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Monday, June 5, 2017

Writing Villains Who are Slightly Insane

luna-barry said: I love all of your super helpful and informative writing advice, and I was wondering if you have any tips on something I've been stuck on for a while now? I'm trying to write a villain who is insane, but not over-the-top (like the Joker, or Jim Moriarty etc.) Someone who feels more like they should be on medication, then a completely hopeless nut-Job. Any tips?

So I’ve been trying to think of how to answer this. To be honest, it might be a bit beyond me, as I don’t have much experience working with this specifically, also, I don’t struggle with insanity or other forms of mental illness.

But I think you are right. There are definitely different levels of insanity for sure. As I was reading over your question, it made me wonder how a less-insane Joker would be. I’m not a Batman expert by any means, but I wondered what it would be like to see the Joker earlier and if his craziness started small and more subtle, and what that might look like.

I think how to handle it though, depends on a few factors. While I don’t have a villain that struggles with insanity, I do have a character who struggles with other mental illnesses (depression) and another character who we see is a little out of touch with reality, and others worry about her mental health in that regard (and maybe she would eventually wonder if she should be on medication).

So I think a big factor in how to handle it is your own specific character. What key or dominating attributes does he or she have? How are those manifested in relation to the mental struggles? For example, if your villain is a very private person, he may not want anyone to know that he struggles with this mental tendency or perspective. He may try to hide it. Maybe it slips out--and then you would ask, what would he do then? Is he the kind of person who would hope no one noticed or thought twice about it and move on as if it didn’t happen, out of embarrassment? Or would he get very angry that it publicly manifested itself? If we are trying to write unique or well-rounded characters, there are a few questions you can consider:

  • How does the villain feel about his or her condition?
  • How does that condition manifest itself?
  • Does it hurt or hinder his goals and motivations?
  • Who knows about the condition? Does he or she care about who knows?
  • How does the condition affect his actions? His behavior? His demeanor? His thoughts?
  • And you can probably brainstorm a few other questions.

Another way to look at it, though, is to come at it from the opposite angle. You look at the plot of the story, what’s in play, and then ask similar questions, based on trying to figure out what would be most interesting for the story.

  • What character reaction would hike up the tension here?
  • What action would the villain take concerning her condition that would make the story more complex?
  • What kind of manifestation of this condition would be most interesting to the story?

When you come at it from this angle though, you still need to make sure, as you answer those question, that ultimately the answers form or adhere to your specific character. What I mean is, you should still be trying to form a specific person, and not just doing whatever all the time, making your character undefined as a person because you just had her do whatever fit the story.

Another important question is, how does the mental condition affect the plot?

But these things also depend on how central this mental illness is to the story. For example, one story might make the villain’s mental struggle or tendencies a main focus for the plot or theme, while another story might simply have it as more of a background bit that factors into or adds to the character.

The main thing, I think, in your case, is subtlety. Since your villain is not out of control insane, then I think it would be more subtle (though still present) in the story. It might be something that slips into the scene here or there. Maybe we see him devising some sort of plan that sounds rather logical, but then, something sort of slides in that is just a bit “off” or strange or, well, it depends on what his tendencies are and how they are manifested. And the audience is like, yeah, yeah, that makes sense, and then we get to that “off” bit, and it’s like . . . wait . . . what . . .

I’d see it more of something that sort of creeps into things that are otherwise normal (or normal for a villain anyway). Maybe he would have a few bigger or more direct “episodes” or conflicts concerning it, but they aren’t way out there. It involves something more normal, but the mental tendencies or perspectives are manifested in significant or powerful ways. Maybe they aren’t very “loud” to an outsider, because he’s trying to be normal, but they strongly influence his everyday choices.

Like say a character thinks that anything that’s blue has the ability to work like a camera, and anything blue could be “recording” him. But this person appears to function like everyone else. He’s aware that he has problems, but he still can’t deal with the color blue. He doesn’t have outbursts or anything, but he tries to subtly avoid blue wherever he goes. He never wears it. He acts different when blue is present, because he thinks he’s being recorded. He knows he needs help, but he can’t stop himself from thinking about it; it’s like he has this tendency he can’t shake that blue videotapes everything he’s doing.

I think I’d also ask how aware the villain is of this condition, and whether or not he accepts it, and how and how not he accepts it.

The fact that you said he seems to be the type of person who may think he needs medication really stood out to me. It immediately made me more interested in the character. So you might even want to see if you can work in something like that, too.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Hopefully something in there will help! Good luck!

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  1. It's kind of funny how in real life, you wouldn't even consider going near a person behaving "insane", yet in a story... with a a villain that's a little bit crazy... you're suddenly thinking: 'ohh, let's see where that goes' ;)


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