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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, March 23, 2009

Villains: How Much Insanity Is Too Much by Diane Gaston

A reviewer of one of my early books said that my villain was stereotypical. She was right. He was just too over the top. Too insane. Too cliche.

As a former mental health therapist, I took the criticism to heart and rethought my depiction of villains. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to make them too insane.

Most villains are at least sociopathic. (another word—psychopath; technically—antisocial personality disorder). Look here for a great site describing a sociopath.

Briefly, a sociopath is a person who has no regard for right and wrong, who may often violate the law and the rights of others, lands himself in frequent trouble or conflict. A sociopath may lie, behave violently, have drug and alcohol problems, and may not be able to fulfill responsibilities to family, work or school. (

This is a good foundation to craft a villain. The temptation is to stick only to the symptoms. This makes the villain more of a caricature rather than a three dimensional person.

So here’s my fix.

Put the villain under the same scrutiny as the hero and heroine. Give him his own Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Create a backstory for him. Give him some redeeming features. Make him like a real person. Three dimensional.

In reality sociopaths can look like the rest of us. They can enter reputable professions, attend church, marry, have children. But within a normal looking life they can be highly egocentric; they can lie, steal, betray.

So, what do you think? What do you think makes the best fictional villain? How much sociopathy is too much?

(Come back Wednesday, Mar 25, to read my take on Heroes—How Much Damage Is Too Much?)

Visit Diane’s website for a sneak peek of her eShort Story, The Unlacing of Miss Leigh, and her novella, Justine and the Noble Viscount, in THE DIAMONDS OF WELBOURNE MANOR. Diane’s contest is still on, too!

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At 11:12 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

You make a great point, and in doing so I have had a revelation about the first book I wrote. I don't think I ever explored one of the villains GMC fully. He is probably stereotypical. I may revisit that story and fix him!

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Rule of thumb (in an industry that has no rules). Your villain has to think he's the hero of his own story. I don't write a villain's POV, so I don't have to delve quite so deeply into all the grim details, and actually find myself flipping much faster through all the parts that explain why he's so screwed up. I get it, he's got problems, move on.

(Can you tell I'm more a mystery than a suspense fan?)

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Ladyhawk said...

Terry, I am so with you on that one. I really hate when a book expects me to be in a villain's head. I've read a few that keep it very short, thankfully, and I can handle that much, just enough to create the character. It doesn't take much to make those characters very real to me. I think it makes a huge difference as to how well acquainted you are. It isn't fun or entertaining when you've had to live with the insanity.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Diane -
I love the villain with such well developed social masks they are hard to pick out easily. I don't like when I see a villain that is so obviously bad you wonder why someone didn't run him/her over with a car earlier in their life. "g"

BTW - I love that cover on your Unlacing novella.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Dianna, I have received more comments on my Unlaced cover than any other book, even A Reputable Rake with that gorgeous guy on the cover.

Your villain has to think he's the hero of his own story.
This is great advice, Terry.

Terry and Judy, I don't like lengthy explanations of the pathology of the villain..or of any character. I try to show it and hold the explanations to a minimum. I do have brief scenes in the villain's POV, because to me this is the most interesting and efficient way to show what he's about.

At 6:27 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I do like seeing the villain's pov for short scenes throughout and I do like being completely surprised by who the bad guy is because he was so darn "normal" through the story.

I do think a villain needs GMC. And he shouldn't be the guy standing behind the bush twirling his moustache.

Can't wait for part two, Diane!

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Ladyhawk said...

Diane, I've always "liked" your villains. I think Greythorne creeped me out the most. I wouldn't change him; he was perfect for the part.

Stepping back and thinking it through more carefully, what bothers me the most is when the villain is very like someone I know. The villain does have to have GMC because they all do.

One of the things that annoys me is when the sociopath "magically" changes at the end. They've displayed heartless behavior throughout the book and then suddenly, at the end recognize the error of their ways and are all sweet and nice like nothing happened. And they ALL live happily ever after. Perhaps the problem is that there is no true GMC for the villain. Just a thought.

At 8:12 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I agree, Diane. A villain is supposedly human and so he must function on some level the way humans function. I've seen a number of entries in contests in which the villain is utterly incomprehensible- Because he's insane. So the author can have him do whatever she wants, with the explanation that he's insane.

That doesn't work for me. Most insanity has its own kind of logic, and its behaviors have their own motivations and pay-offs.
And stronger, more rational villains are much better for a story because they give hero and heroine a chance to show what great stuf they're made of.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

One of the things that annoys me is when the sociopath "magically" changes at the end. They've displayed heartless behavior throughout the book and then suddenly, at the end recognize the error of their ways and are all sweet and nice

I agree, Judy! This goes against the truth of sociopathy, where there is no recovery.

I can't blame you for not liking villains who remind you of people you know. Who wants to be reminded of the villains in their own lives?

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

So the author can have him do whatever she wants, with the explanation that he's insane.

Oh, this is a pet peeve of mine, too, Delle. Before one decides to make a villain "insane" one ought to research the subject. I hate when people think they know what mental illness is without making an effort to learn about it. But people don't know what they don't know, so sometimes you get someone who thinks they understand mental illness and doesn't know enough to question that knowledge.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I never really thought about it before, but yes, a villain does need his own GMC. I think the villain in The Raven's Heart has one, but I need to make sure it is clear.

I don't like villains who are cardboard cutouts. They have to have feelings and thoughts of their own and I like what Terry said "They're the hero of their own story."

My late DH was a psychiatrist in the prison system here in Alabama. He saw it all and there were some people he deemed "Broken machines." He often had to attend parole hearings and found that explaining someone as a broken machine got the point across. He had no problems telling a judge "No form of therapy or religion is going to change this person. What you see on the outside in an every day setting here bears no resemblance to what is going on in this person's head."

Of course he said not all sociopaths become serial killers. Some lead perfectly normal lives. They just get up one day and decide to kill like you and I decide to wear a certain outfit. I asked what sociopaths become if they don't become serial killers. His response? Used car salesmen and lawyers. He had an odd sense of humor!

At 10:21 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Louisa, I like your husband's analogy of a "broken machine." Too many people don't comprehend that not all brains are alike and some just can't think or feel like the rest of us. Mental Illness and sociopathy runs on a continuum. Not all sociopaths are so extreme that they become serial killers. Luckily this gives us lots of options when we are inventing villains.


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