Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) answers a lot of questions writers ask about villains. Again and again, the question comes up of what villains want, why they bother, and what motivates them. A related question is whether a writer should portray villains as doing the right thing from their own perspective. We need villains to make heroes act heroic, but villains themselves are often interesting, sometimes even more, and it’s their perspective that’s so interesting. Most readers and writers are not villains: they care more about cats and puppies than seeing people suffer, and writers and readers tend to be people who like to delve deep into the psyche and experiences of people who are not like them. In this vein, I decided to do some research on sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and criminality to get at these questions in a more thoroughly psychological way (i.e. not just through great works of fiction).
The question of motivation was the first one that occurred to me, and in my reading I first came across Dr. Kent Kiehl’s The Psychopath Whisperer, which largely consists of case studies of violent criminals in maximum security prison. Kiehl is a disciple of Robert Hare, the psychologist who developed the scale most commonly used to assess sociopathy. Kiehl profiles a number of violent criminals whose primary motivation seems to be one of three things:
- Avoiding “white picket fence” lifestyles
- Rage: momentary irritations that provoke violent crime
None of these seem particularly good villain material, and I rapidly came to the conclusion that sociopathy was not particularly fertile ground for villainy, especially not in an epic fantasy series. As an example, Kiehl profiles a man who was a petty criminal and never got caught, but one night his girlfriend pissed him off and he beat her to death in the bathtub. He then wrapped her body in a blanket, put it in the front seat of the car and drove off to dispose of it. Her disappearance led to certain inconsistencies that quickly pointed the finger at the real killer. He did one dumb thing after another, including confessing to the police when he thought he was manipulating the detectives. With good behavior and some manipulation behind bars, he gained parole, but Kiehl saw him again a few years later in the same prison. He had basically repeated the same crime with a new girlfriend.
That guy would make a terrible villain. He sounds stupid, for one thing, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about his psychological inner life, nor enough consistent motivation to drive a story. He’s just a stupid menace.
There is something useful here, however. Contrast the above Stupid Menace with the case of a non-psychopathic criminal, a guy who developed a drug problem and ended up involved in armed robbery or attempted murder. That guy wants a normal life, but is plagued by guilt, feels out of control, and has a series of people he really cares about that he has wronged. This sort of person seemed to me to make a much more interesting character right away. And then there’s the case of someone who does something very evil, like killing a president, because they believe it is the right thing to do.
Kiehl alternates between journalistic chapters and memoir-mixed-with-case-study, and includes an interesting chapter comparing and contrasting two presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth with Charles Guiteau. He goes through the items of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and scores each assassin according to letters and historical accounts of their lives. A subject can score either 0, 1, or 2 on each item, and they are added up for the final score. This makes a forty point scale most normal North American men score about 4 on. Incarcerated men will, on average, score 22, and psychologists consider anyone with a score of 30 or above to be psychopathic, i.e. lacking in conscience.
As Kiehl proceeded through the chapter on Booth and Guiteau, a consistent pattern emerged. Booth again and again scored 0 or 1 on Hare’s items, whereas Guiteau’s life was one full of manipulation, swindling, inconsistency and insincerity. Guiteau plagiarized, lied on his resume, lied about having a resume, repeatedly asked people for “investments” that never really happened, and eventually asked President Garfield for a diplomatic post he was in no way qualified for. Guiteau was of above-average intelligence and was “very charming,” but he was above all arrogant and totally out of touch with the reality of his abilities. What eventually pushed him to assassinate Garfield was he made himself a laughing stock in Washington, asking for a job beyond his abilities, and Garfield didn’t hesitate to make fun of his arrogance. Guiteau scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for psychopathy. Most notable of all, his motive for killing the president was completely selfish, and just revealed how out of touch he was.
John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, was a very different kind of person. He was kind of a sleaze, but he was very dedicated to doing the right thing. Booth scored 8.4 on the Hare Scale, definitely average, and there is evidence from many sources he not only genuinely believed he was doing the right thing by assassinating Abraham Lincoln, he was actually able to pull it off. As opposed to Guiteau, Booth was very well in touch with his own capabilities and those of his conspirators (it’s also worth noting Guiteau didn’t have any conspirators). In fact, assassinating Lincoln was a scaling down of the original plan, because Booth and his conspirators knew they couldn’t pull off a kidnapping and ransom. Booth was a very capable man in almost everything he did, and much of that came from realizing his own limitations and setting realistic goals.
These sections of Kiehl’s book seem to suggest
- Psychopaths/sociopaths don’t make good villains; and
- Villains do think they are doing the right thing.
The criminal sociopaths Kiehl profiles seem to all be losers, i.e. they might make a good show of being charming and clever, but they are too impulsive, too disorganized, and too poorly motivated. They don’t have over-arching goals, they can’t put together a team, and they miss their targets. Then when they make mistakes, they do more dumb stuff that gets them into trouble. Their only redemptive quality (with respect to villainy) is they are able to do horrible stuff to people. But horrible stuff done to people is not a good story.
But there’s a problem with this conclusion: most good villains in most good stories do indeed lack a conscience. Either villainy in the real world is not defined by lack of conscience, but rather impulsivity, or villains really do believe their over-arching goals are more important than caring about who they assassinate.
This brings me to the perspective I hear often online that villains think they’re doing the right thing. This definitely matches up with John Wilkes Booth. He was a Confederate conspirator, he genuinely believed in the Confederate cause, and if we’re generally agreed today the Confederacy was wrong, then Booth looks like a good villain who definitely thought he was Right with a capital ‘R’.
John Wilkes Booth: good villain or bad hero?
There are two things I don’t like about this assertion. First, it resorts to cultural relativism: we could write the story from Booth’s perspective and make Lincoln the bad guy. Then Booth believes in what he’s doing, cares deeply for those his actions will affect, and shoots the president, which we all know is wrong. In the ensuing manhunt, Booth looks like a victim, an oppressed underdog. Booth is a heartfelt character with a conscience, who wants to save people from the horrible oppressor Lincoln. I don’t think that book would sell. It challenges (and not in a good way) our ideals and our cultural values, and manipulates us into empathizing with someone we know was wrong. Going back to Aristotle, we use character to draw the reader into the plot, and if the plot is wrong, we are using character as a tool for bad ends, i.e. emphasizing an immoral plot.
The second thing I don’t like is the idea that villains always (or even most of the time) think what they’re doing is right. Clearly Booth did, and by my argument above, I think that would make him a bad villain. I see people online saying if the villain doesn’t think what he’s doing is right, then he wouldn’t be doing it. But plenty of people do stuff they know is wrong, and they just don’t care.
So what motivates them? This is where Stout’s Sociopath Next Door completely changed my mind. Stout’s picture of sociopathy is completely different from Kiehl, in that she profiles people who are not necessarily violent criminals. They’re often too smart to get caught, or not interested in crime per se, but in other pursuits that still hurt people. The defining characteristic is a lack of conscience, all the way down to the way a sociopath’s brain works. They just don’t care. They just don’t care about people. When I was taking my dog to the vet this morning, I was really worried about the sore wrist that’s making her limp, really worried she might be getting old before I’m ready for her to get old, and I felt it in my heart. A true sociopath doesn’t feel any of that, and the question Stout asks again and again is “What would you do if you had that kind of freedom?” What if you didn’t have a conscience? What would you do if you just didn’t give a shit?
Of course this is like asking someone to explain what life would be like as an oak tree. Most people can’t imagine it, and BANG! we’re back to why people are interested in villains. Sociopaths, the way Stout characterizes them are good villain material. They have a few characteristics that go along with their lack of conscience that puts them in a good middle ground, somewhere between John Wilkes Booth and Hannibal Lecter, and they don’t have to be as poorly organized and impulsive as Guiteau.
What do sociopaths want?
Sociopaths, in Stout’s estimation, are mostly motivated by exploiting the difference between them and people with a conscience. This means they play games with people. They exploit the caring of others into doing things that will embarrass them, put them at a disadvantage, or prop up the sociopath’s ability to keep doing what they do. They enjoy manipulating people, often for the thrill of seeing how gullible others are. This can result in a number of eventualities or profiles Stout relates in fictionalized vignettes (this shows the value of fiction, because the extraordinary psychology of sociopaths often comes across more clearly in tiny interactions).
One case study is a corporate executive who is sheltered by his corporation because his decisiveness makes them so much money (Harvey Weinstein, perhaps?). Another is a psychologist who plagiarized her credentials and lives for the thrill of manipulating disadvantaged people, including her patients and her colleagues. She likes watching them squirm, and no one can detect her lies because anyone she lies to is unreliable, or she is able to blackmail them. Not all these characters would make good villains, as some of them are lazy and unmotivated, except by rather petty things.
So let’s go back to one of my favorite villains, Shakespeare’s Richard III. I say “Shakespeare’s” because there is very little real evidence the real Richard III was a sociopath, and he did show plenty of evidence of caring for his family and others. He was also a very skilled warrior, even if he was outmatched at Bosworth Field. But in the play, Richard knows what he is doing, and he knows it is wrong, and he even spells it out in the opening soliloquy. He has no taste for celebrating peace (the summer brought by the fair son of York). In other words, he’s bored. Stout defines this characteristic in one of her later chapters, and points out when we don’t have a conscience, we don’t care, therefore we don’t have enriching human relationships, and we get bored. This is exactly what Richard says in his first few lines, and his solution is to play games with people.
Furthermore Richard blames his inability to care and his boredom on his physical deformity, another characteristic of sociopathy. The ability of sociopaths to defer responsibility is insane. Shakespeare gets another thing right about sociopaths: they’re ability to charm and to use pity to their advantage. In Act I, Scene 2, Richard somehow convinces Anne Neville to feel sorry for him. Richard killed her father and husband, and in Shakespeare’s version of events, Dick also murdered the king she was loyal to! Throughout the play, even as his administration falls apart around him, he never stops playing games with people, even convincing his brother’s widow Elizabeth he should marry her daughter, against all kinds of wrongitude.
I’m left with the conclusion that sociopaths indeed make great villains thanks to the advantage they have of consciencelessness. They do indeed know what they are doing is wrong, and it allows them to play games with people. And better than all of that, they must be destroyed. They are the perfect thing to motivate a hero who does have a conscience. Everybody loves a little moral ambiguity, but ambiguity results from a hero having to make hard moral choices: am I going to use people to defeat the Dark One, even when using people is objectionable to me? Am I no better than the Dark One for doing so? Am I doing exactly what the Dark One wants me to? Probably, but is there any other way to defeat Him?
In this way we can see a sociopathic villain can definitely have an overarching goal, especially when he has a hero to mess with. The goal is not just to constantly cause trouble, but to push that hero to further and further ends, and see if he will cosmically mess up. It further leads to the conclusion that a good ol’ classic villain is not nihilistic. They do indeed have a good solid motivation: to see people dance. They get a thrill out of seeing what “poor disadvantaged” (i.e. moral) people will do when faced with a dilemma. So in a way, readers are the real villains. Isn’t that what we’re all reading for? To see what someone of superior character will do in a really tough situation?
Postlude: Scary stuff
About 1 in 25 Americans is sociopathic, and most people will blindly follow orders from someone they consider a legitimate authority (according to Stanley Milgram, and I totally believe him). The only struggle for the writer (especially the fantasy author) then is to create legitimacy in such a way that a depraved sociopath can lure in well-meaning people to create henchmen or an entire social movement. Not that all “henchmen” are well-meaning people; they may just be other sociopaths who’ve found someone to follow. The task for normal people is to watch out for sociopaths who tell us they’ve found the right solutions to things, especially those who seem to really care. Stout says the “pity play” like in Richard III, Act I, Scene 2 is a dead giveaway, better than anything else.