Books, Characters, Movies

Psychopaths in Fiction

I’ve covered a lot of topics over the past couple weeks, what with this post-every-day nonsense (whose idea was this again? Oh yeah, mine), but we still haven’t touched on my very favorite subject: villains. I love villains. They are the most interesting part of any story, in my personal opinion, and a story with a crappy villain just isn’t worth reading. However, I have noticed an alarming trend–perhaps precipitated by revived interest in the Joker after Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal in The Dark Knight (that’s my working theory)–toward making villains psychopaths. I do not like this trend. I think that it is lazy and boring. Let me explain.

So you have a villain. He (or she, or it, or whatever, but for the sake of pronoun simplicity I’m going to say he) is slick and badass and ruthless as hell. The opening scene has him kicking puppies and shanking kittens and laughing maniacally while forcing middle aged couples to listen to One Direction, and all around just being evil as fuck. Great! That’s good entertainment! Carry on, you sadistic bastard! But unless you’re writing a Disney film, your villain needs a reason to be doing those things, so I ask you: what’s his motivation?

If your answer is, “well, he’s a psychopath,” then you’re wrong.

‘Psychopath’ does not mean ‘violent and murderous for no reason, seeking to cause chaos and destruction whenever possible.’ Psychopathy is just a lack of empathy–not a motivation. It is a personality trait that allows a villain to be remorseless about all of the evil things he does, but it is not the reason he is doing them. No matter how psychotic your villain is, there still needs to be a reason for the madness–something driving him to do the things that he does, a goal that he is trying to reach, a point that he is trying to prove, etc. Without that character development, you’ve just created a hollow puppet villain.

Think about great literary psychopaths. The Joker, for example. The Joker is a psychopath and an intensely compelling villain–widely considered one of the greatest comic book villains of all time. But psychopathy is not his motivation. His motivation is to create chaos and expose what he sees as the pitiable, fearful and weak-willed true nature of humanity. His psychopathy helps create him, but it does not define him. He is also sarcastic, highly intelligent, and easily amused, all of which inform his character just as much as his psychopathy does. If you want to create a villain as awesome as the Joker (who isn’t just a knock-off of the Joker), they have to be more than just a psychopath.

I’ll even take it one step further. If your goal is to create an interesting and compelling villain, or even just to have one that is unambiguously evil, I would argue that you shouldn’t make them a psychopath. I see that face, but hear me out. Psychopaths lack empathy; when a psychopath commits a murder, they do not believe they have done anything wrong. They might know that it was against the law, but there is no moral conflict or pathos involved. It would be like jaywalking to them. That might be chilling to think about, but ultimately, it doesn’t present a very interesting or complex character psyche, and it certainly doesn’t make them evil. How can they be evil if they literally do not know that what they did was wrong? If you recall, even the Joker ended up in an asylum rather than a prison, because the inability to understand morality is a valid legal defense.

A non-psychopath, on the other hand–someone with the full range of human understanding and emotion, complete with the ability to empathize with others–well, that’s infinitely more interesting, and far closer to what you might call evil. This would be a person who knew exactly what he or she was doing, but did it anyway. The moral qualm was there, they fully understood that what they wanted to do was wrong, and they chose to proceed anyway. That’s much eviller, and far more interesting to read, don’t you think?

Psychotically yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Wanna see a magic trick?” -The Joker, The Dark Knight

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