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
Villains 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:
- The disorders aren’t always portrayed accurately.
- 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:
- You’ve got the right disorder.
- 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)
- Patterns of behavior
- Coping strategies
- 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: