No Shortcuts, Please: Myths and Misconceptions of Villains & Mental Health

I love the internet–I get to meet all sorts of wonderful people. Today I’m happy to welcome Sacha Black, who knows a heck of a lot about the baddie in your story…someone more important than some writers may realize. This misconception means sometimes not as much effort is put into building them, so Sacha is addressing this today. Strong characters are the gateway to a compelling story, so please read on!

Myths and Misconceptions of Villains & Mental Health

crafting a villian, writing the antagonist, how to write a villianVillains get all the interesting bits of a story. They’re the fun characters to write because they generate conflict with juicy, twisted plot lines. But the challenge is that stories are usually told from the point of view of the hero.  This means we have to write tight to create a convincing villain. But to do this, writers sometimes take shortcuts to make them “villainous.” One shortcut is giving your villain a mental health disorder. There are two problems with that:

  1. The disorders aren’t always portrayed accurately.
  2. It leads to myths, misconceptions, and stigmatizing a sector of society.

Let me be clear; I’m not suggesting anyone in the story with mental health issues must be a villain or antagonist. What I’m saying is that some of the great villains in literary and film history have these disorders. What’s unfortunate is that they can be portrayed in a clichéd or subtly discriminatory way.

Before we look at the myths, let’s tackle a common misconception that writers often get wrong.

Misconception – Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) Are “the Same”

Schizophrenia is not the same thing as a split personality (medically known as Multiple Personality Disorder).

Schizophrenia is a disorder of the mind often characterized by positive or negative symptoms which affect how a person thinks, feels or behaves. For example, positive symptoms could be hallucinations or delusions. Negative symptoms could include disorganized speech, variations in sleeping, poor hygiene, lack of eye contact, and a reduced range of emotions.

Think the Green Goblin from Spider-Man, or John Nash from A Beautiful Mind.

Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) is different. MPD is a disorder where a person will have more than one distinct and separate personality. Sufferers are unable to recall memories from one personality to another and each identity has distinct features, including separate genders, races, ages, sexes, gestures, mannerisms, and styles of speech.

Think Harvey Dent (Two-Face) from The Dark Knight or Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

If you decide to give your villain a disorder, be sure you know:

  1. You’ve got the right disorder.
  2. How the symptoms will affect your character’s behaviors, thoughts and dialogue.

Okay, let’s look at some of the big myths.

Myth one – The Number of Symptoms

Each of us is unique; we all have a different set of traits, the same can be said for anyone suffering from a mental health disorder. I just listed some symptoms of schizophrenia, but not every sufferer will have every single one.

Likewise, symptoms come and go; a handful of negative symptoms could arise for a period, only to dissipate, and the positive ones appear.

This is useful for your plot because you can draw on different symptoms at different times to heighten tension, create twists, or withhold information from characters.

 Myth two – Disorders Produce Violent Behavior

Because of technology, society wields the ability to impose expectations of what ‘normal’ is. The consequence of not behaving ‘normally’ means you might be stigmatized and put in a box deemed ‘scary and weird.’

Sufferers of mental health disorders often produce behaviors that deviate from acceptable norms, and that’s why they’re so often used for villains because villains deviate from the norm too.  

 While some disorders can cause a sufferer’s reaction to an event to be heightened, it doesn’t mean they will automatically be violent. So, if you intend for your villain to be violent, find another reason for the violence.

 Myth three – The Character Only Has One Disorder

 If a person has a mental health disorder, then the chances are they don’t just have one. Having a mental health disorder often (although not always) changes the brain’s chemistry. This means that the brain is more susceptible to having a second, third or even fourth mental health disorder. This is called comorbidity.

For example, people with schizophrenia can suffer from additional mental health disorders like:

  •  Substance abuse
  • Anxiety, and depression
  • OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Panic disorder

When creating your villains, don’t be afraid to give them more than one disorder. You don’t have to be explicit or use obvious exposition in the narrative to tell the reader what disorders they have, you can allude to symptoms through their behaviour, body language and dialogue.

Myth four – Lack of Treatment

Lots of books and films have long suffering villain’s who’ve never been picked up by the medical system, never had treatment and seemingly, have no coping mechanisms. Some do slip through the system. And yes, that helps us add a little fantasy and conflict into our stories, but it’s worth knowing the reality because it can create plot twists:

  • Some sufferers stop taking their medicines when they feel better, which creates a cycle of feeling better then suffering again.
  • Most sufferers of mental health disorders take drugs of some variety, and often participate in other types of treatments too.
  • Those that receive help are often taught coping mechanisms. Likewise, those that haven’t received help create their own. For example, sufferers of Schizophrenia might listen to music via headphones or sleep more than usual to drown out the hallucinatory voices.

Creating coping mechanisms, treatments and medicines for your villain is a simple way to add nuances and habits which will also add to their depth too.

Stopping the Myths and Misconceptions with Research

 If you give your villain a mental health disorder research it properly. If you choose to add fantasy around the disorder, that’s okay, but at least you’ll know how to avoid proliferating the myths and subtle discrimination.

So, here’s a list of things to research if you’re going to give your villain a mental health disorder:

  •  The illness in its entirety
  • Medication (and side effects)
  • Symptomology
  • Patterns of behavior
  • Triggers
  • Severity
  • Coping strategies
  • Reactions
  • Prevalence
  • Comorbidities
  • Whether or not a person is aware of their disorder and treatments

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my book 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft Superbad Villains. I’m also giving away a free 17-page cheat sheet to help you master your villains quickly, which you can get here.

13 Steps to Evil

Your hero is not the most important character. Your villain is. If you’re fed up of drowning in one-dimensional villains, then Sacha Black’s book 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain can help. In it you’ll learn how to develop a villain’s mindset, the pitfalls and clichés to avoid. You’ll also get a step by step guide to help you build your villain from the ground up. If you like dark humour and learning through examples, this book will help you master your villainous minions.

Sacha Black has five obsessions: words, expensive shoes, conspiracy theories, self-improvement, and breaking the rules.

When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loudly, blogging, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules.

You can find Sacha here:

Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Guest Post, Show Don't Tell, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to No Shortcuts, Please: Myths and Misconceptions of Villains & Mental Health

  1. Ali Isaac says:

    Interesting post, Sacha, which the book develops in more detail. Your book really opened my eyes… I’m afraid I had never considered my villain in such depth. I think all writers should read if before publishing.

  2. Frances Rove says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking information on mental illness and on villains. The truth lies in the gray areas, not the black and white, all evil or not. Dual diagnoses and self-medication are important points as well as thinking about how a person or character got the way they are. It made me think of that quote about everyone being a protagonist in his or her own story and how we can write better characters by remembering that. Thank you.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi, Frances thank you for leaving such a lovely comment. You’re absolutely right about needing to consider those points, I completely agree. And I know that quote too although the name of the person who said it has slipped my mind! Thanks for reading the post 🙂 have a lovely weekend.

  3. Great post. This was one of my favorite parts of Sacha’s book. I absolutely love backgrounds and/or reasons for villainous behavior. It’s just more interesting. A villain who is not quite “pure” villain is probably my favorite…not probably. Anti-heroes are my favorite.

    • Sacha Black says:

      I have a soft spot for anti heroes too. Deadpool, Maleficent, Beetlejuice. All awesome. And thank you for saying that about my book <3

  4. Fab post. I have read Sacha’s book and it’s great. Gets you excited about writing villains.

  5. Ellen Best says:

    Hi Angela, you have a superb subject and produced a great post. Sacha’s book made me rethink parts of my manuscript and once in place the words leapt off the page. I can’t recomend it enough. Thank you for interviewing her here, I enjoyed seeing the process of how the thoughts came before the Evil. Her book is a super resource for anyone who writes.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Ellen, thank you again for reading my book, you’re a star. And for reading the post too. Your support means the world, and you know I’m a fan of your writing :p

  6. Tamara Meyers says:

    My son had schizophrenia, which wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 30s. The reason was he ‘self medicated’ with marijuana as a teen and other street drugs as he got older. To complicate matters, he had epilepsy which he thought was just a side effect or flashbacks from the drugs, so he told no one and went undiagnosed and untreated for years.

    As a child he didn’t have epileptic seizures he just ‘spaced out’ or didn’t respond when spoken to and the episodes were so brief that his sister, teachers and I all thought he was ignoring us or was just inattentive.

    Some of his symptoms were hearing voices – when he was a small child he told me about someone talking to him from outside his window, from inside his closet and even from inside a box under the sink, but I thought ‘my son has a wonderful imagination’ and it’s not uncommon for a child to have an imaginary friend.

    As a young adult his symptoms became more obvious, but they were still not properly diagnosed. He developed anger issues but was never violent with others. However, as a fictional villain this could be turned outward to have the character harm others. He was depressed and cut himself; fairly common with some mental disorders; and began to drink alcohol; another form of self medication.

    When Jim was in his early 30s a doctor finally discovered brain cancer. Because of the delay in treatment, the tumor had become difficult to remove. The surgery and new medications brought on new symptoms and by 40 he had developed paranoia. He died weeks before his 43rd birthday.

    I hope this helps show how subtle and misleading mental illness can be. I know it’s easy to use mental illness as a reason for our villains to behave the way they do, but as the mother of a mentally ill son, I would hope that we would all be very careful not to fall back on stereotypes that only perpetuate myths and misconceptions.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Tamara,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a personal comment, I am so sorry for your loss.

      I completely agree that in-depth research is essential so that we don’t stigmatize, or add to the myths. There are some fantastic books out there that are specifically for writers that look at psychology, and also mental health specifically. I always encourage fellow authors to think about their choice of attributing a mental health disorder because like the complex nature of humanity, disorders are, like you say, a web of subtle nuances and complicated layers. It’s very hard to capture and be true to a disorder when they can be so different person to person.

      Thank you again for such a personal and meaningful comment, Sacha 🙂

  7. :Donna says:

    This is an EXcellent post and so important for writers (and people, in general). I have first hand experience with this (I don’t have the disorders) so am well aware of what the differences are. Distinction between them plus the avoidance of stereotyping is important. Still, I also know what about a person’s upbringing combined with certain disorders lends (heavily) to villainous thinking and behavior. Thanks for writing this, Sacha! 🙂

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Donna,

      Thank you so much for your lovely words. I totally agree about the distinction, too often they are confused and that leads to stereotypes. Of course, some things in our past do make us more inclined to certain types of behaviors, but I think it’s important we don’t scapegoat illnesses that aren’t to blame. Glad you agree and thank you so much for reading the post.

  8. Kessie says:

    This is what bugs me about the Joker. He has no backstory, no reason for being criminally insane. He just wants to see the world burn. He’s mentally ill, but what illness? It makes no sense. He’s my least-favorite Batman villain.

    In the Redwall books, the villain always goes insane by the end. Every. Single. Book. It’s such a cop-out. I like villains who are people doing what they believe is right. You know–antagonists. They might even be the hero’s friend. But everything they do is opposed to the hero.

    I have a book where the villain is the hero’s father. He’s a loving, caring father who wants his son to follow in his footsteps. He’s also a necromancer who turned his sons into a lich and a vampire. The hero is constantly torn between loving his father and hating him for what he’s done. It’s so delicious. The villain is the most sane person in the whole story.

    • Sacha Black says:

      YES, YES, YES.

      I know EXACTLY what you mean about the Joker, although I still can’t help but like Heath’s depiction of him, that might be a bias though! haha.

      Definitely, there’s a saying that the villain is the hero of his own story. And that’s why it’s so important they have a real motive and reason ‘why’ they are opposing the hero.

      Your villain sounds AWESOME. I love that torn between plot, especially when it’s torn because you love them despite what they’re doing. Thanks so much for commenting.

      • I actually liked the Joker…the fact that he kept giving reasons for his smile and you never knew which was true made me want to know even more–I think it was an effective technique. Often with Villains the wound isn’t spelled out but inferred, and it seems like the Joker’s dad was mentally ill and/or abusive, so we could possibly infer a genetic component. But in his case, I suspect nature and nurture. 😉 And I loved Heath’s depiction too, Sacha!

  9. What Becca said. One thing that drives me crazy is the “default evil” I see in a lot of villains–they should have motives and history just like everyone else. And as you’ve said here, many that do have development tend to be lumped into the “it’s because of mental illness” category. And there’s nothing wrong about this when it fits, but mental illness is complex and so a level of research needs to go into whatever disorder they have, and there needs to be reasons for it as well as a strong portrayal of actual behaviors and mental processes that go with the disorder.

    Great post!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more, having a villain that’s ‘evil for the sake of evil’ is like wearing your mom’s twin set to your prom… Awkward, out of place and frankly, shouldn’t be seen.

      Research (for all aspects of a book) is important, but like you say, even more so when it’s something as complex as mental health. It truly has been a pleasure and an honor. You two have made my year 😀

  10. Sacha, I love this post. So much has been said about how to write villains well, but nothing has really been mentioned about the mental health aspect of the process. This should come in really handy for a lot of writers. Thank you!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Becca,

      Thank you so much, I’m so pleased you think it will be useful. and thank you (and Angela) so much for hosting me. I really can’t tell you what an honor it is. 😀 😀

  11. I do need to work on interesting 3D villains–indeed, I sometimes need to consider having the antagonist be a person at all! I’m so hesitant to think ill of anyone that I tend to use situations. But 3D villains DO allow for a touch of empathy, I suppose.

    I appreciate getting the mental health information out there, and it can apply to all aspects of writing. Currently I’m writing PROtagonists with mental health or neurological disorders–because in real life we also contribute to society, not merely detract, as in the 6 o’clock news. And more and more people either experience it or know good people with some issues, so I hope it’s not a hard sell.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Gabriella,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I completely agree about the fact the information needs to get out there. For me, I strive to stop the stigma created by myths, but awareness is equally important. And absolutely there are some great protagonists with disorders too. I think A Beautiful Mind might even have won an Oscar??

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