Friday, June 1, 2012


Creating: The Villain Next Door

One of the most common types of characters in a novel
is the villain -- a person directly opposing the

Writing villains is hard. The reason is that you, the
author, are likely to dislike your villain. You
probably find it hard to relate to your villain. You
don't understand what makes him tick. Therefore, it's
all too tempting to make him a two-dimensional
character whose sole purpose is to be bad.

The problem with that is that villains don't believe
they're bad. Villains generally believe they're the
good guys. Villains believe that the story is their

I've been reading a book lately titled THE SOCIOPATH
NEXT DOOR, by Martha Stout, Ph.D., and I think it's
valuable to any novelist who wants to write a real,
live, breathing, three-dimensional villain.

We'll define a sociopath, as Dr. Stout does, this way:
A sociopath is a person who lacks a conscience. A
sociopath feels free to do anything without any sense
of shame, guilt, or remorse.

You might imagine that people like that are pretty
rare. One in a million, maybe. Or one in ten thousand.
According to Dr. Stout, those estimates are way low.
According to her, about 4 in every 100 people is a

That's pretty shocking. Scary even. It doesn't mean
that 4% of all people are psychopathic murderers. Those
are pretty rare. It means that 4% of all people match
the standard psychiatric definition of "antisocial
personality disorder."

The sociopath category is pretty broad. A rare few
sociopaths become serial killers. Most of them do their
best to fit in with a world of people they can't relate
to at all -- people hobbled with consciences.

There are plenty of places to fit in.

An extremely intelligent sociopath can do well in
business or politics or the military, where ruthless
domination of others might actually be rewarded.
(Obviously not every businessman or politician or
military professional is a sociopath.)

Less gifted sociopaths may find a niche in some job
where they exercise authority over a few others and
enjoy making life miserable for them.

Sociopaths with average talents are often full-time
moochers, living off somebody else by arousing pity.

Plenty of sociopaths gravitate to crime. Surprisingly,
the majority of criminals are NOT sociopaths. Studies
show that only about 20% of prison inmates are
sociopaths. But that 20% account for more than half of
the most serious crimes.

If you decide that the villain in your novel should be
a sociopath, what features should your character have?

To get the fully detailed answer, I recommend that you
read THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR or some similar book.
Please note that reading one book on sociopaths will
not make either you or me an expert, but these are the
high points that I picked up from the book:

* Sociopaths know the difference between right and
wrong. There is nothing flawed in their understanding
of basic morality. However, when they do wrong, they
don't FEEL any sense of shame or guilt. Therefore, they
can justify anything they do by blaming the victim or
the economy or society or circumstances or Satan or the
weather or whatever.

* Sociopaths often are extremely charming. They study
normal humans and learn which buttons to push in order
to get the responses they want. So the stereotype of
the charming villain is based on reality. This skill is
critical for sociopaths climbing the corporate ladder
or making a career in politics or wangling into a
romantic relationship.

* Sociopaths are extremely good at detecting potential
victims. Whether they're looking for somebody to marry,
somebody to mug, or somebody to mooch, they quickly
home in on the one who'll give the biggest payoff.

* Sociopaths don't love anybody. They may say all the
right words, but they never really mean them.

* Sociopaths crave pity. This may seem astonishing, but
one of the most reliable indicators that somebody is a
sociopath is their relentless attempts to arouse pity
in the people they're victimizing. A typical sociopath
can turn on the "crocodile tears" on command.

* Sociopaths are easily bored. So are children and
young teens, of course, but normal people grow out of
their boredom as they mature. Sociopaths don't. Because
of that, they crave excitement, which causes them to
take crazy risks which endanger themselves and other
people. Those risks can lead to spectacular successes
in business, politics, and war. They can also lead to
spectacular failures.

* Sociopaths don't want to get better. They rarely try
to get treatment unless forced to, because they think
they're just fine the way they are -- it's the rest of
the human race that's screwed up.

* Sociopaths sometimes "do the right thing" -- if it
gains them something. That may be public approval or it
may be a heightened self-image. But their reason for
doing the right thing is always based on what they
THINK, not on what they FEEL. Doing wrong doesn't make
a sociopath feel bad and doing right doesn't make him
feel good.

* For a sociopath, life is about winning. Other people
are there to be controlled or to provide points in the
game. Relationships with those pesky people have no
value, unless the relationship contributes to winning.

In writing a character -- any character -- you must
find a way to get inside that character's skin. You
must think as they think and feel as they feel.

That doesn't mean that you have to become a sociopath
in order to write a convincing villain. It means you
need to be able to IMAGINE being a sociopath.

And that's not so hard. Novelists typically have
extremely high empathic skills. A novelist is required
to imagine that he or she is a person of a different
gender, age, ethnic group, social stratum. Many
novelists need to imagine that they live in a different
time or a different place.

If you can imagine all that, then you can imagine that
you have no conscience and don't want one. When you do
that, you'll understand your villain in a whole new
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced
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  1. totally agree with this . every potential serious writer needs to read this

  2. Thanks, Cloud. Glad you agreed with it and thought it would make sense if every potential serious writer read it.