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