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How Do you Like Your Villains? Part II of Writing Good Villains

Tom Riddle from Harry Potter, a young sociopath?
Young Tom Riddle from Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince, Warner Bros.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about writing good villains. In that one, I talked about villains in books, TV, or movies that start out evil, but somehow become sympathetic to us. We end up rooting for them–and hopefully they become redeemed.

I always intended to write villains like that. I love stories of redemption, and figured I would always write villains who had a good reason for turning bad and would ultimately find their way back.

But something interesting happened a few years ago. I was writing my first suspense/murder mystery type book (Summer’s Winter), and I decided to start reading a lot of true crime novels for ideas–and for authenticity. I started noticing that a lot of the perpetrators in the true crime books were labeled “sociopaths.”  I also started noticing there wasn’t much remorse or redemption in these real-life characters. That made me curious…what exactly is a sociopath*?

Sociopaths as Story Villains

Since I work in a library, it took me about ten seconds to find an interesting book on the subject: The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us by Martha Stout. Wow, it was an eye-opener.

Sociopaths share a number of traits. They’re usually charming. They’re manipulative. They lack a normal conscience and also lack the ability to love…or to even experience most other complex emotions.  They may play games and seek thrills just to try to feel some elusive emotion. Worst of all, researchers are finding that sociopaths’ brains have actual physiological differences which makes it almost impossible for them to change. Stout says the most success at reforming sociopaths comes from persuading them to alter their behavior, by making them see how that benefits their self-interests. But their minds and motivations stay the same.

Here’s a powerful excerpt from Stout, describing a hypothetical sociopath she calls Skip:

Skip does not spend any time searching for someone to love. He cannot love. He does not worry about friends or family members who may be sick or in trouble, because he cannot worry about other people. .. But there is one thing Skip can do, and he does this one thing better than almost anyone else: Skip is brilliant at winning. He can dominate. He can bend others to his will. When he was a boy, the frogs died when he decided they should die, his sister screamed when he wanted her to, and now he has gone on to bigger and better games. 

In terms of writing villains, the first thing that jumped into my head when I read about Skip was…Voldemort!

As I was reading the Harry Potter series and Rowling started to take us into Voldemort/Tom Riddle’s terrible family situation, his early life as an abandoned orphan, I figured we would be led to see where he was changed from a normal boy simply by terrible circumstances. We would see where he went off the rails and empathize with him and cheer for him to get back on track.

Instead, we saw a little orphan boy who loved to play games with the other children, loved to torment them, loved to win.

All this reading about sociopaths definitely affected my writing of the bad guys in Summer’s Winter and  Jordan’s Shadow. Yep, there’s a definite sociopath in each. So on my next books I’ll need to try something new. I’ve set myself the task of writing a character as complex as Severus Snape…although he might be villain OR hero, or anti-hero. Either way, I’ve set myself a huge challenge!

*There isn’t an official psychiatric diagnosis of sociopathy. The official term is “antisocial personality disorder.” Also, you may be more familiar with the term “psychopath”–another unofficial term for antisocial personality disorder. I found a lot of explanations for the difference between sociopath and psychopath, including degree, or whether the cause is genetic or environmental, or whether you’re coming from criminal justice or sociology. For my discussion, I’m just going to use the term sociopath.

 

 

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Fear the Walking Dead Season One Review: Why I Felt Disappointed in the End

Fear the Walking Dead
Photo from amc.com

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my reactions to stories are frequently exactly the opposite from the vast majority.

While a lot of other people thought that Fear the Walking Dead started out too slowly but ended with a bang, I loved the first four episodes–and was pretty disappointed by the final two.

Here’s why–and yes, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. DON’T CONTINUE IF YOU’RE NOT CAUGHT UP!

I loved the pace of the first few episodes. Normal life and all its usual stresses being slowly interrupted by weirdness. We know what’s going on but get to watch the characters discovering just how bizarre life is about to get, and trying to figure out how to deal with it.

A lot of the first few episodes centered around Nick. I’ve loved this actor ever since his stint as young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, and he was just as good in Fear the Walking Dead–even though I missed his British accent. He was crippled by a heroin addiction, worrying over his sanity, but still rising to the occasion when he needed to pull himself together and fight. I thought great things were coming with him.

Instead, in the last episodes, he lay around the house and whined. Disappointment number one.

Then our focus shifts to the military–the evil bad guys. Disappointment number two. I feel like I’ve seen this so many times before in lesser stories, and I expected better–something more original and complex from these writers than just blame the military.

Then, to me, the characters suddenly move from inaction to overreaction without much in between.  Civilization is crumbling to the point that your neighbors may turn into monsters and literally eat you and your family. The National Guard comes to protect you.  They bring in a doctor to evaluate the ill and take some away to a hospital, since in this crumbled world there is nowhere you can drive your loved ones to get help.

And the characters left behind automatically assume this is so horrible–with hidden evil motives–that torturing a perfectly decent-seeming soldier for their relatives’ whereabouts is acceptable behavior?  I felt as though the writers were thinking, “Uh-oh, only two episodes left. We’ve got to kick this thing into high gear!” Whether they had provided enough motivation for such an extreme reaction to make sense or not.

Then comes the final episode, when our group goes to “rescue” Griselda, Liza, and Nick from the base where they’ve been taken. Even though, honestly, Nick is the only one locked up and in need of rescue. During the rescue, this being the high-octane finale, everything falls apart and I think we’re supposed to say, “Yep, see, those evil military.”

But did you notice…the helicopters were coming to evacuate the doctors and the sick people to a safer base, until Daniel released 2,000 undead on them and scared them away.

Again…could it be that releasing 2000 walkers onto this base, soldiers, sick people, doctors and all, might be a bit of an overreaction? Ask Liza, who ended up bitten.

And now, for my final rant…the scene that frustrated me most.

Travis does the humane thing and releases the tortured soldier instead of allowing him to be killed by Daniel. So naturally, in the middle of the mayhem at the base, said soldier shows up looking for revenge for the torture and shoots Daniel’s daughter.

This scene was more unbelievable to me than the existence of zombies.

Again, I felt the writers felt an obligation to include some original Walking-Dead-like development at this point, but they forced it in when it didn’t fit. Yes, several times in the original series, the characters showed mercy to some truly evil person, only to have that evil person show up again and cause more damage–making them face the moral dilemma of whether they have the luxury of showing mercy any longer.

But there were several huge differences in this Fear the Walking Dead scene. The soldier wasn’t an evil man–he was a kid who had been tortured. He had not harmed them earlier. Also, the area is under an attack by 2,000 walkers. Would a badly traumatized young man really try to make his way into the middle of all that to get revenge? Or would he be trying to get as far away as possible to lick his wounds and recuperate and survive the zombies! HIs return–and its effect in turning Travis very suddenly into a fighting machine–felt very forced and unrealistic.

Will I watch season 2? Probably. At least the beginning. It did end on an intriguing note and I’m hoping for better things when they have a whole season ahead of them and can once again maybe slow down and let things develop more naturally again.

 

 

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