Tag Archives: Harry Potter

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.




That Bible verse in Fear the Walking Dead

Photo from AMC
Photo from AMC

A colleague asked me last week about the Bible verse in Fear the Walking Dead.

She and I regularly have Monday debriefings about Fear the Walking Dead—particularly if she finds any religious symbolism or content. I have to admit I really dropped the ball on last Sunday night’s episode (9/20/15). My niece and my colleague both asked me about the Bible verse that showed up in that one, and my response was, “Ummm….”

I did notice there was a Bible verse on a wall, but beyond that, it sort of zipped over my head. In my defense, I was very tired from a long road trip that day so wasn’t retaining things very well. Still, as I realized later, the verse showed up not just once in the episode, but twice—meaning the writers really wanted us to notice it.

So I looked online to refresh myself. The verse in question was Revelation 21:4:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (NIV Bible from BibleGateway.com)

Now, one tricky problem for me when my colleague asks me for the “Christian” meaning of things in TV shows (she’s hoping for insight on where the writers are going with the plot) is that show writers may not be using or interpreting things the same way we would in church.

Here’s an example I found on a website called MoviePilot interpreting Revelation 21:4 in that FTWD episode: “Yeah that all seems pretty apt to me. No death, sorrow, crying and pain? These are all things that people no longer have after being turned into walkers. And ‘for the former things are passed away’ certainly seems to reflect how the world as the characters knew it is gone, this is a whole new way of life now.”

I felt like screaming, “No, no, nooooooo!!!!!!”

This reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry reads the verse on his parents’ headstone that reads, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). Harry is upset this is written on his parents’ headstone because he interprets this as a Death-Eaterish idea of trying to live forever on Earth and avoid death. But Hermione reassures him that the verse is talking about living beyond death…the Christian concept of eternal life, in other words.

In the same way, the Revelation verse from Fear the Walking Dead is most assuredly NOT about settling for some earthly existence such as we have now…it’s not about rotting bodies shambling around with no personalities or minds, no way of relating to God, no emotions at all. That is NOT the new order of things that God offers us.

It’s always best not to take one Bible verse out of context, and even just expanding out a paragraph or so tells us that (as in the verse that Harry and Hermione discussed), the Revelation verses are talking about a very different eternity:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21: 1-4, NIV, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=revelation+21&version=NIV )

 Life on this Earth—with or without a zombie apocalypse—is hard.  And in many parts of the world, I have no doubt that it’s so difficult, the folks might as well be in a zombie apocalypse.  In Christianity, we are always asked to hold onto the promise that this Earth and its decay are not all there is. Like Harry Potter, we are promised victory—over decay, over death…even over zombies.