Villains are obnoxious and dreadful and lethal – yet we use them. They’re opposition for the protagonist, the shadow that emphasizes light. Readers root for their comeuppance or downfall. They can also be the subject of humor, like Roadrunner’s coyote. Sometimes they’re on a quest for self-improvement and redemption. Often, they stay irredeemable. The Mountain, for example, from Game of Thrones.
Writing gets tough with villains. They’re your characters, and it’s hard to see one (two, three, more) behave so terribly in the sandbox. You say, “Stop it, you’re hurting yourself, too, you know!” But do they listen?
There a theory going around right now that mean girls are the product of an unhealthy need never to be wrong. That their actions are not to bolster their cred or to humiliate others or gain points in some cosmic “name that baddie” contest, but because they fear being mistaken. I predict this theory will be pfff by winter. Remember when bullies were pitied because, oh, poor widdle ones, they must have sub-basement self-esteem? Then psychologists discovered that bullies’ self-regard was unreasonably high, not pathologically low. They thought too much of themselves, yes, they did – as any victim could have told you without a funded study.
No doubt the same will be found of rapists, most of whom are serial: their torture of others is about maintaining their own supremacy in twisted minds that equate other people’s pain, humiliation and terror with winning points.
When I write villains, I use the patterns set by people I know, or know of. One bully is much like another; sociopaths have a lot in common.
Not with us, the healthier people, but with other sociopaths (4% of the US population – that’s one out of every 25 people). Playing the “poor me” card is a sign. These are individuals who have the emotional intelligence of gnats, and all I do is tweak them a little to make them characters acting the way they always act, just in a story. Your corner psychopath. The knife-happy guy two doors down. The woman who keeps needling an acquaintance at work – you know, the one who’s into embarrassment and pain.
Other writers delve deep into their own psyches to design their villains – “what would I do if….?” – which I think is a signal to avoid those writers in the dark hallways of conferences. Maybe they actually are that ill. Maybe they’ll create a monster inside.
Actors are warned not to play too many bad guys, because their body actions (including menacing looks) can influence their own interior thoughts, much like Botox “freezes” empathy (and also makes it hard for babies to recognize their Botoxed moms). Why would writing be any different? Yes, it’s thought, but . . . not only do you write or type the words on the page, we now know the brain is plastic. Use the same pathways over and over, and the brain gets good at them. Works for violin-playing. Probably works with violence and manipulation, too, even if it’s all in the head.
So when you write, be wary of internalizing too much evil. Don’t make the mistake of bringing disturbed characters inside you. They’ll do more damage there than they will on the page. Empathize with them from a distance. Bad genes, bad brain chemicals, dreadful parents, a will to induce pain, past trauma unexplored, whatever.
They’re theirs, not mine.