Category Archives: Writing

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…and a Writing Dilemma

Fear the Walking Dead writing
Photo from www.amc.com

 

“Would you believe I’m watching Fear the Walking Dead?!”

“WHAT?!”

That was a text exchange last night between my niece and me—the niece who has been trying unsuccessfully to get me hooked on The Walking Dead for years. She’s sat me down and shown me a few episodes on several occasions, but even though I enjoyed them sell enough, I haven’t gotten hooked enough to watch the show voluntarily, on my own.

Of course, partly that’s because I have a very low tolerance for gore, but we’ll leave that out of the equation for now.

My niece assumed I was watching last night because she had told me the actor who played the teen Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was going to be in it. That wasn’t the reason—I had actually forgotten—but wow, Frank Dillane was just as amazing as Nick as he was as a creepy future young Voldemort.

Actually, I was watching because of what I missed in the original Walking Dead series…how we got here.

I think I’ve mentioned before my absolute favorite kind of suspense. I love the slow build, the mystery, the characters’ discovery of all the weirdness and putting two and two together. In the original Walking Dead, Rick is shot, wakes up in the hospital, and the world has completely changed. We miss the mystery, the discovery, the build-up.

My favorite scene in Fear the Walking Dead was when Madison and Travis were driving on the freeway, discussing what was consuming their lives: the son’s drug problem. Life was going on as usual for them, even though we know it isn’t usual at all. Suddenly, traffic slows and stops. They’re still wrapped up in their son’s problem. We hear sirens. Lots of sirens. We see lights from helicopters. They fret about their son. My heart is beating—I know that something BAD is going down, that civilization could be collapsing right there on that freeway. Suddenly there are gunshots. Now they start to get it. They forget about Nick’s problems long enough to wonder what’s going on. Their attention has changed. Life is changing.

Very powerfully written…at least to me.

Which brings me to my quandary as a writer. I was texting with my niece as I watched, and I told her I was loving the pace and the story—so I bet it was way too slow for usual WD fans. Sure enough, this morning I’m hearing a lot of bad reviews and disappointment with the show, for the very reasons I liked it.

I have noticed before that the books and movies I want to emulate, that have a great effect on me, aren’t necessarily the ones that are most popular, or even hailed as the best written. Often, the most popular works, the ones that sell well and excite everyone else, leave me cold.

I realized awhile back that I had spent years paying for writers’ conferences, edits and critiques and classes that were trying to teach me to write in a way that I wouldn’t enjoy reading, myself. Which helped explain why writing was becoming a chore.

I decided to ditch that pursuit and go back to trying to write the books that I myself would like to read. And yes, trying to identify that niche market is sometimes tough. But writing is more fun. I aim for a “what-the-heck” mystery on every page, especially in a suspense like Jordan’s Shadow. Fun stuff!

Now, to find readers who enjoy what I do!

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