Friday, August 14, 2009

The Psychopath we Had to Have

I've been thinking about villains lately and the fact that my own bad guys (when they are human that is) tend to pretty much fall into the category of psychopaths. Not that they aren't complex, just that their emotions revolve around their own gratification and aggrandizement, with a self image that borders on the megalomaniac. I'm talking more about the top bad guys here, not the various spectrums of henchpeople.

I used to love the way David Gemmell would get into his villains heads. The way he used to present their thinking processes, and how they thought of themselves as sensible and reasonable, and how anyone would do what they had done in the same position - if they were as smart as they were.

Its interesting to note that a lot of the protagonists found in speculative fiction, thinking more toward the interstellar James Bond types characters, could also be considered as verging on psychopathic, or at least sociopathic. They launch nukes without a qualm, admiring the multi-faceted spectra of explosions while millions die. Feel no fear when challenged by twenty knife wielding assassins, confident in their own supreme abilities, and treat sexual encounters as fascinating meal breaks.

But all villains don't have to be lacking in normal emotional reactions. For true vindictive spite you need someone with intense emotion, combined with some really severe hangs ups - social isolation, emotional deprivation and an unrelenting drive to 'show them' mixed in with a good measure of entitlement. Hitler was supposed to be an emotional and intuitive type. He was also a non-smoking vegetarian (and a writer - if you count Mein Kampf).

So just to throw a few villains out there -- Darth Vader? Sauron? Dr Octavius? Psychopath or twisted fiend?

Split the head of your favorite fiend. What's inside?


C Kelsey said...

I've been reading a lot about neuroscience and psychology lately (and now the people who know of my past experience in psycho-research are laughing at me for ever looking at it again). One of the really interesting things is the different ways our brain develops.

Take, for example, the myelin fatty sheath that provides insulation for neurons and makes the neuron more efficient. We're not born with this sheath fully developed. It takes time to fully develop throughout the brain. (Yeah, I'm totally stomping in Speaker's playground here and probably getting it wrong). How much time? Well, the neurons in the brain are not fully covered until a person is into their twenties. One of the last areas to be covered is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where we do things like control emotions, inhibitions, etc. (At least, that's what I understand and this is probably a gross oversimplification and partially wrong).

Consider if the myelin sheath never forms, and something tramatic happens in the teen years when all those hormones are raging through the body (like having your limbs chopped off and being burned badly).

Now we throw in a childhood where the character goes from slave, to hero of the galaxy. Throw all of these events together, give a healthy stir, and Darth Vader arises from circumstance and neuroscience (although, to my knowledge his background was never fleshed out to the point that someone realized anything like this).

Wow, that was a long winded way of saying that Vader is still an interesting badguy. ;-)

Chris McMahon said...

Thats interesting, Chris. I hadn't realised that sheath follows a developmental path like that.

But is Darth a Psychopath?

I tend to think he is more in the category of traumatised/twisted individual. I guess that is what they were trying to portray in the film - his own intensity worked against him. Certainly, I don't think that any psychopath would be interested in ultimate redemption, and Darth comes full circle in the end.

C Kelsey said...

I tend to think that Vader ultimately does have to be considered a psychopath. There's really very little evidence that *he* was interested in being saved, but a lot of evidence that he was willing to use his son for his own purposes (rule the galaxy). And while the movie series ends with him supposedly redeeming himself, one must wonder what really would have happened, given his personality across all six movies if he hadn't died.

Kate said...

Hm. So many evil bastards, so little time... (I should mention that I seem to have a hotline to Evil Bastard Central Casting. A lot of my villains - and some of my protagonists - are direct from Evil Bastard Central. The fun ones are the ones who know they're evil and choose to harness their desires in a more acceptable form. Anyway...)

There's the full spectrum of villains to choose from. There's the guy who'd be the hero's best friend if it wasn't for the unfortunate fact that what the hero needs and what the villain needs are utterly incompatible. Or the one who doesn't really care about other people so long as he gets the power he wants. Or perhaps the Procrustean idealist who's going to make those pesky facts fit his bright shiny dream no matter how he has to torture them. After all, if they don't agree about he bright shiny dream, they've got to be evil, right?

Of course, from the "what other people want isn't as important as what I want" to the "other people aren't as important as me" to "other people aren't really human" isn't really all that far to travel, so there can be some really interesting villains out of there.

Personally I find the "existential evil" types like Sauron boring and unconvincing. Darth Vader... meh. Well, apart from James Earl Jones's voice, anyway. Voldemort... blah.

The Malfoys I kind of have a soft spot for., Lucius is a power-hungry, arrogant bastard to the core - but he still cares deeply for his wife and son. Draco practically worships his father, but he's too impulsive (and at times, too ham-fistedly drawn as 'stereotypical bully') to really emulate him.

As for psychopathic... I try not to use that description. It's rarely if ever used right, and has become a kind of 'tag' word for "doesn't agree with me and is kind of scary".

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I often wonder about the whole Vader character arc in the Star Wars series. Its seems a little unconvincing that this ruthless bad guy suddenly becomes the smiling 'good' Force ghost at the end. Oh, well. George Lucas - what can you do?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate.

Yeah - I never really 'connected' with Sauron at all. I guess it could be the developmnent of SpecFic, but I prefer to really get inside a Villains head, and that aspect is totally absent in LoR.

James Earl Jone's voice absolutely made Darth Vader in the original stories. Take that out and I wonder how much is left to drive them, actually. He gave that character so much charisma.

For me Hayden Christiansen just did not have near enough gravitas to pull off that part.

C Kelsey said...


"A little unconvincing..." Is there a way to give you the "Ultimate Understatement of the Year Award"? I agree totally.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, I'll accept any award. :)

Anonymous said...


Vader was totally the traumatized hero. It's Yoda that was the sociopathic horror. Taking children from their parents and raising them to be emotionless supermen? Twisted and sick. The Jedis had to be be destroyed and rebuilt with emotions, families, and attachment to the greater society to be safe at all.

I try to make my Bad Guys selfish and impulsive, or unable to empathize and to not quite see other people as having property rights, and disposable if inconvenient to themselves or someone willing to pay money to have them removed.

Oh, and they dissect puppies and kittens. Always a sure fire way to make a convincing Bad Guy.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Sounds like you are well into psychopath territory there. Nasty creatures - but I love them as villains. Cruelty to animals, particularly in childhood, seems to be a real trend with them. I think this enjoyment of cruelty is what separates them from mere narcissists.

What you were saying about the Jedis shows how close the good guys -- particularly in the superhero category -- skate to the line separating them from the bad guys. Fascinating stuff.

Anonymous said...

I hear Dick Cheney is about to publish a kiss-and-tell memoir about his time as VP!

-p mac

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, p mac. Are you saying that Dick Cheney is secretly a Sith Lord?

Anonymous said...

I think Bad guys come in three flavors.

'Blithering Idiots,' 'Addicts' and 'Something Wrong Upstairs.' Fortunately for society, the self destructive stupid way out number the sickly dangerous. It's mostly the addicted in need of a fix that we have to watch out for. I think we need to keep this in mind as we write. One Madman to every hundred stupid and or addicted minions. And especially be careful of which category we select our repentant dark heroes from.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - considering the post I just made about my bizarre past and where we're going - "and how they thought of themselves as sensible and reasonable, and how anyone would do what they had done in the same position - if they were as smart as they were."

worries me a lot. Well, the 'smart' part is relative. I suspect you have uncovered the horrible truth that I had even kept hidden from myself. I shall have liquidise Brisbane now...

Seriously The Forlorn I tried hard to get into the bad guy's head. It hurts... Um. to be honest most of my bad guys are well, a little stupid if very powerful. Or blinded by that power.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I guess its time to flee Brisbane for my evil lair in the Gold Coast hinterland.

Powerful and stupid - now that is a dangerous combination!