We human beings aren’t always aware of why we do what we do. Most of the time, we just react. To write good characters requires recognition of the patterns humans follow. In other words, psychology.
Welcome to the series on Deep Character Study.
“That was the difference between a hero and a villain, a soldier and a murderer, a victory and a crime. Which side of a river you called home.”Joe Abercrombie, Best Served Cold
Just so you know, your villain thinks he’s right.
Oh, he may think he’s morally wrong. He may he struggle with what he knows to be a cruel or unjust choice. He may even be sure he’s been wronged, and the course of action he’s taking is the only one available.
He still thinks the decision he’s making is the right one for his life in this moment.
That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done.
—Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson
The Big Idea
Why does this matter? Because if you’re not writing your villains with the awareness that in their head, they’re not the villain, you may be writing a flat, 2D character.
Unlike the cartoons, nobody really thinks, “Muahaha, I’m eeeevil” (as entertaining as that might be). If they’re claiming to be evil, there’s a reason – and a benefit they’re getting out of it. And on top of that, they believe they have the right to be wrong.
“I Am Not a Crook”
There’s a behavior we humans engage in called “self-justification.” Essentially, it means that we all hold onto the belief that we’re doing the right thing – or at least, the best possible thing we can, given the circumstances.
This includes everyone from Nazis to patsies. This applies to big bad guys like Sauron, who believed he had the right to do what he wanted. This applies to miserable bad guys like Marvel-movie Loki, who so desperately wanted approval and validation that he justified a metric ton of murder.
This applies to money-grubbing corporate baddies and clever thieves.
This applies to lying politicians (both those who think they’re working for the “greater good” and those who just want to be greater themselves).
In fact, this includes:
- Characters who think they’ve screwed up so badly it can’t be fixed – they’re acting on the belief that they’re taking the best (or only) option available in line with their mistakes.
- Characters who know it’s a “wrong” thing to do, but gain something from that choice – revenge, power, money, maybe love, which they believe is right for them.
- Characters who actually believe they’re morally correct, and are fighting as heroes – this is where you get your terrifying cultists, racists, Death Eaters, etc.
- Characters who define the current situation as outside right and wrong, and believe that personal gain matters more than whom they’re hurting (e.g. “It’s just a job.”)
Even sadistic, cruel, puerile characters think they’re right (or have the right, which is subtle but important) to beat up that kid/hurt that puppy/run that institution like a nightmare.
Even if your villain admits they’re doing something wrong, they believe they deserve it, or have earned it, or need it, or that it’s good for everyone; they can logically explain why they’re supposed to do what they do. Even if your villain believes they’ve done something horrible, they also believe the thing they’re doing now is the necessary response.
In every villain, there is another side to consider: We don’t have to like him or her, but we are compelled to think about motivation.
The Technical Stuff
Here are a few scholarly quotes for you. If you’re bored, you can skip down to How Does Your Villain Do It?
As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that may turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid.
Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, “I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the stakes — emotional, financial, moral — the greater the difficulty.
Our minds are wired to select and interpret evidence supporting the hypothesis “I’m OK”. A variety of mechanisms: conscious, unconscious, and social direct our attention to ignore the bad and highlight the good to increase our hope and reduce our anxiety. We work hard to retain the belief that “I’m OK” even when faced with significant losses. Self-justification is deeply ingrained in each of us. […]
Our brain distorts reality to increase our self-esteem through self-justification. People perceive themselves readily as the origins of good effects and reluctantly as the origins of ill effects. We present a one-sided argument to ourselves.
And finally, from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology:
[W]when we act uncooperatively for other reasons, we may justify that uncooperativeness by telling ourselves that “. . . I probably couldn’t have made a difference anyway,” that is, by minimizing the efficacy of our cooperative actions.
Or, as George R. R. Martin put it so eloquently: “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.”
How Does Your Villain Do It?
Take a good look at your antagonist and ask the following questions:
- What are they really after? What’s the true goal here? (Hint: It usually isn’t the thing itself, but the effect of the thing. They want that war because they think it’ll eventually bring world peace or personal power or revenge/justice, etc.)
- Why do they think that thing is good? This often reveals a base philosophy that drives everything. An old-fashioned way of putting it might be, what’s their god? That is, what promises security, comfort, a future, validation, identity, even moral right?
- Why do they think they’re the ones who deserve it? This includes the self-sacrificing baddie who’s willing to go down with the ship to achieve That Worthy Goal.
Answer in the comments below. Let’s dialogue about your bad guy and see what’s really going on.