Some villains are just plain nuts, right? Wrong.
Whether or not mental health disorders should or shouldn’t be used to create sinister villains isn’t up for debate. They are used, whether anyone likes it or not, and frequently used too. Let me be clear; I am not suggesting people or characters with mental health issues are all villains or antagonists. What I am saying is that some of the great villains in literary and film history have these disorders. What’s unfortunate is that most of the time they’re used in a clichéd or subtly discriminatory way.
Understanding these disorders and their sometimes comorbid nature allows us to create more authentic villains. I want to tread carefully here; I think it’s important to respect mental health and the sufferers and to remove the myths and misonomers surrounding them.
There are some important lessons we can learn from these illnesses which can help us to bring authenticity to our characters. Having an awareness of these disorders can give you insight, genuine reactions, and understanding of what the source of their conflict can be – which gives you more plot and more depth to your characters. This post has come from my realization this week that one of my characters has NPD (Narcissism). I am fascinated by mental health – having studied Psychology for the best part of seven years; this is a real treat to bring psychology and writing together and particularly as the research is useful for my own novel. Of course, I can’t cover every mental illness, nor can I go into the depth I would love to in just one post, but I have outlined some of the most commonly known disorders that villains might suffer from and hopefully righted some even more common misconceptions.
I have a few recommendations to help with this post:
First I wanted to recommend a book alongside this post, The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, is a really good blend of psychology infused with the writer’s perspective. I find it particularly useful when thinking about Villains too because it has a summary of all the key things to think about when designing a villain. Plus it has some unusual disorders like schizophrenia, the mindset of dangerous criminals like rapists and murderers, if you are writing about anything criminal or villain oriented it’s well worth the read.
Second I wanted to recommend a website, which you can search for disorders, while it doesn’t have a huge range of information on the disorders themselves, it has a category selection system where you can look up books, movies, people with the disorder, and a range of resources about that disorder. It’s called BehaveNet and I think a fantastic tool for writers.
The misperceptions around Schizophrenia are a pet hate of mine. It’s regularly confused with split personality disorder, which I will outline shortly. Another pet hate is the perception that everyone with Schizophrenia is violent, that’s just not true. Schizophrenia is a disorder of the mind often characterized by positive or negative symptoms which affect how you think, feel or behave. There are five common symptoms of Schizophrenia: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, and the so-called “negative” symptoms.
You can find out more about Schizophrenia, including an extremely useful in-depth guide to the symptoms I just mentioned but also a wealth of information on behaviors, causes and effects and a variety of other information on help guide. Interestingly Schizophrenia is not as rare as you would think, with up to 1 in 100 adults suffering from Schizophrenic symptoms. Some early warning signs which would be useful to factor in a character’s behavior include:
- Social withdrawal
- Hostility or suspiciousness
- Deterioration of personal hygiene
- Flat, expressionless gaze
- Inability to cry or express joy
- Inappropriate laughter or crying
- Oversleeping or insomnia
- Odd or irrational statements
- Forgetful; unable to concentrate
- Extreme reaction to criticism
- Strange use of words or way of speaking
The other useful tidbit to know about Schizophrenia is that it has a high rate of comorbidity. This means that you often find people with Schizophrenia, usually have other disorders too. Most commonly with Schizophrenia, is substance abuse, closely followed by anxiety and depression. But other comorbidities include OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Panic Disorder. Including another disorder in your villain could give you the twist you need to make them unique.
The most obvious example of a famous villain with Schizophrenia that springs to mind is the Green Goblin from Spiderman. Although the most famous film I can think of is ‘A Beautiful Mind.’
2. Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) (Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID))
Or more commonly known as split personality. This disorder is often characterized by a person having different identities controlling their thoughts and behavior at different times. Interestingly, and also very importantly, people with MPD have separate memories restricted to each personality. This means that when in their primary personality they often cannot recall information regarding another personality. What if your character had one good and one bad personality? And they information they needed was locked in one particular personality? You can find more detailed information about this disorder on WebMD including information on symptoms and diagnosis.
Loosely symptoms can include depression, mood swings, suicidal tendencies, sleep disorders, substance abuse and psychotic tendencies amongst others.
There are plenty of villains that loosely fall into the category of having multiple personality disorder, some depicted more closely to the ‘real’ disorder than others, but these include: Harvey Dent – Two Face, Gollum, Catwoman, Jekyll and Hyde, and my own personal favorite Tyler Durden from fight club.
Arguably some heroes are even portrayed on the fringes of MPD – take, batman and superman.
3. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships. Interestingly more women than men are affected. The four major areas affected are:
- emotional instability (a psychological term for this is affective dysregulation)
- disturbed patterns of thinking or perception (psychological terms for these are cognitive or perceptual distortions)
- impulsive behavior
- intense but unstable relationships with others
Again, you can find a wealth of information on BPD on help guide. Like Schizophrenia, it is found with comorbid disorders, including depression, substance abuse, bipolar, eating and anxiety disorders. There are nine symptoms which you can find more information on, in the link above but they include: Feeling suspicious or out of touch with reality, Explosive anger, Chronic feelings of emptiness, Extreme emotional swings, Self-harm, Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors, Unclear or unstable self-image, Unstable relationships, Fear of abandonment.
If you are considering using BPD as a disorder for a character, it is worth noting that the causes of BPD are widely accepted to come from a combination of inherited or internal biological factors and importantly, external environmental factors, such as traumatic events in childhood. This is important as you may want to include a key event or series of events in your character’s backstory.
Famous villains with BPD include Adolf Hilter and Eileen Wuornos. Characters in films include Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted (A favorite of mine) and Nurse Ratched.
4. OCD vs. OCPD
There is a significant difference between OCD and OCPD, but it is often confused in literature and film.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder which can be characterized by uncontrollable and unwanted thoughts called obsessions. These obsessions are repetitive and lead to ritualized behaviors (like cleaning) the sufferer feels compelled to do; these are called compulsions and often manifest to alleviate the obsessions. If you have OCD, it is likely that you recognize your obsessions and compulsions are irrational but are still unable to resist them. For a full and detailed explanation of OCD have a look at the help guide pages.
Famous movies with characters with OCD include: As Good As It Gets and the Aviator.
OCPD is different. For a start, it is a personality disorder characterized by a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, usually at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency. That might sound like someone you know, and that’s because it is the most common personality disorder, with up to 10% of the population suffering.
The Savvy Psychologist outlines 5 key differences between OCD and OCPD, but loosely they include insight, distress, guilt, anxiety and time. To draw on one – insight, those with OCD are aware that their actions and behaviors are unreasonable. People with OCPD however, think their exceptional standards are reasonable and the only way to accomplish anything. PsychCentral has an excellent guide to OCPD, but the key symptoms and behavior include:
- Preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost
- Perfectionism that interferes with task completion
- Excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships.
- Overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values.
- Hoards or is unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value
- Reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things
- Adopts a miserly spending style toward both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes
- Shows significant rigidity and stubbornness
Television brings us two excellent examples of characters with OCPD, including Niles Crane from Fraiser and Monica from friends with her exceptional cleaning standards, and there are elements of both OCD and OCPD in Adrian Monk from Monk.
5. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration from others and a distinct lack of empathy for others. But sadly, behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem particularly vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
You can find a detailed description of NPD on PsychCentral, but the following symptoms are included:
“Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
Requires excessive admiration
Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
Famous NPD characters include Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter, and Christian Bale in American Psycho.
6. Sociopathy VS Psychopathy
This is the most common of the six disorders found in villains. Neither Sociopathy nor Psychopathy are terms accepted in Psychiatry or Psychology, although there are widely argued differences about the biology and heredity of the two, it appears that they are commonly being lumped into one term – Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Although my understanding is that whilst Sociopaths are able to interact meaningfully with society their moral compasses are eschewed their behaviors are impulsive and they rarely have regard to consequences before acting. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are completely emotionally apathetic cruel and highly organized and risk averse to protect themselves, hence my post on my favorite famous Psychopath, Dexter. Psych Central has a great explanation of the differences.
APD is characterized by a long-term disregard for other people’s rights often starting as early as childhood. They often lack empathy are callous, cynical and have an inflated sense of self-importance. They are cocky, have little regard for current or future problems and can often come across charming. PsychCentral has an in-depth guide.
- “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”
Famous characters with APD include Dexter, the Joker, Patrick Batmen from American Psycho.
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