I’ve begun a series based on the book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think by Sean Mactire to help novelists create better, more believable antagonists. Today’s discussion centers around the definition of the two major categories of violent criminals: psychotic and psychopath. Both categories refer to someone who is mentally ill. There are differences, though.
Psychotics are legally insane and make up only a small portion of violent criminals. Psychotics are out of touch with reality, and often hear voices or see visions or both. Their madness has led them to commit murder. Think of Norman Bates from Psycho. These are the criminals who, if they’re caught and diagnosed properly, end up in psychiatric hospitals.
Psychopaths, or sociopaths, are in touch with reality and are not legally insane. They know right from wrong, and they are aware that their criminal behavior is wrong, yet they consciously choose to follow an evil path. They lack a conscience and couldn’t care less about the harm they do. Their crimes are, at times, regarded as sport. They commit their crimes without guilt or remorse. These criminals, if they’re caught and convicted, end up in prisons.
They both feel a “hunger” — they feed on the fear of their victims, the power they derive from their acts, and the pleasure (often sexual) that their acts provide. I’m not talking about the teen-ager who engages in petty theft to fuel a drug problem, although in that case, the youth in question could easily escalate into something more serious. This “hunger” is applied to the population of criminals who engage in violent acts.
I like how Mactire sums it up: they have a “constant desire to be childishly self-indulgent. A criminal wishes to do whatever he/she pleases with nothing but contempt and total disregard for the rights and feelings of others. The criminal always, like a child, wants something for nothing…he is totally subjective. In short, a criminal is nothing more than a ruthless adult who never stops behaving like a child.”
Applying this to antagonists is simple. If your bad guy is psychotic, he’s hearing voices that urge him to murder. I’ve never tried to put one of these guys in a novel, but you have to be careful so it comes across as realistic, not melodramatic or comedic.
If your bad guy is a psychopath, he’s a guy who doesn’t care about anybody but himself. He feels no guilt for killing someone, or the hurt he causes family members, or the impact such losses have on society. These baddies are easier to write than the first because they know the difference between right and wrong, they just don’t care. The more “normal” you make this guy look in his day-to-day life, the scarier he is because he’s indistinguishable from the rest of society. Sometimes these guys began life with a conscience, but sear it through repeated acts of violence, thereby making themselves into a sociopath, and that’s something you can work with in a novel: showing his degeneration.
Then again, your bad guy doesn’t have to be psychotic or psychopathic. He could be a sane, functional member of society who snaps in a moment of anger or frustration and kills someone. But he isn’t the type of guy to kill again–once was a fluke, and he’d probably feel guilty about his actions after the passion of the moment settles. These are the guys who have been pushed just a little too far by the nagging wife or disrespectful teen and they lash out with a fist or a handy machete. So he might not be the best antagonist for a story. He’s easily caught and unlikely to reoffend.
No matter what type of antagonist you create, give him some redeeming quality to make him “human.” Darth Vader had a soft spot for his son. Gollum responded to kindness. Skar (from The Lion King) enjoyed music. If your antagonist is totally evil, then he doesn’t seem real to the reader. So have fun creating a deliciously evil bad guy, but find some good trait to temper the badness.
In my next post, I’ll discuss the five categories of murder as listed by the FBI.