Bad Guys III: Psychology and Anthropology

Posted: October 13th, 2014 under Craft.

Psychology offers a lot of ways to complicate bad guys (when you want to) and handy shortcuts for when you don’t. Its sources concentrate on the individual and the family (though not all writers about psychology ignore culture, what’s published under that name is rarely broad and deep enough to serve the fiction writer, especially in fantasy and science fiction.) Anthropology covers the “outside” nurture, the broader context of why people become who they become and do what they do. Both are excellent areas for fiction writers to study, though with the warning that your characters should not read like case histories, and readers should not be able to recognize which book that character came out of. Moreover, fiction should not read like the writer’s own therapy sessions. Even when the story requires that a character be in therapy for something, and the writer has had the same therapy.

Ancient texts spelled out what someone needed to do to be a good person/citizen/leader/ruler but did not bother with how those traits might arise and what (if anything) could turn a potentially good person into a bad person. Aristotle did point out that a character’s strengths and weaknesses should be integral to the plot of a drama (for which we can read novel–it’s basic Story) but he didn’t dig back into the psychology angle. Oedipus was hasty and quick to anger: that was his fatal flaw. Why he was angry, why he was hasty…it didn’t matter. Psychology seeks to understand–to know how a child grows into that kind of adult. People are born with some innate character traits that show up even in early infancy. Then they are born into their primary social group (be it a single parent or a large extended family) and a surrounding culture…all of which place expectations on them because of their gender, their appearance (race, beauty or lack of it, any odd physical characteristics), etc.

As they develop, their innate inborn traits are influenced by their surroundings–their experience of needs met or unmet, acceptance or rejection, physical health or illness or injury, approval and disapproval (of them as persons, of specific behaviors), opportunity or lack of it–all culturally mediated (via the family and then the rest of that culture). Innate traits react differently to the same stimuli…what one person finds rewarding, another person finds punitive. The introvert does not turn into an extravert by being forced into social situations. And since no one is perfect, there’s always some way for someone to become a bad guy for your story, if you need them to…there’s always a weak point that you, the storyteller, can exploit. Major characters are strong enough to fight back (you might as well let them be who they are, because they’ll turn plastic on you if you don’t.) But minor characters–that likeable restaurant owner your main character considers his friend–that accountant in a firm you need to bring down for story reasons–those you can mess with.

Considering the culture you’ve built as this character’s background, the minor character’s fatal flaw should fall under a mild version of something that’s considered a personality disorder, not a major mental illness. A level above trivial, but not exciting enough to drag the reader’s mind off the storyline. He gambles too much; he’s really short of money; he does something wrong (embezzles, sells the pain pills his mother left behind when she dies, shoplifts, sells a company secret.) He doesn’t admit how wrong it was; he makes excuses to himself and gets deeper in, etc.) She’s addicted to [whatever’s addicting in your story-world] and does whatever she can (legal and illegal & immoral) to get her fix. Nothing spectacular here, but motivation for doing a bad thing that needs doing in the plot. You want your gambler or your drinker or your procrastinator or your compulsive liar or other “weak” character to act believably in psychological terms, though in your story (where modern psychology may not exist) the character is seen as acting from a different set of motives. What, in psychology, is considered to contribute to the development of specific behavior patterns?

And that’s where the anthropology comes in. How does the culture you invented for the story see human nature? What does it consider innate? Under the character’s control? Out of the character’s control? How does it view someone of a different skin, eye, hair color? Taller people? Shorter people? People with an eye that doesn’t align with the other? With a misshapen ear or nose? With a missing limb? What are its beliefs? Is the wall-eyed child feared (“He has an evil eye!”), tolerated, pitied (“Poor girl, she’ll never make an archer”?) In Violette Malan’s The Soldier King, a boy born without magical gifts reacts to ridicule and taunting from other boys with growing resentment and hatred and finally betrays his tribe to punish them. Would he have been as bad if he’s had magical gifts to start with? If the other boys had been sympathetic instead of tricking him and humiliating him? Maybe–but he had an excuse and he ran with it. (Malan’s Dhylyn and Parno books are my favorites of her work, but all her stuff is extremely well-written with excellent characterization.)

A major bad guy’s psychological profile should be more dramatic, and as I mentioned before they must have agency–they must act, not just react. Small-time crooks, cheaters, liars, etc. don’t end up a master villains…or if they do, they develop some characteristic mental diagnoses along the way. Narcissism and associated grandiosity. But small or large, a bad guy’s badness needs to make sense across the realms of basic beliefs about goodness and badness, psychology, and the specific effects of anthropology–the culture(s) you devise for your story-world. This doesn’t take pages–or even paragraphs–of explanation. As with any data insertion, the details need to arrive exactly when needed, and leave room for readers to make those connections they can make without being hammered.

Major villains may stay offstage, seen at a distance through other characters’ points of view and judged by their actions alone (possibly affected by rumors about their past.) They may be onstage but not POV characters (Marshal Haran, in her interaction with Paks.) They may be written as POV characters with the caution that if you want them to stay in the villain category, don’t make them too sympathetic. (I managed that with Luap. Luap is not sympathetic…on the other hand, he’s almost too weak to be a major villain–he was more collaborator than mastermind.)

What, then, makes a bad guy who’s believable as a master villain? Suggestion: read biographies, including autobiographies, of real-life master villains. Yes, many of them really are that grandiose, that arrogant, that oblivious to others’ realities, that narcissistic. Some of the nonfiction reads like pulp fiction. Lack of empathy (empathy erodes even with routine petty crimes and betrayals) is characteristic of the master villain, be it a criminal or a national (galactic?) leader. Psychosis is not that uncommon, when psychosis is defined as an inability or refusal to stay in touch with reality. A certain cavalier attitude towards reality–a claim that Will or Determination or Esprit will overcome–attracts followers who admire and want to share that confidence. But believing one’s own hype leads to failure. Will, etc., can go only so far: no matter how hard you believe, gravity’s stronger than Will when it comes to flying. Intelligent major bad guys (the best kind) can succeed a long time (we have had enough of them as national leaders through history) and lead your protagonist a long, difficult chase, but are vulnerable to the right good guy (which, as writer, you are in charge of.)

And that’s enough of Bad Guys for awhile. The next topic in Craft of Writing will be something completely different (when I think of it.) In the meantime, a cheering picture:


The current pair of socks had their heels turned today (down where the needles are at the end toward the camera: above that the ankle and above that five inches of ribbing.)    Now for the gussets and then the foot and then…I’ll have these to wear this winter.  (For the knitters: Mountain Colors’ Indian Paintbrush colorway.)


  • Comment by Richard — October 14, 2014 @ 3:12 am


    I’m thinking about Einar, Torfinn King of Pargun’s would-be-usurper brother.

  • Comment by Iphinome — October 14, 2014 @ 5:10 pm


    Imagining Meing the Merciless sobbing with a tissue in one hand and a quart of Ben and Jerry’s in the other. Wahhh and then Flash Gordon called me cruel. I-I’m gong to throw him in a volcano *sob* so he learns you can’t talk to people like that!

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 14, 2014 @ 9:54 pm


    Einar is/was an interesting case. You recall that early in Kieri’s career he was in a battle against the Pargunese in which the Sagon (regional ruler) of the SW was killed. Torfinn and Einar’s father was then king in Pargun and that Sagon was another close relative (I haven’t done the whole Pargunese ruling family’s genealogy yet–hoping to avoid that.) Anyway, the Sagon was a favorite of Einar’s, whether a still older brother–older than Torfinn–or a cousin or uncle. Einar had a burning desire to get back at Kieri and Tsaia–but mostly Kieri. This made him an easy mark for Achrya, whose agents played on his desire for vengeance, his pride, his resentment, his ambition. Einar had pushed for the very damaging expedition to join with Verrakaien and attempt Kieri’s assassination on his way to Lyonya and Torfinn reamed him out about that later, when Einar first proposed attacking Lyonya to get at Kieri after he was there. He loved the thought of a super-weapon, the scathefire, and against Torfinn’s orders colluded with Achrya and the corrupt gnome prince to get a few shards. And increasingly he thought Torfinn had gone soft. His own wife and children were properly obedient, Einar said, and Torfinn couldn’t get Elis to conform. He thought he could, if only he could get Torfinn out of the way.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 14, 2014 @ 9:55 pm


    Yup, like that.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — October 15, 2014 @ 8:52 pm


    Enjoying the “writer’s craft” bits and the lovely yarn. Splashes of Indian Paintbrush on the hillside are “happy making” even though the species is partially parasitic. Some bad guy characteristics there. 🙂

  • Comment by Abigail Miller — October 16, 2014 @ 9:52 am


    OT entirely — I just got the last part of Shattered Shields from Baen and thank you heartily for First Blood.

  • Comment by Sharidann — October 17, 2014 @ 3:36 am


    Same as Abigail,got Shattered Shields last night as EBOOK and began with the end … i.e. First Blood.

    Really, enjoyed it, good Story in a familiar Background for your Readers. You dropped enough hints that a Reader not knowing Paksworld would still be able to understand the Story, very deftly done.

    albeit not totally off Topic, as we have one villain in the Story. 🙂

    Just not wanting to spoil anything.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 17, 2014 @ 7:46 am


    Well done, both of you who’ve read “First Blood” and a) gave me a morning boost of approval to start off with, and b) didn’t spoiler it.

    At the time I was writing it, I didn’t know (neither did the Editors) whether the anthology would come out before CROWN did, or after, so there were some tricky bits to writing something so close to CROWN. It must not spoiler the book, if it came out first. It must not be “ho-hum, we have the book so we know all about what happened” if it came out afterwards.

  • Comment by Karen H — October 17, 2014 @ 9:09 pm


    @ Abigail Miller and Sharidann

    Thanks for bringing up Shattered Shields. I’m going on a road trip starting tomorrow. I just downloaded it and am looking forward to reading it.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 19, 2014 @ 2:59 pm


    One of the things that makes Luap work as fundamentally weak villian is that there is a bigger bad guy behind/inside. We get hints, but only at the end do we really see the influence for what it is. Very true to life, unfortunately.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 21, 2014 @ 6:27 pm


    I liked First Blood too. Now I am enjoying some of the other stories.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment