Okay, okay, it’s a weird post title, I know. I’m NOT saying that if someone has a mental illness, they’re a villain. But, I’m going to discuss how mental illnesses can affect your villain, for the better or the worse.
A word of caution: I don’t recommend writing a villain with a mental illness unless you’ve had experience, done tons of research, or have talked to someone who is knowledgeable about the mental illness that you are considering giving to your villain.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s see how mental illnesses affect villains.
Obviously, something is a little off in the head of a villain if they’re a villain. But sometimes, it’s a little more than being “a bit off.” Out of curiosity, I started researching sociopaths and psychopaths, people with bipolar, and depression and anxiety. All the diseases I just listed are quite different from each other, and I stared wondering how each would affect a villain. I’m mainly going to focus on the first two: sociopaths and psychopaths.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines sociopathy as “[a] pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others… as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”
That sounds a bit like a dark villain in a fantasy story, doesn’t it? Deceitful, lack of remorse, repeatedly breaking the law…
Sociopaths and psychopaths are often lumped into the medical term “antisocial personality disorder.” While both are different from each other, the main difference seems to be that sociopaths have a conscience (albeit weak) and psychopaths don’t seem to have a conscience. Generally speaking, psychopaths tend to be worse than sociopaths. (source)
Psychopaths often have the ability to sense the emotion you are feeling, but not feel it themselves. They have a total disregard for what you might be feeling. They can then use that against you. (source)
This to me sounds like a lot of Disney villains. Ursula, for example. She knows that Ariel wants to walk and meet her prince, and she’ll do anything for it. She then makes a deal with Ariel, and (ultimately) nearly takes over the entire sea as a result.
There’s an interesting TED talk about psychopaths and their behaviors, but I won’t post the link here. There are some slightly disturbing elements, mostly quotes from serial killers. (Nothing graphic, and no pictures that are graphic.) It does however talk about some fascinating things. The talk is called “Strange answers to the psychopath test | Jon Ronson” if you want to look it up.
So what if you decide that your villain is a sociopath or a psychopath?
I wouldn’t mention it.
Some people like to put things into boxes. They find a thing, deposit in the box, shut it, tape it, and never let the thing go out of the box. Maybe your villain does have antisocial personality disorder. That doesn’t mean that the illness is everything. Use it to make your villain more dynamic, not to box them in.
Instead, do some research, figure out what traits your villain possesses and make your villain a person. A flawed person. But a person regardless.