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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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A Pint with the Professor: Intelligent Fiction

Intelligent Fiction

I enjoy speculative fiction stories of many types. One thing that helps me to enjoy a story the most is that it is written intelligently. If the inhabitants live in a time and place where water is scarce, I expect them to behave in such a way as to conserve and treasure water. If a person flagrantly wastes water, then I would expect for there to be some reasonable explanation as to why that is. I most enjoy a social structure and social mannerisms that make sense for that fictitious culture.

Stay with me on this one, but I love comedians because they are able to notice those things in everyday life that are much more funny than I gave them credit for when they happened to me. I am very amazed with how a comedian can take something so ordinary that I would have passed it over, and they can find the comedy in it.

Similarly, I love fiction writers who notice things about people, and they bring that into their characters. A co-worker recently asked me if I wanted an extra taco she ordered but was not going to eat. When I indicated I was not sure, she said then she might ask the only other male on the team if he would want it.

Researchers in social psychology have found that people are usually not aware of why they do many of the things that they do. They can often come up with a justification for it, but the justification usually is not derived until after the person has already exhibited the social behavior in question. People generally want to believe the best of themselves, it is a natural human tendency noticed since even the very first analysts began working with patients regarding their mental health. Therefore, even though we can often come up with a reason for why we did something that we did, that does not mean we understood the reason at the time.

Did you notice in the example above that the co-worker specifically went to the male staff to ask if they wanted food? Noticing things like that is one of the first steps to becoming an intelligent writer, in my opinion. Curiosity about why this is so, is also an important characteristic.

Psychologists often derive explanations for behaviors by looking at the utility of those behaviors. Evolutionary psychology is particularly useful when examining problems of this nature. Similar to general evolutionary theory, this theory posits that humans often behave in certain ways because there is some adaptive utility in doing so. Some might suggest that men are fed first because historically, they have been the protectors of the home. Therefore it would be important for family survival to have the males well fed and healthy. It could be because the male body structure tends to be larger, so we tend to need more calories just to keep our bodies going. It could just be an expression of patriarchy in our society. It might even be true that there is more than one reason.

If we were to sit and brainstorm together over a pint (or four), we could probably come up with many explanations to explain why men get the extra taco. As speculative fiction writers, however, we get to create those little social rules and come up with our own explanations. Intelligent observation can lead to intelligent writing, and to a speculative fiction world that seems plausible and immersive.

Heirs to Mars by Joseph Robert Lewis is a great example of an intelligent speculative fiction world. The story takes place in a future fictional world on an inhabited Mars. In this book, cloners are able to save the minds of people that they believe are worthy, and to place those minds in android bodies that mimic the people they are patterned after, once the person dies. The story in the book is largely the clash in cultures as human society attempts to catch up with the technology. I do recommend the book, I quite enjoyed it.

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) 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. 

A Pint with the Professor: Advice for Fiction Wirters

About A Pint with the Professor

I do believe that the experiences we have, and who we are as people shapes what kind of writers we are and strongly impacts our voice as writers. I teach psychology courses for a major university, and I work in the mental health field. I really do infuse much of my writing with what I understand about people and their psychological make up.

I came up with the idea for this feature on my blog from multiple different sources. It would only be right to acknowledge them, and it might also be interesting to some. Marian Lizzi, an editor, recently wrote in the Writer magazine, that she likes to read books where a smart person is writing about something fun. She said,”Some projects—even at the proposal stage—make you feel like you’re having a pint with a favorite professor. (Not in a creepy way.)” Thus, the name of the feature. Along with this, I realized that I love hearing about how writers think about their own writing and the fictional worlds they create.

I also have to admit a somewhat selfish reason to write this. It is good practice for me to think about these things as well. In order to write something for you, I will have to research, and wrap my head around it first. That helps me to be a better writer, because ultimately I am a very cognitive writer. If it also helps you too, then what an exciting thing for me to be a part of!

So in this series, which I aim to publish each Thursday, I will share how I believe the things I know well, like psychology and sociology impact my writing, and impact the writing of writers that I admire. Each week I will try to preview the next section, so that you can let me know of any stories that provide effective examples of the concept coming up. I would love to feature the work of other writers as examples of the themes I am talking about each week.

What you can expect from me is not the ins and outs of grammar, or the rules about writing. Those things are important, but are not my focus here. You should know, that as the Cat in the Hat says, I am not really a rules guy. So I do not see myself as an authority whom you should not question. I see these things as just my ideas. I don’t mind debating them with you over a pint.

I will focus on the things that I know. I will explore psychology, sociology and other related concepts as they apply to stories and characters. I hope you find it fun, interesting, and informative.

So pull up a stool, grab a pint, and order some fish and chips. Let’s have some fun.

My first post, scheduled for Thursday next week (7/19) will be an examination of the social psychology factors that influence characters. Social psychology is the study of how society impacts each individual person’s psyche.