The Bad Guy

The most common question I see authors getting when I go to their talks is about where they get their ideas. It’s kind of a throwaway question, and I don’t listen too hard to the answer. If you’ve read the author’s biography, you know where Clancy’s, King’s, and Weber’s minds are lounging. My favorite is Sue Grafton’s, who mentioned she got into the murder mystery game when she realized how much time she was spending thinking about killing her now ex-husband. Either do it or write about it.

My own field is seeded with decades of comic books, science fiction, movies, Psychology, and other hard sciences. Write what you know can be drawn back into think about what you know. “What if,” the seed of all creative endeavors, is the starting point for a solution to the problem it creates. Be it a journey, a war, or a search for clues, every author has their preferred tools for finding the solution, be it guns, spaceships, or intellect. My own tools so far seem to be knowledge and behavioral manipulation. I won’t say superpowers aren’t forthcoming, because the first novel I wrote, which will debut eventually, uses behavioral manipulation through telepathy.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my forthcoming book, “Bad Habit.” The initial idea was the pairing of two individuals who’s job it is to save the world. An odd couple, buddy cop thriller. One good, a nun, working with one bad, the most evil man in the world (not the final plot of the book, by the way). Evil was a thing I had been having some Facebook conversations about, because one of my friends had posted some articles on some really “evil” (quotes, but uncapitalized) individuals. I made an effort to engage people on the thread for the purpose of teasing out what they really thought was motivating the bad guy’s behavior.

I don’t blame people for holding incompatible ideas in their heads. I’m a Psychologist. I know how commonly humans do that. I know how often I do it. Sometimes the choices we have to make in understanding the world, force hypocrisy upon us. In this particular case, the participants couldn’t really decide whether the bad guy had actual control over his behavior or not.

This is an important distinction. If there is no free will for the bad guy, then at his or her core there is just a force of nature. The bear that attacks you in the wood or the satellite that drops from the heavens onto your head can be just as damaging. That is not to say that that you shouldn’t shoot the bear, step aside for the satellite, or make your best effort to get out of the way of the psychopath, but romanticizing these forces of nature grants them power they don’t deserve after the fact.

If there is free will,…well you’ll have to tell me what you mean by that. We don’t blame four year olds for becoming fidgety in church, because we know they don’t have that control. We know psychopaths are incapable of empathy, so why are we shocked when they act in accordance with that characteristic. Just because you and I can’t exhibit effortless cruelty (assuming you the reader are not a psychopath) doesn’t mean that it’s hard for another. Furthermore, isn’t our empathy controlling our behavior to the point that the psychopath has more variety of behavior possible. He can act as if he has empathy far easier than I can act as if i do not.

Which brought me to the point of asking how to make my bad guy realistic. One thing I’ve always hated about the real, over the top bad guys in movies is how often they’ll kill subordinates who fail them. Aside from being poor leadership in general, I have a hard time believing you’d keep a steady workforce. At the organizational level, evil has to be directed outward, toward other groups. Darth Vader would cease getting the highest quality admirals if he continued force choking those out-witted by Han Solo. Sure, the Empire was the only real game in town, but when your boss is allowed to kill you for the occasional mistake, the best people are going to go with the private sector.

So there’s some of my thoughts on bad guys. What are your thoughts, and more specifically, who’s your favorite bad guy and why?

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