A Pint with the Professor: The Psychology of Villainy

The Importance of Fleshing out your Villain

People are complicated. Villains, like any other people, are usually complicated. One hallmark of a great villain, in my estimation, is one that I can empathize with. I may not agree with the decisions that they have made, but I can understand why they made those decisions. I am using the term villain and antagonist in this post, because I am really talking about villains for the most part. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain, though, but the same character traits may apply in varying degrees.

If a character is flat, and one-dimensional, then I will not have respect for that character. In most cases, it is important for the reader to have respect for the antagonist, or they will not be able to see the respect that the protagonist has for the antagonist. This is important, because the antagonist is usually the ultimate obstacle for the protagonist.

Empathy for the Antagonist

Justin Cronin, in The Passage is a great example of this. Throughout the novel, I was able to see a bit into the psyche of the nefarious characters, and I found myself sympathizing with people I would normally not want to be friends with. This too me is great fictional writing. These are characters that are the antagonists in the books, and I would never want to be friends with them in real life, but I can find myself understanding them, and even empathizing with them.

Make Your Villain a Personality

Many things can motivate the villain. One thing that the villain should not be, in my opinion, is a character that is not as well thought out as the protagonist, and by association, just the opposite of the antagonist. By this, I mean that the protagonist is good, and the antagonist is evil. The protagonist is messy, and the antagonist is tidy. The protagonist is a country boy, and the antagonist is a city dweller. Booooorrrrriiiiiiiing.

The antagonist should be multidimensional, meaning that they should not been seen solely in contrast with the protagonist. The antagonist should also be a complete personality in their own right. Certainly, there will be some opposition that includes polar opposites, but that should not be the sum extent of the character.

Some Thoughts on Villains

  • Unfiltered Villain – Freud’s theory is that people have three different aspects to their psyche. One of these aspects is the Id, which is our inner toddler. It has basic carnal desires, based on animalistic impulses toward sex and aggression. The Id is chaotic, unreasonable, and seeks immediate pleasure.  The Ego is the person’s self-identity that tries to moderate the impulses of the Id, and the realities of the real world. The SuperEgo develops to help control the person, and have them meet the expectations of society. This is something that develops as a young child starts to become aware of, and influenced by society in general. So the unfiltered villain is one that has a very active Id, but a relatively inactive SuperEgo and/or Ego.  They are driven by instincts of lust and aggression, with little, or no, filtering. A slight variation on this would be the extremely selfish villain, that is just looking out for him or herself.
  • Doin’ the Right Thing Villain– Hitler, and many other historical figures can be thought of in this category.  They may realize they are being looked upon unfavorably for now, but believe that once they have achieved their dream, then the world will come to understand and respect them more. This villain may have other mental health problems that have them seeing the world from a skewed vantage point. They may even see their actions of that of a parent, doing what is best for the child, even though the child may throw a tantrum.
  • Thrill Seeking Villain – Personality theorists have long theorized that there are some people that have a high threshold for pleasure. Something like playing a board game is fun, but running off to Mexico on a whim, or skydiving finally get their heart pumping a little. The Thrill Seeking villain is just trying to make life interesting. Competition and the thrill of edging out an opponent in a high-stakes game is just the ultimate thrill.
  • Turnabout Villain – “You done me wrong,” is more than just the start of a successful country & western song, it is the motivating factor behind this villain type. A villain who is mistreated and abused turns around to do the same to others. Some people that are exposed to violence become peacemakers, while others go with the flow and become violent in turn. With the proliferation of dark fantasy novels, this type of antagonist has shown up a lot in the form of a child who is abused, and grows up turns that abuse on others. This villain may carry around a lot of pain that they may or may not be aware of.
  • Mentally Ill Villain– This kind of villain has mental health problems.
    • The Sociopath – This character has no connection to those parts of the brain that would lead to empathy or connection and concern for others. Some studies have shown that our brains react in sympathy with what we see others going through. For this mental illness, however, this part of their brain just does not function. From an early age, however, they study others, and usually are quite good at “faking it.” That is why the neighbor on TV news always says, “he was such a nice, quiet man.” They can be quite charming, appear very empathetic, and have great concern for others. Is is all an act, however, as underneath it all, they have no real regard for others as anything more than a means to some end.
    • The Mood Disordered – A range of emotions is a normal part of human functioning. Mood disordered characters, however, have wild mood swings that they cannot control. They can become angry an violent at the drop of a hat, even depressed, irritated, and just as quickly snap out of it. This character is a slight exaggeration of what is usually found in real life, but the basis is in reality.
  • Revenge Villain – Perhaps similar to the turnabout villain, this antagonist is exacting revenge on those who he or she believes wronged him. Those who have wronged him or her can be specific people, a group of people, an entire class or society, or the whole world. The whole world you say? Yes, the villain can see the world as stacked against them, particularly if they have experienced a nasty set of life events. People often say “it was meant to be” or even “if God wills it,” so the idea is there for many people, but these villains see the cosmic influence as being negatively set against them.
  • Power Broker – Someone has to be in charge, and have their every whim attended to, and this type of villain says, “why not me?”
  • Resource Manager – This antagonist, particularly useful in more world-building speculative fiction stories, seeks to control a valuable resource or resources. Think of the spice in Dune, water in The Last Stormlord, and so forth. He (or she) who controls the __________, controls everything.

Ultimately I love a villain that is three-dimensional, and seems real. Hopefully that is enough to get you thinking. Maybe I will add more later, if some more comes to me. I would love to hear your comments on other villain types, or villains you love to hate in stories you have read or written. Happy writing!

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

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8 comments

  1. Lois

    I like the idea of the hidden villain, the wolf in sheep’s’ clothing with a charming smile and an innocent air… there’s also the hidden hero, the barely noticeable one who unsheathes their sword totally unexpectedly and strikes fear into the heart of the dastardly wolf!
    Nice pint! Cheers!

    • jrlambert

      Good points. You got me thinking about that villain’s psychological make-up! I knew I would not get every conceivable type, but that is one of the great things about writing, the sheer amount of possibility.

  2. Pingback: Robert JR Graham » The One You Love To Hate
  3. Pingback: The One You Love To Hate — Become a TopSelling Author

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