A Bit of Murder Psychology

I’ve already made a few posts about killing, including about how a villain may not kill. However, because I do encounter plenty of writers who are, unlike myself, good-aligned who don’t understand the nature of evil, I want to write one more in hopes of absolute clarity on whether or not your villain could and should kill someone. Your villain may well be able to cause the death of a man or a people, but actually personally killing someone is different than causing a death. Let me explain with a common exercise:

You are in a subway station in a control room. There’s a situation where ten people have become trapped down along the tracks and a subway is coming fast. The subway is out of control and cannot be stopped in time to save the people, nor can anything be done to free the people in time. However, there’s an individual of immense girth standing on a bridge going over the tracks and you have access to a button that would drop the guy onto the tracks. His size is big enough that the impact would stop the subway in time to save the people. Do you push the button, sacrifice one flabby guy for ten people?

Okay, same situation, except he’s standing next to the tracks as are you. You could still stop the train with the portly fellow but you would have to personally shove him onto the tracks. Do you do it?

Picture it. You’re right there. Just one push.

Statistically, a lot more people would be okay with pushing a button to kill a man than to physically put him in mortal danger with their own two hands. This lines up fairly well with the saying, “The death of an individual is a tragedy; the death of a country is a statistic.” What I mean by all this is that your villain may not have a problem ordering his thugs to gun down people, he may not have a problem with pushing the ‘Missile Launch’ button to destroy a town, and he may not have a problem with lighting a building on fire, entombing the people inside. But he may falter when it’s him and the hero, or any other person, gun or knife or what have you in his hand, up to the villain himself to actually, personally kill his opponent. Maybe he doesn’t, maybe he loves to watch the life flicker out of another. But you shouldn’t assume that to be the case.

There are many easy assumptions about killing that we make – we assume that when soldiers go to war, they shoot at each other. How else is fighting done? But there were actually many, many studies conducted by the military to show that a percentage of soldiers don’t want to kill and will tend to fire over the enemy’s head, or not at all. While some studies have been contested, there still appears to be grains of truth in these claims. Either way, perhaps this is in part why the overlord tends to have armies of orcs rather than humans. How much easier is it to kill when the other guy is literally an evil monster? Or, as we think on the villain’s perspective, how much better is an army of literal evil monsters who will have no qualms with killing the enemy?

There are other factors to consider for mooks and whonot in causing death, like the Milgram experiment. But this is not useful for your main villain because he is the authority figure, there isn’t one above him. And as mentioned already, pushing a button or telling someone else to do it isn’t the same as doing it yourself so just because your villain will tell his minion, “continue”, doesn’t mean that your villain will shoot the hero.

Of course, with your villain, an easy solution to this consideration of murder is a little hand waving with anti-social personality disorder or other problem with empathy. If your villain lacks empathy, he lacks an important element that might cause him to hesitate. “The ant has no quarrel with the boot”, Loki says, showing that if he has empathy, he doesn’t see humans as on his level. Not even close.

But I said “hand waving” because the tendency to just go with, “Well my villain’s evil and that’s not a problem” is the easy way to go; it’s a tendency towards laziness. It’s absolutely fine to write a broken man who has no issues with murder. Such a man, due to this quality, would probably be a villain. It makes sense. But when you write a villain like that, the lack of empathy, for whatever reason, is a part of that villain, not an afterthought, not a retcon-esque explanation for his actions. And it’s definitely not an assumption. The issue with your villain will not come out clearly in all that he does, and because we humans are social creatures whether we like it or not, a lack of empathy will come out in all that we do. As much as I hate to draw the parallel, consider Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

I hate to draw the parallel because I hate to draw upon a source that thinks Asperger’s is JUST SO FUNNY lol

Sheldon’s entire character’s worth for the show revolves around his social shortcomings. Just because Sheldon is with several other “smart guys” doesn’t mean he works well with them, that they aren’t frustrated with him, that everything goes smoothly. If he did, the show would not be, to those who enjoy it, as interesting.

What does this mean for your overlord? Just because he’s evil doesn’t mean he gets along well with the other evil guys. Sheldon thinks he’s intellectually superior to his friends. So could your overlord, as he brushes off his generals. You think those generals appreciate that? The overlord or supervillain’s minions are always bowing and scabbling about, but why? I’d be pissed if I was treated like that, wouldn’t you? Internal conflict is what keeps many shows afloat, makes many books interesting. And if the heroic group can hold things together despite differences and issues, so can your evil team…but they probably ought to have internal conflict like your average sub par sitcom (although hopefully written better) if you have the leader or main villain or whatever as a guy who lacks empathy as “lacks empathy” is a terrible quality for a leader.

In any case, if your villain couldn’t kill a guy his own personal self, that doesn’t necessarily have to come up as an actual situation. But it will come across in how you write him, in what he does, how he interacts with other people. Know your villain as well as you know your hero. Take him out for lunch and find out all you can about him.

Killing is easy to write, but not to actually perform, so don’t assume that your villain will, and don’t assume his mooks will either.

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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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4 Responses to A Bit of Murder Psychology

  1. So, the comment about making the villain have a personality disorder made me think of the character Sameen Shaw in ‘Person of Interest’. She has, in her own words, “an axis-II personality disorder”. There is some debate about the accuracy of that diagnosis, but it is the one she identifies with most. However, she is not the villain, and is one of the most morally straight characters on the show, despite the fact that she doesn’t really feel anything when she kills people. ‘Person of Interest’ does a brilliant job with characters and I highly recommend it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Keziah! And that’s in perfect keeping with the idea that stereotypes with villains – that villains have a disorder or are always like X, and if someone is like X they’re a villain – aren’t great because they’re so limiting.

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      • Exactly! One of the other characters, Root, does a good job turning this on its head too. She starts out the series as the antagonist, and pretty much the villain, but by the end of season three she is most assuredly part of the good guys. Part of that is a change of behavior, but part of it is also us learning about who she is and what she wants and how that’s actually (mostly) nothing bad. Then there’s Control, who was an antagonist, but not a villain, and now is less of an antagonist, and Greer, who is very much a villain and antagonist, and then Harold’s morality is just fascinating. If you want a philosophical discussion about it, I’m more than happy to keep going!

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        • I don’t think I could participate properly without having seen it – but it’s intriguing and I’d like to watch it 😀 Probably afterwards I would love to engage in such a discussion.

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