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Creating Wonderfully Wicked Villains

By Carolyn Kaufman

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Characters with psychological problems and quirks have appeared as long as people have told stories. For most of recorded history, madness has been the work of angry gods and mischievous demons, and in many developing countries people still believe that psychological problems are caused by demonic possession, witchcraft, and vengeful gods.

Though research has shown us that psychological disorders have more mundane causes like brain chemistry and stress, most of us are still subtly influenced by generations of superstition. We see people with mental illness as being extremely different from us, and sometimes even as deserving of their problems and the consequences of those problems.

OTHERNESS

Alterity, or the concept of Other, is the inability to relate to someone or something we perceive as radically, insurmountably different from ourselves. Most of us have trouble knowing how to react to someone who behaves strangely, or whose behavior or ideas scare us. We say, "He's out of his mind,""He's lost his mind," or "He's acting crazy." Sometimes we even experience parts of ourselves as Other. We look back on choices we've made and try to make sense of them by saying things like "I wasn't myself" or "I don't know why I did it."

The Other appears in two common forms in fiction. In the first, the Other is a part of a character who can't control her behavior, often because she's possessed or mentally ill. In the second, the individual herself is Other, a villain so packed with evil Shadow characteristics that we can feel good about seeing her destroyed.

THE OTHER IN FICTION

The Other tends to be easy to pick out in fiction, because it usually has one or more of the following three qualities.

The Other is a Monster

The villain who achieves Monster status has been imbued with so many Shadow qualities that he is no longer viewed as human, redeemable, or even worth saving. Killing him isn't about killing another human being—it's destroying something even God would high-five you for taking down. I argue elsewhere that Monsters are less scary than more complex, empathetic villains, if for no other reason than they're predictable: they're always going to make the "wrong" decision, the one that makes it easy to hate them.

The Monster is a receptacle for the things we hate or fear about ourselves, both individually and as a species, things we'd like to strip out of ourselves and destroy. In action and horror stories, the Monster is often identified by dark clothes, weapons emblazoned with animals or symbols associated with evil (snakes, dragons), and a blasé approach to killing.

The Other Has Incredibly Obvious Psychological Problems

In many ways, psychosis and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder or MPD) have replaced stories about possession in the fictional media. Rather than being possessed by demons, we're possessed by personalities or disorders.

In stories about possession, the demon rather than the person is responsible for the horrific acts committed; when the demon is exorcised, the person deserves no punishment and can resume a normal life. In stories about mental illness, love often serves the same purpose, saving the character from her crimes and redeeming her soul.

The Other has a Childish, One-Track Mind

The Other is usually portrayed as thinking in overly simplistic words and phrases. Sometimes this is because he has an Incredibly Obvious Psychological Problem, and sometimes it's because he's a Monster. In extreme cases, his thought processes echo nothing so much as an elementary school child. The sentences become short and choppy and make the Other sound like he's about to get a cake he's been looking forward to.

Horror films sometimes use this innocence and simplicity to emphasize how awful the atrocities in question are. The idea that Freddy Krueger's mother was a nun shows us how far astray he's gone, and the ominous Nightmare on Elm Street nursery rhyme does the same thing (1, 2, Freddy's coming for you; 3, 4, better lock your door...) A little girl screaming obscenities has shocked generations of Exorcist fans. And in Saw, there's something unsettling about Jigsaw on the tricycle. If you're going to take this approach, just be careful to come up with something original. The tricycle worked because it hadn't been done to death.

THE PURPOSE OF THE OTHER

This Other serves a purpose, and that purpose is to assure us that we're nothing like it.

Mental illness and Monstrosity are often clumped together for two reasons. First, mental illness can be scary, and we want to believe we would never behave that way, no matter what. Second, we use psychological terms to try to understand cruelty and hatred, and it's much easier for the average person to equate "sociopath" with "monster" than to accept that circumstances contributed to that person's behavior...and could conceivably have done the same to us if we'd shared them.

Research like the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's Obedience Study has shown that circumstance is the most important influence on behavior, especially cruelty. In both studies, average people hurt others (or thought they did) thanks to opportunities and pressures offered by the environment. In the commentary on the 2004 remake of The Amityville Horror, actor Ryan Reynolds remarks how upsetting it was to realize that he was capable of hitting a child—because he spontaneously did it while in character.

There is no excuse for the atrocities committed by men like Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein, but when placed in the context of their lives, their behaviors make some sense and are even predicable. Would you or I do the same things if we'd grown up in exactly the same situations? I certainly hope not, but we might have had a lot more in common with those "monsters" than we'd like to think.

The truth is, in real life nobody is pure Monster, and the Other is a lot less Other than most of us would like to think.

BEHIND DISORDERS SOMETIMES ASSOCIATED WITH THE OTHER

Psychosis

People who develop psychoses—that is, people who lose contact with the reality most people are experiencing—haven't developed a strange new personality; instead, they've lost the ability to differentiate between the same fantasies and realities we all experience. We all have inner voices that say things like "That was a stupid thing to do" or "Eating all those cookies is going to make you fat!" People who "hear voices" are hearing the exact same thing, but an imbalance in brain chemistry makes it impossible for them to tell these are internal thoughts, not external voices. When they take antipsychotic medications, the drugs re-balance their brain chemicals so their perceptions of reality are more like everyone else's. They still hear the voices, they just know—the same way you and I do—that they're coming from inside.

Most often associated with psychosis are schizophrenia and the manic phase of bipolar I disorder, though some people develop other psychotic disorders or experience psychosis as a result of drug use.

Comments about people seeming "normal" are indicative of confusion—this man seemed just like always, and just like the rest of us...how could he have killed himself? Clearly he was different (something Other) than we thought he was. Screencapture of article on BBC News UK.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Psychological professionals believe that Dissociative Identity Disorder is caused by trauma so severe that to cope the person dissociates or splinters that experience off from the rest. Splintering protects the birth or core personality from the terrible things that happened. It's the same process that protects us from other painful memories, like those associated with bad car accidents.

Fictional characters with DID usually harbor a savage killer. The truth is, people with DID harbor killers no more than the rest of us. That doesn't mean people with DID never harbor killers, only that "normal" people do, too. Surfing abuse teaches some people to abuse others, but that's true even without a psychological disorder.

In fact, the only psychological disorder that is associated with increased violence is substance use and abuse—drinking and doing drugs. And even people without ongoing substance abuse problems do things they later wish they hadn't when they've been under the influence.

REVISITING

Since we've discussed the Monster pretty extensively, let's briefly revisit the other two categories of Other and talk about ways to freshen them up.

THE CHILDISH ONE-TRACK MIND

Most people don't think like children unless they actually are children. People sometimes regress, or act more child-like when they're overwhelmed, but they always revert to grownup thought processes as the stressors pass or they adapt.

Killers in particular are going to think like grownups. Unless she's incredibly disorganized (in which case she's going to be fairly easy to catch) she has to be clever enough to outwit your hero or heroine. And even people who kill, for whatever reason, think things besides killing. They go to the grocery store. They watch Gray's Anatomy (pun intended). They get the flu, look at mail-order catalogs, and clean their homes. Some better than others.

This normalcy is what makes people who do terrible things scary, because we can relate to everyday behaviors. The less Other the villain is, the scarier he's likely to be. In any case, you're probably not going to be able to pick out someone who kills by their speech patterns (assuming they're not constantly talking about gore), what they buy at the supermarket (assuming they're not buying cement or fertilizer), or how their houses are organized (assuming there aren't any dead people around).

Writers can and do make the One-Track-Mind Other work when they take a unique approach. For example, in the Supernatural episode The Benders, one of the brothers is abducted by a weird family that likes to hunt and kill people for sport. The family keeps trophies—like windchimes made of human bones and jars of teeth—in the house.

Two things really made the episode work. First, it didn't take itself too seriously. Second, the brothers normally hunt supernatural creatures like demons, ghosts, and other monsters; the punch line of the episode is that people can be a lot scarier than monsters. And nobody ever suggested they were mentally ill—just weird.

THE INCREDIBLY OBVIOUS PROBLEM

Only about 5% or 6% of the general population has a psychological disorder that's obvious enough that you might notice it in the grocery store. And though you might notice a disorder if you were living in the same house or room with it, you'd probably be surprised how many people hide their problems so well that even their families have no idea how bad their symptoms are.

People who have psychological problems are just like anyone else, even the ones who take medications. Some people need to take insulin for diabetes, or use inhalers when they have asthma attacks; likewise, sometimes the delicate balance of chemicals and processes in the brain need a little help from modern medicine.

FULL CIRCLE

The Other is powerful if you're willing to explore what makes her seem so different from you. What makes someone or something seem Other to you? What's so inconceivable that it would be scary if you knew how to relate?

Got it? Good. Now go write about it.

© Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD

About Carolyn Kaufman

Clinical Psychologist Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD loves helping writers "get the psych right" in their stories, and her book on the same topic, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior  is available from Amazon. Learn more about the book at the WGTP website or ask your own psychology and fiction question here.

Screenwriting Article by Carolyn Kaufman

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