Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Cardboard Cutouts Make Rotten Villains

A little psychology will help you flesh out your villains.

cardboard cutouts of villains from the Twilight movies
Cardboard cutouts aren't very scary.
One-dimensional villains are far too common in fiction. You know the type: arrogant, slick, evil, and therefore psychologically unbalanced, at least according to the other characters. Like a cardboard cutout purchased in a novelty shop, the one-dimensional villain is propped up in the story to fool the reader into believing that there's actually someone there to react to.  Sure, you might get a jolt when you spot it out of the corner of your eye, but once you realize what's going on, you feel silly for having been fooled (into even buying the book).

Case in point: In Dan Brown's most recent book, The Lost Symbol, villain Mal'akh is a walking DSM-IV entry: he nails every diagnostic criterion for narcissistic personality disorder. Unfortunately, that's all there is to him. While personality disorders do tend to include narrow and rigid behaviors, Brown made the mistake of using a personality disorder as a character, rather than appreciating that characters should be fleshed-out people, albeit sometimes ones with disorders.

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Brown could learn a few things from Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight. The Joker turns our assumptions on their heads, which makes him unpredictable—and that's a lot more disturbing than a color-by-numbers villain.

The Joker's first explanation for the cuts to either side of his mouth is that his father made them while he was abusing the character as a child. We accept that explanation because it's what we assume must be true—people like this must have been abused as children. Later, however, the Joker gives us another explanation...and then another, until we realize that he'll never tell us what really happened to him. Ah, intriguing. Add that to Ledger's brilliant depiction of a true psychopath: whimsical, unflappable, a consummate liar, and a showman to boot, and you have a character that left audiences wishing for more.

Heath Ledger as the Joker
Real villainy will smear your makeup.

Like the Joker, my favorite villains are the ones who surprise you. Sometimes, unlike with the Joker, that's because you can relate to them. They may have an unexpected background or unexpected vulnerabilities. They're convincing because they believe in what they're doing—and maybe their reason is something the reader or watcher can even relate to.

Great villains, however, don't come pre-packaged from the novelty store.

So how can you create a compelling villain? Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is my villain's motive? In other words, what is his or her goal? 
    • Is the motive pushing or pulling your villain to act? In other words, does she have an internal need that's pressuring her to do something, or is there some type of external stimulus or incentive that's acting like a carrot on a stick? 
    • Make the goal personally meaningful to your character. Rather than saying "world domination," for example, think "the perceived security that comes from making millions of people fear her" or "[what she'll be able to buy] with the credits she gets from plundering a planet's resources."
  • Why is she so driven by that motive? (Hint: if the answer is "she's crazy," you need to go back to the drawing board.) Lots of people are likely to want what your villain wants—why is she the one who's such a threat to your hero?
  • What happened in the past to make her believe she could achieve that goal?
    • What personality characteristics or qualities contributed to those past successes? Don't be afraid to use positive qualities like charisma, intelligence, interpersonal skills, and so on.
  • If your villain has a disorder of some kind, how does that disorder exacerbate or modulate his or her behaviors? (Remember, people have disorders—disorders don't make good characters!)

Who are some of your favorite villains?  What is it that makes those villains great?

Want more information on great characterization and the creation of fantastic villains? Get a copy of Dr. Kaufman's book, The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.

© Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD • Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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