Psychology of the Villain

Villains. We love to hate them, and at times hate to find we love them. Last Tuesday’s Aussie Writers post looked at the possible motivations behind a villain’s actions, but what in their psyche allows them to make the choices that lead to these villainous deeds? To help me answer this question, I thought I better enlist an expert, so I teamed up with PsychWriter author, Tamar Sloan, to explore a villain’s psychology.

man-1930522_1920

A complex villain in most books isn’t your run of the mill sociopath with fifteen bodies in their basement. Yes, these individuals exist. We’ve seen the documentaries and read the books about them, but the broken characters we love to hate have greater depth than that. The villain of our masterpiece is usually a wounded human with the capacity for empathy, guilt and remorse. A human who makes choices that violate ethical, legal and moral boundaries.

What ultimately makes them a villain is that they reach a point where they’re okay with their choice, maybe even delight in it, and it’s the progression to this point that is valuable to tease out as a writer. Either in the planning or in the aftermath, your villain moves through a series of psychological steps that allows them to live with their choices and sleep the sleep of the guilt-free (or mostly guilt-free). Capture this process in your book and you’ve got a realistic, authentic villain your readers are going to be fascinated by, and possibly even understand on some primal, psychological level.

So what is this psychological, possibly subconscious, process your villain goes through before or after their villainous deeds?

The starting point is often a discrepancy between your villain’s beliefs and their behaviour. We each hold many beliefs and thoughts about the world and ourselves. Most of the time these beliefs, and the choices we make, coexist happily in the folds of our grey matter. Sometimes though, discrepancies arise. Like when we eat chocolate cake even though we know we should be dieting. Like saying family comes first, but then having an affair. Or like saying we value humanity, and then sacrificing thousands in the name of a cause.

293H

Image credit: Ryan McGuire http://www.gratisography.com

When our beliefs and behaviour clash we become uncomfortable. Nervous. Distressed. And if there’s one thing our brain doesn’t like, and has evolved to avoid, it’s discomfort. So it will do what it needs to do to achieve harmony and balance. Since the behaviour has usually already happened, or is committed to happening, the brain needs to do some cognitive gymnastics, and your villain will probably do one or more of the following:

  1. Change their belief: The ‘I don’t really need to be on a diet’ reasoning.

Saruman in the classic Lord of the Rings uses such reasoning. Originally a powerful Istari entrusted with guarding Middle Earth like Gandalf, Saruman’s belief—and allegiance—changes when he comes to believe that Sauron’s victory can’t be avoided. His love of power drives him to abandon his order and convinces him that he’s better off on the side of evil.

  1. Minimise their behaviour and how they perceive it: The ‘I hardly ate any chocolate cake at all’ reasoning.

From Middle Earth to Creekwood High and Martin Addison in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It’s not often the class clown is written as the villain, but when Martin stumbles on a personal email of Simon’s, he threatens to out him unless he helps Martin get close to Simon’s friend, Abby. When Simon asks if Martin is actually going to make him do this, Martin deftly minimises his behaviour:

‘Make you? Come on. It’s not like that … It’s not like anything … I was just thinking you would want to help me here.’

  1. Rationalise their behaviour: the ‘Chocolate cake is a good source of calcium’ reasoning.

The Hunger Games series offers us a slow-boil villain in President Alma Coin. She is all about freeing Panem and making it a better place, but her desire to take President Snow’s place as ruler at any cost, including killing Katniss’ sister, Prim, reveals her for the power hungry sociopath that she really is. Whether an act or her true belief, Alma Coin’s ‘for the greater good’ reasoning continues to the very end:

‘Today, the greatest friend to revolution will fire the shot to end all wars. May her arrow signify the end of tyranny and the beginning of a new era.’

  1. Reduce perceived choice: the ‘I didn’t have a choice. It would have been rude not to eat it …’ reasoning.

Twilight’s Aro is a villain with very clear cut, black and white principles. His primary objective as head of the Volturi coven is to keep the existence of their kind hidden. When it’s rumoured that Bella and Edward have created an immortal child, Aro argues he ‘has no choice’ but to destroy the infant who poses a threat of exposure for the vampires. Only when Aro sees a vision of his own death as a result of him trying to kill the child does he back down and let her live. Even a vampire sleeps easier at night when he’s convinced himself he had no choice.

Disclaimer: no chocolate cake was harmed in the writing of this article! Well, not a lot of it anyway, and our hands were tied. We had to eat it … for research purposes.

About the author:

Tamar Profile Photo

Tamar really struggled writing this bio because she hasn’t decided whether she’s primarily a psychologist who loves writing, or a writer with a lifelong fascination for psychology. Somehow she got lucky enough to do both. Tamar is the author of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.

ProphecyAwakened453x680

 

Tamar is also a passionate writer of young adult stories of finding love and life beyond your comfort zone. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com

 

 

 


Kat Colmer Author

Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Four non-traditional antagonists

Source: Shutterstock

This month we’re talking about villains; we’ve already had posts about some excellent bad guys, but I thought I’d talk a little about four less tangible villains that I’d argue are even more threatening than your Voldemorts and Levanas by virtue of the fact that they often can’t be beaten, no matter what. They also aren’t always a solo act — they might combine forces with a more-traditional bad guy to deliver a one-two punch to our hero.

War

While in some books there might be a villain behind the war, someone that can be found and beaten, quite often they remain a mysterious background force rather than a real person. For example, in Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden, the characters never fight the unseen general presumably directing the invasion of Australia. Even the individual invading soldiers that they encounter aren’t dastardly criminals in their own right, they’re (mostly) guys doing a job. Alien invasions are another example where the war is bigger than one villainous person.

Disease

This list is starting to read a little bit like the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! But disease (and its unkind sidekick, death) is a pretty common bad guy in YA fiction — you need look no further than cancer in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or any number of other books where one of the characters struggles with illness. You could also argue that disease is the bad guy in certain types of zombie fiction — the types where zombification is contagious.

Time

You often see time as the bad guy in the sorts of books that have blurbs that include phrases such as “in a race against time”. In YA, time is also present in the looming end of high school for characters who don’t want to face that their life is about to change and their friends are going to move away. A great example is The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil.

The environment

I love survival fiction. Loooooove it. The sort of books that do environment as villain well include These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner — with the characters’ trek across the surface of an uninhabited planet — and the first two Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. The latter take the environment-as-villain concept to a new level by having it actually respond to thwart the characters … albeit at the direction of some more-traditional bad guys. (Natural disasters are an obvious sub-category here, though they aren’t my usual genre so I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head.)

These are my top four, but there are other candidates, such as famine (the last of the Horsemen!) and poverty. What are your favourite books where the things the characters struggle against most aren’t each other?


Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who has just revealed the cover for her fifth novel, False Awakening. You can see it here and read an excerpt. You know, if you want to.

5 tips for a memorable villain

This month at Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking about the bad guys of the story–the villains.

When it comes to writing villains, it can be easy to fall into some bad habits. Here are my top tips for creating a worthy opponent to your fabulous lead character:

  1. Give the villain strong motivation: Why is your bad character a bad character? Sure, you could fall into the all-too-easy “because he/she is just evil”, but how realistic is that? There are true psychopaths in life, but truly memorable villains tend to have reasons for their bad behaviour. Did they suffer during their childhood? Perhaps they don’t have a support network and have battled mental health? Or perhaps again, they’re not really a bad person, simply someone who wants something that puts them at direct odds with your protagonist? Whatever the reason, make it clear to help enhance your villain as a character and make him or her a real person/creature.
  2. Give him or her at least one redeeming quality: Just like your villain should have a reason for his or her bad-assery, he or she should also have at least one redeeming quality. How many people do you know without at least one positive personality trait? Whether you only give us a glimpse of this or you show the quality in its full glory, this can make your villain not just lifelike, but possibly the tiniest bit likeable, creating a very memorable villain indeed.

    Faceless man in hood on the rooftop

    Is your villain a real person or just a shadow in the dark? Photo: Stock.Adobe.com

  3. Avoid the villain reveal: We’ve all seen it. It’s the climax of the story. The bad guy has the good guy trapped, tied up in rope, and he’s about to slit our hero’s throat! Calamity! The end is in sight!
    And what better thing to do when you have the hero completely in your clutches, ready to die a slow and painful death, than launch into a monologue, explaining your motivation to date and exactly why you did what you did? This is a cliched action performed by many villains, and outside of scenes in Inspector Gadget (where they also use the infamous “I’ll get you next time, Gadget” line) I don’t think it flies. It’s not realistic. And not only that, but there’s no motivation for the villain to tell the hero all that information, making the villain less life-like and therefore less scary in a time when you want him to appear all powerful and ferocious.
  4. Offer up a worthy opponent: Is the villain in your story all powerful, the strongest man in the universe–but a bit low in brainpower? Often, we can get carried away creating a heap of braun to combat our good guys and leaving our villains lacking in one major department–mental strength. This doesn’t just apply to villains involved in a physical showdown with our hero–whether your bad guy is a land developer with cold, hard cash to your hero’s tree hugger, or an opponent vying for a job at the same company, fighting your hero by dismantling his or her computer and leaving her stranded at the copy machine, you want to make sure your villain has the smarts to help create believable and truly deep drama.
    Yes, some villains are perhaps unintelligent, bumbling idiots. Yes, these sort of people do exist in real life. Do they make a worthy opponent for your fabulous lead character, however? And are they helping to create the maximum amount of tension between your hero and themselves by giving readers the notion that perhaps they could win? I don’t think so.
  5. Bring the villain into your home: Bringing your villain into the “safe” place of the hero can up the tension and raise the stakes. This can work in multiple ways: you can physically bring the villain into your hero’s home ground, or you can take someone close to your hero and turn them into the antagonist. This is particularly useful in contemporary reads. Think of things like the child putting the mother in the nursing home; the parents telling the child they can’t run riot in the rain late at night; a loved one not believing the hero when he or she tells about the fantastical thing he or she has seen. Having someone close to your hero display villainous traits or become a villain by offering an opposing viewpoint he or she feels passionately about can sometimes result in the most tension-filled novel of all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lauren K. McKellar is the author of romance reads that make you feel, as well as an editor of fiction. You can get in touch with her via her website or Facebook.

Are villains just misunderstood heroes?

Welcome to May, lovely readers, and welcome to a new theme here on AO&R. This month we’ve decided to take on villains and I’m going to kick that off with a chat about the awesome craze of villains getting their own story.

We all know that any good villain is just a poor misunderstood soul, right? Bad guys (Dr Evil excepted) don’t think they’re the bad guy. They have their own agenda, which they run to because they believe it’s right. All of their dastardly actions have reasons and these baddies are just people, merely heroes flipped on their heads so that they’re the only ones who think of themselves as heroes. But what if we flipped it back the other way, looking at the story from a whole different angle? What if the villain was actually a hero? Great idea! Let’s take a look how easy it is to turn things around.

(spoiler alert for Wicked, Maleficent, and Jesus Christ Superstar)

The Wicked Witch of the West is a mean, green hag who chases poor Dorothy across Oz until she catches the young girl, who she then imprisons before trying to steal the child’s magical shoes. Yep, she’s a villain alright. But … what if the Witch, let’s call her Elphaba, enchanted a pair of beautiful ruby slippers for her disabled sister, allowing the other woman to walk. Amazing! In blew a whole house and landed on Elphaba’s beloved sister, squashing her to death and leaving her red shoes free for the taking by a little girl. Suddenly our witch doesn’t sound so horrid.

The Wicked Witch of the West as portrayed in the Wizard of Oz.

Then there’s Maleficent, the horrible witch (there’s that word again) who curses Princess Auroa, so that a pinprick to her finger after she turns sixteen will send her into a deep slumber. Wow, these witches sure are mean! But … what if Maleficent was actually a poor wronged soul, who’d been betrayed by her one true love in the name of fear and personal advancement? Would she be so horrid then or would we feel a little sorry for her?

Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo credit https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32836217

 

Then there’s Judas, who betrayed Jesus by dobbing him in to Herod ultimately leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. What if that same man was worried about his friend’s recent actions and only went to the king because he feared his mate was now at risk of doing harm instead of the good they’d always preached together? Would we then have some understanding for misunderstood Judas?

Yes, I am taking all of my references from musicals / Disney. Thanks for noticing. 🙂

My point is this: a good hero needs a goal; something they want to achieve. And to make this believable they need a motivation for reaching the goal. If we give these attributes to our villains too then they become the hero of their own stories.

If you’re interested in reading books that turn villains upside down I recommend; Fairest by Marissa Meyer: A story from the perspective of Snow White’s evil stepmother. Never Never by Brianna Shrum: A Peter Pan retelling from Hook’s perspective. The Mists of Avalon: A King Arthur retelling from Morgaine (and some others) perspective.

Have you read any books that make the reader view a villain as a hero?


Stacey Nash loves musicals almost as much as she loves a good villain. She’s even written a few herself. To find out more about Stacey’s books or to connect with her on social media (where she tries not to only talk about bad guys and broadway), check out these places: www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter, facebook.

Save

Save