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!