Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Evil and Rotten!

So Tuesday is Mr. Tart's class night (that, and Sunday daytime)... I got home last night to make dinner for the childings... come inside... it's dark and quiet. I holler. No answer. I go to the top of the stairs and holler again. No answer. I turn on the tree and lights in the living room and go to the porch for a soda. Dog is whining. I let him in and ask him who left him out, but mostly he just wiggled his butt and gave me the greeting whine. I came downstairs to turn on the computer... dark. I went back upstairs and picked up the phone, calling my daughter.

No answer. I try again... I hear, “Mom! Why are you calling me?” Both kids had been hiding in the basement... *rolls eyes*

But that isn't actually evil... just a little naughty.

What I am REALLY here to talk about today was inspired by one of Colene Murphy's questions yesterday. She was asking about evil... evil PEOPLE. She watches a show which I've never seen about really horrible people, but her question was... how might they be different if somebody had helped? I have some educational knowledge here for the real life case, so I thought I'd start there, but then take that a step further and look at how we can use that for our villains in our fiction.

The Psychopath and the Sociopath

Now if you don't know the difference between these, you're not alone. There is actually some professional disagreement on the matter and both fall under the heading Antisocial Personality Disorder. I actually had to look them up, as they are often used interchangeably, especially by lay people. What I got out of the description I went to though, is a Psychopath can fake it better. Both lack empathy, are manipulative, can be cruel. But a psychopath takes the effort to observe and learn how one ought to behave and so SOCIALLY can seem quite charming. The sociopath can't hide his pathology in a social setting... totally makes sense... one's pathology is limited to psychology (Psychopath), the other also extends to the social domain (sociopath). It isn't clear whether this is because the sociopath lacks comprehension to learn those skills, or lacks desire (doesn't care what anybody thinks), but it means that the Psychopath is infinitely scarier because we don't always know who they are.

The rate in prisons of psychopath/sociopath-ism (according to the Google *shifty*) is 20-25%, though the manifestation is more often scamming and scheming than violence. The motivation of a 'normal' criminal tends to be hardship, learned benefit (living somewhere criminals have more than non-criminals, or at least fewer negatives), difficult upbringing... in a psychopath they enjoy pulling one over... tricking—proving their superiority over others.

The key here though, to part of Colene's question, is the brain issue... YES these people do tend to have a genetic propensity, that is—their biology is different. HOWEVER, in order for the disorder to manifest itself (aka: show up) there also needs to be 'nurturing risk'--abuse, horrible experience, learned behavior—it won't show up all on its own (though it won't show up at all in others).

MOST Evil People...

Well that depends on what you mean by EVIL... in reality, most people who can be seen as evil believe they are doing the right thing—they just have really messed up thinking on the matter (typically taught, sometimes tricked). They have justified to themselves, either that the ends justify the means, or that the means themselves also are okay.


They have been put in desperate circumstances and think they have no choice (perhaps they are cowardly)...

In the above examples, to use Harry Potter examples, Voldemort is a psychopath—born with the Slytherin bad blood, but raised in neglect without love. Umbridge is a good example of thinking she is working for the greater good and the ends justify the means, and Wormtail is a coward who sees this as the only way out.

It would have taken an awful lot to have made Tom Riddle NOT AWFUL, but I think it could have happened. And for the Umbridges and Malfoys, they would have had to be raised differently, but they really are products of what they are taught. I happen to hold the Marauders responsible for Wormtail. I think he was the picked upon of the group and if they'd shown him more kindness he might have found it in him not to turn on them.

NOW what about in YOUR BOOKS?! What do you need to keep in mind?

For starters... I would say even though Psychopaths are the scariest bunch in real life, I don't think they are nearly as interesting to read. I mean... I know there are exceptions... somebody like Hannibal Lecter has a certain CHARM that makes him fascinating in spite of himself, though I would argue he is at least as fascinating because of the exception he makes of Clarisse as he is for anything awful he does.

I think it is far MORE interesting to read about a villain that we can understand... someone who is bad because of hardship or because they've been badly misguided by trusted figures... manipulated, used, abused. A villain is much more fascinating if we can say, “holy crap, I could see that,” and wipe sweat from our brow in relief that we didn't have that happen—don't you think?

The Interesting Case of Severus Snape.

Is there a better character in literature? Not many. People STILL (series over) argue whether he is good or bad. We see bits of his childhood—abuse in his household, bullying by his peers... ACCEPTANCE on some level from the deatheaters (most speculation suggests he is recruited for talent, though the canon on the matter is much more vague). So he works for the bad guys. He does horrible things. He is a NASTY PERSON (bullying Neville, for instance, or Hermione), yet.... he is trusted by DD... and the book 7 reveal... well I won't go into it in case you haven't read or seen, but he's a GREAT example of how compelling a character can be who initially seems one thing, then another, then we understand a little better so it is yet a THIRD thing... There are at least 5 iterations of Severus Snape in those books.

So what are the things you can do to make a compelling hero?

* Create a backstory with WHY they are like they are. (this doesn' t mean you have to put it all in the book, but you need to KNOW it and HINT at it)... bad experiences or indoctrinization in some wonky thinking.

* Give a compelling motive that actually RELATES to the story.

* Make them SMART. (except possibly in cozy mysteries) But a dumb villain is not worthy of the effort to solve the crime.

What else? Can you think of things that make for really compelling bad guys?


Fire and Ice said...

Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed this, Hart. I love when you use HP references.
I thought you would go into Bellatrix as well from the picture, but anyone that knows the character knows she pretty much falls in the Sociopath catagory...she doesnt hide what she is or what she does. It makes me wonder about the actual upbringing of the Black sisters, when you consider one turned out to be a great person, one is a lunatic and one redeems herself a bit even if she is a complete snob. What happened to make them each so different? was it genetic or was it their upbringing? If it was the upbringing, Why then did Andromeda turn out so well while Bella is completely off her rocker and Narcissa seems to be content to watch abuse to those who she deems lower than herself?

Here I go rambling again...anyways. Great one today. Oh and how sneaky of the little ones to be hiding in the basement! Did you find out why?


CA Heaven said...

For me the perfect villain is a dentist. He is spending his entire professional career in a torture chamber, and I can't see any other motivation than evil for choosing such a lonesome and boring occupation >:D

Cold As Heaven

Ted Cross said...

I'm doing this right now with a character who starts out on the wrong side but is eventually redeemed. I has a right to be angry -- he was the oldest son of a minor noble, but while the man was still married to his first wife, so when his father eventually does marry his mother and has another son, THAT boy is the legit one who inherits everything. I get a malicious joy in imagining the things I can have him do early on, though deep down inside he is not really an evil boy.

M.J. Nicholls said...

Big beady eyes, smokes constantly, is generally rude. Instant bad guy. (Or my cousin Paul).

Ca88andra said...

This was excellent to read. I haven't read or seen many of the Harry Potter books but got the gist of it.

Adina West said...

Great post Hart. Don't have anything much to add to the three points you've raised. A villain definitely needs to have depth. One dimensional baddies are a pet peeve of nearly everyone.

I agree with the Snape example - keeping the reader guessing, again and again, and constantly shifting the ground under our feet the way Rowling does with this character was pretty masterful.

Hart Johnson said...

Leesh-those Black sisters are nuts! You're right on Bella, I think. I think Andromeda was actually a REBEL, but rebelling against bad ideas made her good... Narcissa, I suspect was pampered and protected, so she had the bad GENE without the mistreatment.

CaH-totally with you on dentists!

Ted-I like those cases--of the 'bad because of resentment or event but not at HEART so they can come around'--definitely more interesting that solidly evil.

mark *snort* Count Olaf!!!

Cassandra-glad you could still follow! I love those books, but they also are an easy reference because I know them so well and know MANY of my readers do, though obviously not all!

Adina-yeah-I think that would be a DREAM as a writer--to write somebody so well that people could argue forever, all with good evidence to back them up!

Old Kitty said...

Make them sexy and oozing sex appeal and sexual naughtiness!!! Ahem!

:-) Take care

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

To me, it's always chilling when the bad guy is someone we'd pegged as a good guy. Sometimes the villains aren't obvious--they fit in with everyone else. I

I think you've brought up some great examples! Am tweeting this.

Anonymous said...

My villains are definately sciopaths. I spend a lot of time in their POV. This gives the reader two perspectives of the good guys. You can't develop the protagonist only in their POV. That's too biased and one sided. I like to reader to know why the evil guy hates the good guy so much and to do that you have to be in the villain's POV a lot.

Dawn Ius said...

Wow. So much awesome advice here...

Arlee Bird said...

You have presented a comprehensive view of this topic. You lost me a little with the Harry Potter references since I have thusfar avoided the series. But overall I see what you are saying.
As I was reading I realized that very few of the things that I have written have had any really evil villains in them. I usually deal more on a level of conflicts from the standpoint of differing viewpoints and have not yet dealt with evil as an active part of the story.

I do like to know the motivation of what made the person who they are. Like Citizen Kane did they have a "Rosebud" somewhere in their past that became the underlying force that drives them to do what they do. Or what was it in Charles Manson's childhood that shaped him into the man he became?

Tossing It Out

Carol Kilgore said...

I loved this post! Probably the reason is because I love writing my villains. They are the heroes of their own stories. I get really caught up if I'm writing in their POV, but in my WiP my villain is very present in the story with a full background story but never is a POV character.

Sarah Ahiers said...

i like villains that are likeable. I want to root for that villain, even though i know he's evil, even though i'm also rooting for the good guy. I find those villains the most compelling

mshatch said...

I think it's fun to throw in a 'nice' characteristic for the 'evil' person; that's what made Hannibal Lecter likeable, or Riddick in Pitch Black, or Alan Rickman's character in Die Hard. He was such a gentleman, so very polite. I couldn't quite hate him.

great post!

Hart Johnson said...

Jenny *snort* oozy sexy sex appeal villains! LUCIUS MALFOY! (though honestly, that is entirely Jason Isaacs fault... how I adore him...)

Elizabeth! Thank you so much for tweeting! And totally agree--I love it when you can't see it coming. Good think to keep in mind in planning!

Stephen-that is another excellent way to add contrast--to see the 'good guys' in a more layered way.

Dawn, thank you!

Lee-I think genre makes a huge difference on how 'villainy' villains are--I think thrillers, suspense and much mystery sort of needs a viable villain, but most of life's conflicts (and so most genres) call more for a difference of perspective. Charles Manson was definitely full-fledged psychopath, but I haven't read anything on his EARLY stuff to know what the additional trigger(s) was.

Hart Johnson said...

Carol-that is great you are so engaged in your villains! This is something I am still working on.

Sarah-so funny! I definitely like some villains, but if I do, I want some redemption for them in the end (Draco...)

MSHatch-Welcome! I don't think I've seen you before--and YES! Impeccable manners do add--I like villains to have some CODE--a line they think is too far, even if it is far farther than the norm.

Creepy Query Girl said...

wow, that's so interesting about psychopaths and sociopathes. I always thought it was the sociopathes were able to put up a more 'charming' front. And what better examples than Harry Potter? sigh. That series just has EVERYTHING!

Cheeseboy said...

I like the idea that psychopaths are boring to read about. Somehow gives them less power. I doubt I will ever write about a Psychopath.

Ann said...

Thank you for clarifying the subtle difference between psychopaths and sociopaths. Harry Potter is an excellent example of an array of villains. I always find it more chilling though when the villain turns out to be someone the victim should have been able to trust...someone who was suppose to caring for them. I found the movie Sybil very disturbing.

Colene Murphy said...

Oh my. I love this post. It is my favorite so far of all time! I love talking about psychological things!Great answers. Great discussion and GREAT tips on characters! Thanks so much!

Hart Johnson said...

Katie-that would be the more intuitive way (that socio would go with sociaBLE) but the meaning of 'path' flips it around. Thanks!

Abe-*snicker* either takes the power or allows them their SECRECY BUWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I just don't think a reader can quite RELATE, most of us not being psychopaths ourselves...

Ann-Oh, I totally agree--those evil caretakers are the worst! (it is why I hate Umbridge more than Voldy or Bella--she is supposed to be working for the good guys--though Bella so obviously loves torture that she isn't very pleasant either)---still--parents or teachers? The WORST!

Colene-glad it met your expectations! It was great inspiration to work with, so thank you!

Anonymous said...

Depends upon what the role of the villain is. If it's the ultimate bad guy in the book then I want someone cunning and smart. A psychopath if you will. Generally, I prefer the righteous ones since they're more upfront with their beliefs and these are very fun to challenge as a reader and a writer never mind giving them that comeuppance they so rightly deserve (hated/loved Umbridge for this reason). If the main bad guy people get to latch on to is like Severus then there must be a REALLY bad guy; one that is beyond redemption.

Great post, Hart. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've read all the Harry Potter books so the examples were so spot on for me. What a great post!

Deb and Barbara said...

This is so weird -- had a book club meeting yesterday and the topic was ... evil and good. So funny to read you blog about here! Too intense to get into in a comment, but since you talk about evil characters, I do have to add that my own ms has a complicated main character in it that is a sociopath. It's a tricky line in terms of reader enjoyment and author intent.

Great topic!
The Middle Ages

Hart Johnson said...

Kimberly-excellent point about the layers and multiple bad guys. I actually LOVE that--a character thinks they are fighting one layer of evil and then flies in the other SO MUCH BIGGER evil... And you're right about it depending the purpose... definitely depends on the style.

Ciara-glad they worked for you!

Barbara-Fascinating to write from that perspective! I am currently watching Dexter on DVD and he is definitely BIOLOGICALLY a psychopath, but has been taught some rules and so applies a very wonky justice with his urges (and in fact through that is learning some things approximating feelings). I think Humbert Humbert is a sort of sociopath and that works. I think it takes a careful line, but when it succeeds it can REALLY work because it is so rare.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Villains are a hot topic right now! I'd think Lector from Silence of the Lambs would be a perfect example of a psychopath.

Rusty Carl said...

Whoa. I'm having a Keanau Reeves type moment of realization. I've always joked that I'm borderline sociopathic, but maybe not. I don't think I'm evil though, so psychopathic doesn't seem right.

Are their good psychopaths? Folks who lack empathy and the ability to connect emotionally with others but have learned to live in society (and not be evil) by treating it as a game... say this and get this response, do that and this is the result... without actually acting on instinct or emotion.

Anyway, great post as always. My villains are generally pretty straight up evil. I could probably use some work there. I'll take this under advisement.

lisahgolden said...

I've been struggling with this very question in my WIP. Both of my "bad guys" are mothers. I didn't intend it to happen that way, but it did. And now it makes me wonder what's working in my brain to make it so.

Ella said...

This was really informative; It makes me think how to work my evil MIL into the story. She heard my FIL give me a compliment, then my world became hellish. I could write the truth and it would read like fiction. Great post~

erica and christy said...

Hart, I really love this post. This past summer I served as a juror and the definition(s)of antisocial personality disorder was drilled into us as were the exams used to diagnose the disorder. Plus, you've got me thinking more about interesting to create such a villain that is despised and yet the reader can't help rooting for in a way....Loved the pics and use of examples of villains. thanks, christy

Cinette said...

Love the post! I skimmed over some of the HP references, though. Just started the series:0)
I have to disagree about Psychopaths being boring; Dexter is one of my most favorite characters!

Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) said...

I'm not current on my nomenclature, but in case you're interested, in medicine, "psychopath" is just the layterm for antisocial personality disorder. Hallmarks of that condition are intelligence, often charm, but certainly expert skill at manipulating other people for the individual's ends.

Re your question: I like bad guys who aren't all bad, even in the present. That's why I'd agree with you about Lecter. He's capable of great evil most of the time, but he also shows mercy, compassion, respect, and a willingness to mentor a vulnerable person. We can't help ask "why?" That's a powerful hook.

Hart Johnson said...

Alex-oh yeah... classic psychopath!

Rusty-there are other emotional disorders, though it also sounds POSSIBLE you inherited the gene but didn't have the experiences that made for the 'bad outcome'

Lisa-I have a habit of writing mothers who are bad in some way, too--I figure mine are unfinished business-HA! But when bad, they really ARE the worst, as the position of control is horrible.

Oh dear, Ellie! See, my mom IS the evil MiL... I figure you writer her into something as revenge *teehee*

Christy-Oh! Being a juror is a writer's dream for research (though I am sure my views make me a bad option--I am too empathetic with the bad guy and not AT ALL for any business entity)

Cinette-I tried not to really give spoilers, but understandable! And I agree Dexter has a lot of charm, but I think it's hard to do.

Jan-you're right about the DSM-V officially terming it anti-social personality disorder. And Lecter really IS an interesting mix, isn't he?

Dominic de Mattos said...

Great post and lots of food for thought there.

So how do you define a villain that knows what he wants and is going to let absolutely nothing get in his way (including the MC!) Not exactly evil in the classical sense, but just warped priorities. (If we look hard enough I think we will find any number of these characters in big business or banks!)

Followed Michaels recommendation here - pleased to meet you!


Mark P Sadler said...

For research, and a little light reading, I am tucked into a book titled 'Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives' - want to be sure my character is somewhat normal in his evilness