Psychopathy and the Successful Villain

When writing a tale, the temptation can be to simply put in an evildoer for your hero to struggle with. That way lies cardboard villains, and although it may be easier on the writer not to have to empathize with their bad guys, or to understand their motivations, it’s far better for the readers if you take the time to truly understand what your villain is after.

True psychopaths in the sense that they are motivated to do evil for its own sake are very rare. Most of the humans born with that trait are socialized out of it: through nurture, or social constraints on behavior. Criminals who make it to full grown adults killing innocents without a flicker of conscience usually have fallen through those social cracks, or have been warped by their upbringings. I’m speaking very loosely, mind you, for the sake of this post. A study of criminology is fascinating, time consuming, and useful to any writer, not only a writer of mysteries. But I digress.

I was talking with a friend about his WIP and because I was tired, and being far too literal, I reminded him to start with the basics: means, motive, and opportunity. It wasn’t necessarily what he needed (more on that in a minute) but it is good advice when plotting. Your villain needs a driver. Not a dude in a funny hat sitting behind the wheel. A reason to pursue his evilness. Look at history, at crimes, heck, look at one of the most infamous mass murders in recent history. Jim Jones didn’t found Jonestown to kill a bunch of people. He was a civil rights activist trying to found Utopia (as so many before him attempted). But when he was on the brink of being held accountable, he unleashed Hell on Earth. And he wasn’t alone. There was a cabal of women at his back helping forcibly administer the poison in the last moments. This communal insanity where one person leads a lot of people astray trait is more a characteristic of a charismatic sociopath than a lone serial killer type.

Which is why once I’d talked more with my friend about what his bad guys were up to, I suggested he look at cult leaders for models of villains who specialize in dehumanizing, self-aggrandizing, and gathering power through adulation. Some of them are criminalized. Some escaped that. The thing about writing a ‘good’ villain is that you should take the time to study real villains, and that can be disturbing and unsettling to your own peace of mind. I was interested in criminology long before I went after a Forensic Science degree, but there are a lot of resources out there. True crime is a huge genre, in books, tv, and my current preference, podcasts. I avoid the more sensationalist approaches, so while I know who Nancy Grace is, I do not recommend her stuff.

I’d referred at the beginning to criminals who fell through the cracks. If you look at enough case histories, you see an emerging theme: juvenile crimes that are either not recognized as criminal (I.e. animal mutilation, which only very recently has been prosecuted), or they were let off with a slap on the wrist for crimes, emboldening them to go further in the future. Criminalization through incarceration is another common theme: prison is sometimes described as the College of Crime for good reason. But there is another path to adulthood as a psychopath. And that is an overindulged child whose parents bail them out and refuse to believe their child can do any wrong. In a magical world, my friend and I were postulating, a royal child with great power and indulgent parents could potentially bring down a whole world.

In the end, the backstory for your villain may not come into the story at all. Or perhaps very little. But it is still important to understand it as the writer, because it will affect how they interact with your protagonists. Are they in direct opposition? Or is it just that the hero was in the wrong place at the right time to stand up for injustice? Or…

A few recommended books and podcasts:


Casefile (Australian crimes)


Devil in the White City

Hell’s Princess

Jurgen Thorwald’s books, Crime and Science, or Century of the Detective, for historical perspective only



  1. Whenever the subject of villains comes up I am reminded of Prince Red from Samuel Delany’s “Nova”. (One of the greatest SF novels of all time, IMHO.)

    Prince is the exemplar of a spoiled sociopath. He grew up spectacularly wealthy (the heir to the company that has a virtual monopoly on building space drives) and powerful. He was also born missing one arm and his father–a domineering control freak–made a constant fuss about how Prince’s artificial arm didn’t matter, that it didn’t make him any less than anyone else, and that no one should ever tease him about it.

    And, of course, Prince became so sensitive about the subject that he would fly into a homicidal rage if anyone so much as used a figure of speech that contained the words “arm” or “hand”.

    He’s terrifying because he’s so believable–particularly these days, with so many people ranting at how other people’s language is oppression or violence. He’s like one of those internet trolls who has to insert themselves into any discussion, seen through the lens of their personal obsession.

    Only Prince has the resources to destroy people’s lives as revenge for imagined insults, and the power to get away with it.

    1. Sounds as if he was modeled in part on Wilhelm II of Prussia. Whether he had an in utero stroke, or (as was said at the time) he “lay incorrectly in the womb,” one arm never fully developed strength and functionality. This in a culture where he was supposed to be the ultimate example of a Manly Man and supreme war lord. It’s impressive in some ways that he didn’t turn out worse. (I know, damning with very faint praise.)

  2. Research hath its perils. In order to understand the character of a woman who falls under the sway of a convicted murderer in an upcoming book, I read two very unpleasant nonfiction books on the topic. I’m still debating whether the images I’m still trying to bleach out of my brain were worth the single speech I got out of all that reading.

    1. That is the problem. Is it worth the damage you do to your mental health to make your story better?

      I have at least one novel idea that I will never use because the research necessary to do it right would probably lead to me jumping off a bridge.

      1. Nonfiction is a business decision for me.

        Fiction is because parts of me are too broken to give it up, even knowing that it doesn’t really make sense for me.

        So, it is a tradeoff between the mental health costs of denying the drives to write fiction, or denying the drive to excellence, and the mental health costs of producing the fiction.

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever had much trouble inventing evil, fanatic or insane characters. Used to figure it was because of the reasons I identify as a monster. I think part of it is the difficulty of working with subtle differences in decision making processes that all fall within the bounds of sanity. Someone who drops a certain sort of decision making ball, hence choosing evil, is easier.

    Other resources:

    Cultural differences. The central villain of WIP was raised in two cultures that would like the Japanese exterminated. Though, I’ve just realized he is a little richer if he has internalized enough Japanese culture that he would never have been able to go home, mentally, no matter what had happened.

    Ordinary people met in daily life. When you start really being able to figure out some of the mechanics of why they do not think exactly as you do.

  4. And the old saw, absolute power corrupts absolutely plays into this too. Whether it is power over an individual or a group, for some that is the aphrodisiac that drives them

    1. Chris Nuttall has a villain with the motive of “nobody will threaten me again” but the villain is also somewhat insane so goes much further than morally necessary.

      Oh, the villain is from an upcoming Schooled In Magic book and I’ll not spoil who the villain is. šŸ˜‰

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