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*?
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.