How to Write Better Villains: 5 Ways to Get Into the Mind of a Psychopath
By Peter James
1. Where to find a psychopath who will talk to you – the importance of meeting your monster.
Over my years of research for my Roy Grace mystery novels I’ve given many talks in prisons for the charity, The Reading Agency, which encourages literacy in UK prisons, as it gives me the opportunity to meet many different kinds of criminal face to face.
I had been wanting to write about a female “black widow” character for some time, and had been studying past cases, and thinking hard about creating a convincing character. Three years ago I was talking in a women’s prison and there was a well-spoken middle-aged woman in the audience who was asking particularly smart questions about literature. She fascinated me, being clearly well educated and I wondered what crime she had committed. Perhaps she killed someone drunk driving, or something like that, I wondered?
One big perk of my talks is that I get to mingle with the prisoners after and chat to them one-on-one. I made a beeline for her. I never ask a prisoner outright what they have done – it’s not proper etiquette! So as an icebreaker I said, ‘How much longer do you have to serve?’
She replied, in a booming voice, ‘Nine and a half more bloody years – and it’s just not fair! A woman did exactly what I did, in London, and she’s only got six more years to go.’
‘So, what brought you in here?’ I asked, somewhat startled.
‘I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag!’
‘OK,’ I replied, somewhat astonished. Then she went on.
‘The thing was, she went into hospital to die, so I embezzled her bank account. Then the bloody woman didn’t die – she came home. I realized she would find out so I had to poison her. Then I realized my husband would find out so I had to poison him, too. And it’s just not fair – this woman in London did exactly what I did and she’s only got six more years!’
As I was being taken back out by a prison officer I said to him, ‘Is this woman for real?’
‘Oh yes sir, he replied. ‘Her husband was three months on life support and he has permanent brain damage – and she’s just angry about the length of her sentence…’
I knew at once I had found my character for Love You Dead!
2. Make your monsters lovable.
If you think about the most endearing – and enduring – characters in the history of literature they are the ones that are not simply portrayed as black and white evil, but with shades of coloring. Think about Dracula – he is a monster but he has huge charisma and charm. Frankenstein’s monster turns to his creator, Dr Frankenstein and tells him he never wanted to be born. Hannibal Lecter, perhaps the most success monster in all of modern literature, is enormously charming, charismatic, he has style and people find themselves rooting for him, despite knowing just how utterly evil he really is.
3. Avoid stereotypes. A psychopath isn’t always a man in black in a dark alley with a sharp knife.
It may be a surprise to some people, but yes, there really are good psychopaths as well as bad ones. Or perhaps, paraphrasing from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, puts it into better perspective: Some psychopaths are less evil than others. He could be a past or a President of the United States? The CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Being a psychopath is the best qualification to get you to the top of a chosen path in life, but the worst to have once you are there: The reason most serial killers get away with it so long is that they are bright and cunning – and often total chameleons, able to blend into society. Ted Bundy, America’s worst to date is a classic example. A good-looking, charismatic former law student, estimated to have killed and raped over 100 young women. But it’s not just a good qualification if you want to be a serial killer, it’s a great one if you want to become a captain of industry or a top politician. The combination of charm, intelligence and utter ruthlessness is potent. The psychopath is capable of saying anything just to get to the top – how many politicians do we all know who’ve said totally opposing things many times during their climb up the greasy pole. But ultimately it is hubris that can be their downfall because their lack of empathy means they fail to read the warning signs. President Richard Nixon is a classic; Idi Amin; Saddam Hussein; Gadhafi. And how many CEOs of major companies, like Bernie Madoff and the late Robert Maxwell?
4. How to come up with a well-developed backstory for your psychopathic character.
Some years ago I spent a day at Broadmoor, the UK’s premier high-security psychiatric hospital. It took me a year before my request was accepted, but it was worthwhile because what I saw and learned there has helped me with so many subsequent characters. The qualification for admission to Broadmoor is, essentially, to be violently criminally insane. I asked the resident chaplain if he felt that there were some people who were born evil, or did something happen in their lives to turn them that way?
He replied that the inmates were divided roughly 50/50 into schizophrenics and psychopaths. Schizophrenia was a chemically treatable mental illness, and provided they took their medication, around 70% of the inmates in this category could eventually go back into the world and live ordinary lives. But for the psychopaths, it was very different.
He explained a psychopath is likely to first present symptoms at around the age of four. The majority is male but there are female ones also – as we will see. The earliest signs are likely to be a lack of empathy and no real sense of a moral code of right or wrong. A boy steals his best friend’s favourite toy – with absolutely zero guilt. He will also from an early age be an accomplished liar – and rarely found out.
The psychopath brought up in a loving, stable family may well go on to become a hugely successful businessman or politician. But the one brought up in a broken home, or a violent, abusive situation, is likely to become dangerously warped. Many serial killers come from such latter backgrounds, as did Adolf Hitler who had a bullying father who would not let him pursue the career as a painter he wanted in life.
5. Talk through any major villain you are creating with a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist.
I was chatting at lunch with former armed serial bank robber, and self-confessed psychopath, Steve Tulley. As a teenager in prison, for his first robbery, he met criminal legend Reggie Kray, and persuaded him to let him be his pupil and teach him everything he knew. At 58, broke, Tulley is living in a bedsit in Brighton and has spent more of his life in jail than free. I asked him what was the largest sum he had ever got away with. He told me it was £50k in a bank job. So what did he do with the money? He replied, excitedly that he’d rented a suite in Brighton’s Metropole Hotel and, in his words, ‘Larged it for six months until it was all gone.”
I asked Steve if he had the chance to live his life over again would he have done it differently? ‘No,’ he replied with a gleam in his eyes. ‘I’d do it all again. It’s the adrenaline, you see!’
From subsequently talking to forensic psychiatrists and psychologists, I’ve learned that this “adrenaline” buzz that Steve talks of goes hand-in-hand, with some criminals, with the ruthless, chaotic, hand-to-mouth existence they lead. One of the most chilling things I ever saw was the police video of Dennis Rader – the BTK Strangler– confessing. When asked why he had bound, tortured and killed – horrifically – his victims he replied, simply and matter-of-factly, ‘It was erotic, I got a buzz from it.”