked hair gives the impression of a devious Dracula, or Agent Smith, the impossibly perfect image of a G-man. Neither of those characters would have the same presence with a stylish tousle of hair. Draco Malfoy has it even though no kid ever bothered to slick down his hair unless it was time to impress girls.

Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
A shiny suit also accounts for an 18 percent rise in violent crime.

Despite being a pretty common hairstyle for decades and decades, that's what people have decided looks evil. And they're still going with it.

Gordon Gekko became the image of the white-collar bad guy (and of Michael Douglas, even though his hair is only slicked back for that one movie). But don't worry, someone else is carrying this stereotype forward. The basic rule of thumb is that any movie set in the present day slicks Andy Garcia's hair back to make him the villain and forward to make him look trustworthy.

Now if you want a deeper character study, break out the safety razor, because the scalp isn't nearly so revealing as ...

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Brendan McGinley

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