Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why People Do Bad Things

by Tory Butterworth

On Saturday Gina's blog, "Skyscraper Cones and Motivation," discussed how seldom people ask the question, "Why is a person doing that?" I agree that too few people ask this important question. As a psychotherapist, however, I spend much of my professional time speculating on people's reasons for their actions.

As a writer, I think there's no place more important to consider motivation than in creating our villains. In order to make villains believable, we need to give them reasons for their actions. However, in order to make them villains, they need to be motivated to do things that your average person sees as at least morally incorrect if not reprehensible.

In May, I'll be presenting at the Pennwriters' conference on, "Creating Believable Villains: Why People Do Bad Things." I thought I'd use my blog space over the next two months to outline different types of villains in psychological terms.

I've decided start with the most "extreme" villains: psychopaths, people lacking any moral conscience.

Most people not only believe that certain actions are right or wrong, they also viscerally feel that they are. When people who are not psychopaths behave badly, they feel guilt or shame. Psychopaths lack these emotions, and so choose behaviors merely as means to ends.

Not all psychopaths are criminals. If they can satisfy their desires in law-abiding ways, they may choose to do so, simply because they don't want to risk ending up in jail. However, they wouldn't be bothered by doing something most people would consider "wrong" if they believed they could get away with it.

Unfortunately, psychopaths don't usually make the best villains from a fiction standpoint. They're very rare. Few people have met one, and if they have, they may not get close enough to them socially to realize what they were seeing. (Psychopaths don't have great desires for personal intimacy.) To make a villain work, the character needs to at least remind a reader of someone he or she knows.

So, the first question to ask when you are considering why your villain is doing bad things is: Do they have a moral conscience? Are they literally unable to recognize right from wrong? The second question is: Will they interest my reader? Then again, maybe you should reverse those.

Who are the "villains" from your own personal life? I'd love to hear about them!


Rob Carr said...

This looks like a great series!

What's the difference between pychopath and the DSM-IV "anti-social personality disorder" as you're using the words?

Annette said...

Good question. I don't know if I have any villains in my life at the moment. I've managed to "clean house" so to speak and disconnect from the toxic personalities surrounding me.

However, there was one guy who my husband and I thought was a friend. Very charming, very personable, BUT he then started luring other friends into money schemes in which he always came out ahead, but others lost their life savings. Fortunately, Ray and I smelled a rat and steered clear of the thing. He then tried to turn us against some of our other friends that he didn't care for. It got ugly.

The end result: he ended up going to prison for shooting an employee in the back during a fit of rage. And I based my antagonist in my first mystery novel on him and killed him off in the end. HA. Showed him!

kathie said...

Nice post, Tory. I thought sociopaths were the one's without a conscience--the ones who weren't touched as infants, etc. who have no connection to others around them???

Villians in my life? None, really. That makes me very lucky or deep in denial, right?
Seriously, I love your posts!

Joyce said...

I have a cousin who, with the right stressor, I believe could be a serial killer. He's 46 and lives with his parents. His father is an alcoholic. His mother has issues, too. When we were little, he used to steal my older sister's nail polish. He smashed her Meet the Beatles album, too. I had a favorite record that he smashed several years later. The worst thing though, is he used to take our Barbie dolls and smash their chests in.

I still see him once in awhile and a few years ago he was dating a woman 20 years older than him who looked just like his mother. No lie.

Tory said...

Rob: OK, different professionals define these things differently. But for me, the anti-social personality disorder gets a "kick" out of shocking people, while the psychopath has so little connection with others s/he totally doesn't care how they feel.

Kathie: Murky waters here, psychopaths versus sociopaths (see above.) As far as I can tell, the two terms come from the knowledge base of two different professions. "Psychopath" is a term used by psychologists, and since I'm one, I'll stick to it. I think "sociopath" comes from the sociological literature, and since I'm not a sociologist, I'll leave it to others to define it.

Annette and Joyce: GREAT examples! At first glance, Annette's villain fits the anti-social personality disorder. However, shooting someone in a fit of rage sounds like very impulsive behavior. Joyce's villain sounds more rage-based. With your permission, I'd like to cogitate and do some research and include these examples in future blogs.

Oh, and Kathie, when I was asking about villains in your life, I didn't mean to limit it to people who behave illegally. Though they certainly make the most interesting ones!

Cathy said...

Someone I know has an ex-husband who was very hostile, negative, and had a real problem with anger. He went to counseling, anger groups, etc. for fifteen years and didn't improve much. I like to say he had inner demons. He was the villain in my life in those days (did I say my life--oops).

Now, like Annette, I've exorcised all the negative people from my life, at least the regulars.

Judy Schneider said...

The villains in my life wear the masks of nice people. It's easy to stay away from law-breakers, but the silent backstabbers are more difficult to decipher.

Can such people make good villains, Tory? I've found that's what I'm leaning toward in my novel -- villains sporting an exterior coating of living a good life, working hard, etc. But when you dig a little deeper, there's nothing but a rotting soul within. What do you think?

Tory said...

Cathy: if you're OK with it, I'll include your "friend's" ex-husband in future blogs, too.

Judy: I'd say definitely! My favorite movie line of all time is from Shawshank Redemption where the Tim Robinson character asks the prison warden, "Are you being deliberately obtuse?" In the next 30 seconds, the warden goes from someone you perceive as a bit stuffy but possibly a nice guy to a really scary man, possibly a psychopath. I'm saying possibly here because he hangs himself in the end, but I contend it's not out of guilt but because he'll look bad in the ensuing investigation.

Cathy said...

Yes, please do include the ex-husband in the blogs. This blog and the responses are fascinating.

Rob Carr said...

The reason I asked about psychopaths vs. aspd is, I've seen a number of people with full-blown antisocial personality disorder, obvious enough that I could Dx in the back of an ambulance with the DSM-IIIR criteria. So, it was a long time ago. A lot were drug dealers and bangers and such, I'll admit.

Where it gets interesting is in public safety. We all have a touch of antisocial in us. Do people like that seek out public safety, or do the years of exposure to the things we saw cause it? No idea. With police psych tests, they usually look for the "right amount."

I'm not sure the tests work.

The result is, you do have people who think they're the heroes who, given the right situation where they think they're doing the right thing, might do something monstrous. "I'm doing this for your own good" or "I'm doing this for society's sake."

And yes, I'm even thinking about me when I say that. I know that and try to take that into account.

Straczynski (Babylon 5) says that everyone is the hero of his story. Bester (played by Walter Koenig) is a perfect example of a villain who is, to his own way of thinking, a hero. He's not evil to be evil. He's doing good. Really. He's convinced.

Tory said...

Rob: Good point. I wouldn't go so far as to say every villain thinks they're a hero, but a lot of them sure do!

Rob Carr said...

Maybe not a hero, but a good person doing what they need to do.

I've had drug dealers explain to me how they're helping the Black Community by bringing money in, making the area important, and defending their reputation. One in particular had 3 bullets in him in retaliation for the teens that had died the previous night in my care.

I don't think anyone thinks they are evil. Con artists will explain why their marks "deserve" to be ripped off, and how it's helping society.

I'm not saying the justifications are valid, just that they are.

kathie said...

Rob, I too am familiar with drug dealers who made a point of giving a lot of their earnings to their mothers and that somehow made it (the fact the law was being broken in this way) better for everyone.

Tory, this might just be a mean person vs someone with a possible diagnosis, but what about people who tell you you're fat, but then make you eat cake, tell you your hair looks like crap, says you're not as good as the Jones cousins because they do ______. I know this isn't fascinating stuff, but these people intrigue me as much as Judy's mask wearing people. Almost the opposite of the masked folks????

Tory said...

Kathie: That sort of behavior can come from a lot of different places. Let me think about it and see how I might incorporate it into future blogs.

In crime fiction, they can make very useful suspects as well as villains.

kathie said...

Thanks, Tory!

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in looking into how psychological deviants come into power via mass movements as a topic for writing. The book 'Political Ponerology: A Science on The Nature of Evil adjusted for Political Purposes' by Andrew M. Lobaczewski describes this process. A review of the book at this link
"They're very rare. Few people have met one, and if they have, they may not get close enough to them socially to realize what they were seeing."
I think the latest research by Robert Hare estimates the total percentage of a population is 6% psychopaths.