The Psychology of Purity

Yesterday, someone posted a link on Twitter about the similarity between sociopaths and heroes. Addicted to Being Good? The Psychopathology of Heroism was a fascinating read, and perfectly timed for Nightmare’s writing.

In the past, one of my writing issues has been villains. Not that I can’t write villains, I write villains better than heroes, but that I always fall in love with my villains and this skews the story. Part of the reason I have this issue is that I want to dig too deeply into my characters and figure out what REALLY makes them tick.

I blame this on my grandmother. She was getting her Master’s in psychology when I was a small child, and so I often went with her to her classes. Now that I think about it, I’m shocked that I was allowed into the classes, but apparently, Chapman University believes in training up the young. I spent many, many hours reading or drawing in the corner while the profs taught.

My grandmother took me to play therapy, where I shocked the therapist by staging bloody, systematic wars at the age of five. Between the classes and the courtrooms, I got experience and training that most people never get. Some of my favorite people from my childhood are the insane, the cops, the people of the judicial system and the people who study criminals and the unbalanced.

I also spent time in the county mental health clinic where my grandmother worked for a while. It’s funny, because I’d forgotten all about those memories until I started writing this, but now they are coming back to me. The people there loved me, the little blond girl who was more than happy to listen to their stories. Because the first few years of my life were spent around an aunt with profound psychological issues, I suppose the imbalance has always been more understandable to me than the supposedly sane people.

It taught me some unusual lessons though. I’ve learned to recognize imbalance and emotional issues, to connect to a person who isn’t all there with more ease than the normal people around me. It also taught me just how normal a profoundly troubled person can appear, and how they can rationalize their thoughts and actions. These observations led to my belief that there is always good in a person, that there is always a causation, but not always a reason, for an action. Some people really cannot be saved.

Doesn’t stop me from trying. I have an exceptionally high mortality rate for villains. Not in real death, but in making them more anti-hero than monster. Red Sun was horrible to write. Playfair and Taranis both started out as villains. Playfair became a hero and Taranis became one of those characters that’s becoming my signature: a beautiful, mad, sympathetic, honorable monster. Just like Aleshan and Sviera and Amarog and Kasiris and Mortathes and…well, all of my immortals and many of my main mortals too.

All mad in some way or other. All with reasons and motivations. And I love each and every one of them. Which may or may not say good things about my mental state.

This article is an interesting study of another facet of the villain.

To me, nothing is as scary as someone who ‘does what they believe is right, no matter what.’ I have too much experience with people who think that they are right.

In plain words, the classic hero is no better than a suicide bomber, a vigilante, a woman who murders her children so they don’t have to grow up in this world. Too many religions follow this belief. “I’m right. The rest of the world is wrong, and must be punished/saved/shown the error of their ways.” The Crusades, the Jihad, the Holocaust.

Hitler genuinely believed he was doing the right thing. And that’s why the hero scares me so damned much.

In Nightmare, the villain is the Goddess-Queen. The absolute ruler, the deity, the mother. She genuinely believes that people must be holy. If they sin, they and all those who aided in their sin must be saved. Unfortunately, she makes the choices for them. And therein lies the crux of the hero-problem.

Who gets to decide what is ‘the right thing to do’? Who gets to decide what is holy? Who the true god is?

The psychopath is dangerous: selfish, violent. Ultimately, predictable. But he only chooses for himself.

The hero is deadly: unselfish, usually violent/suicidal. Unpredicable. And he chooses the fate of everyone around him.

Which would you rather face off against?

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3 Responses to “The Psychology of Purity”

  1. Oh my goodness Morn, that is so much my oldest son. the altruistic one that is.

    Yes there is only a fine line between heroes and villains. It is why a hero can fall from grace.

    And yes you write wonderful, in depth villains.

  2. Can I face them off against one another and watch the ensuing chaos?

    And what do you mean I’m an instigator?

  3. That’s a well-made point at the end about villains choosing for themselves and heroes choosing for others. Of course, since villains generally think of themselves as, if not heroes, at least good/right, they often try to choose for others just as much. If, as it seemed to me, you’re talking about a kind of hero mentality, then yes, villains who have that are more broadly dangerous than those who, say, bear a specific grudge.

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