Thursday, July 23, 2009

Making an antagonist evil and believable - by Vivian Zabel

Psychopath or Sociopath – how to make your antagonist real.

A good writer does the best to make characters believable. Antagonists need to be round characters, too, not stereotypes or flat. One way to put depth into a villain is to decide whether or not the person has a “problem,” perhaps one that’s pathological or traumatic, that motivates behavior.

I’ve researched psychopath and sociopath. Most information stated that they are one and the same, and the terms have been considered interchangeable for at least twenty years. However, some of the newer decisions by the psychiatric community has been to show a slight difference between the two conditions.

Let’s look at the traits found in a psychopath and then look at the slight difference between psychopath and a sociopath. The first eight are absolutely associated with a psychopath. Nine through fifteen aren’t always noticeable, but are found to some extent. The final four are not as common as the first fifteen, but many psychopaths have the traits or history of such traits.

1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
4. Cunning/manipulative
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
6. Emotionally shallow
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
9. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
10. Parasitic lifestyle
11. Poor behavioral control
12. Promiscuous sexual behavior
13. Lack of realistic, long-term goals
14. Impulsivity
15. Irresponsibility

1. Juvenile delinquency
2. Early behavior problems
3. Revocation of conditional release
4. Many short-term marital relationships
5. Criminal versatility

The one difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is a sociopath can, and sometimes does, feel guilt or remorse. A psychopath never does, and if he shows such emotion, he is acting.

Does that mean that every psychopath and sociopath is a criminal? No, because the same traits can be found in politicians, CEOs, and other people in positions of power. However, those people don’t believe that anything they do is wrong, that if others are hurt, it doesn’t matter.

So using the traits to make the antagonist more believable makes our writing better, gives motivation for our villain.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
4RV Publishing


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post. I'm tweeting this one...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Liberty Speidel said...

Great information, thank you! I'm going to have to bookmark and Facebook this post for some of my other mystery writing friends!

Jean Henry Mead said...

You've done your research well, Vivian. We've probably all known at least one person who fits into either category. It's pretty scarey stuff.

Vivian Zabel said...

What's really frightening is when you realize a family member meets all the traits.


Holly Jahangiri said...

I'm partial to borderlines and narcissists, myself. I mean, as characters. Not so much as friends.

Dana Fredsti said...

Grrr... I've tried leaving a comment three times and it keeps eating them. ONE more time!

I was married to a classic sociopath when I was very young. VERY short marriage. He lied about everything, would call me at work and pick fights over the phone, then when I'd get home, I'd find something of mine broken or ruined. I understand he is now a 'new age Mennonite.'

Vivian Zabel said...

Also the cause of psychopathy can be either physiological or traumatic. The villain in Midnight Hours became psychopathic due to a traumatic experience. Of course the tendency may have already been present.

All I did was used a family member as a model without knowing he meet the complete characteristics of a psychopath.

However, I have known other psychopaths and/or sociopaths, and friendships are very short lasting because the charm and other nice traits are surface and soon dissipate.

Anonymous said...

Great list. I had as much fun developing my antagonist as I did the protagonist. I like no: 5. Lack of remorse or guilt. I also weave in greed to.

Stephen Tremp

Vivian Zabel said...

Oh, greed is part of grandiose self-worth. Every thing he/she wants should be his/hers because he/she wants it.

Greed is always part of it, wanting more, more, more, but the psychopath doesn't consider it greed, just what is due.

unwriter said...

Now I see why I write about kitties and inanimate objects. It's bad enough that these people exist, I don't need to feed their greed and self worth.