December 4, 2018

Do’s and Don’ts When Creating Villains — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

Wasp on white background with text: Creating Villains: Watch Out for Traps

Our stories are unique. Sometimes our antagonists are faceless (force of nature or bad circumstances), sometimes our characters are their own worst enemy, and sometimes our protagonist is up against someone out to harm them.

But even if our story needs a villain actively working against our characters, we still have choices. Some stories require our villain to be a good person on a bad path with a chance at redemption, and some require a villain more touched by evil.

Depending on our villain, the psychology we use to create our character changes. If our character feels no remorse, shame, or guilt throughout the story, it wouldn’t be realistic—from a psychological perspective—to show them suddenly change due to “the power of love.”

To help us avoid those types of mistakes, Kassandra Lamb is back with Part Two of her Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals post. In Part One last week, she explained the psychological spectrum of bad guys. Today, she’s sharing 8 “do’s and don’ts” to help us create our villains.

Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! *smile*


8 Do’s and Don’t’s When Portraying Psychopaths and Narcissists

by Kassandra Lamb

In last week’s post, I talked about various motivations that “normal” people might have for becoming villains, and also described psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists—how they tend to act and what circumstances create them.

Today, I want to address some of the common mistakes I see some authors making when presenting their antagonists.

So here are some do’s and don’t’s (and a couple of can’s and should’s *smile*).

#1: Childhood

Whatever you do, don’t portray a psychopath, or even a narcissist, as having a “normal” childhood.

Normal childhoods do not produce adults that are this messed up. They might contend that their childhood was just fine, but this is either denial on their part, or a lack of understanding of what “normal” really is.

Writing a villain? @KassandraLamb shares 8 psychology tip to get them right... Click To TweetA psychopathic character may very likely have a psychopath for a parent, and that parent, or perhaps both parents, also would likely be abusive. Or one parent may be harsh and overbearing, while the other is weaker and more dependent.

There are other possibilities for back stories as well, but keep in mind the two main factors: someone handed down the psychopathic genes (could be a grandparent; the genes can skip a generation) and some seriously bad stuff happened in childhood. (For more on the origins of this disorder, see The Making of a Psychopath on our misterio press site.)

#2: Remorse or Empathy

Don’t have a full-blown psychopath suddenly develop remorse and empathy because they fall in love.

First of all, a full-blown psychopath is not capable of love as most people experience it. They may latch onto someone and believe that they love them, but it will be a self-centered, need-based attachment, with little or no concern for the partner’s feelings or needs.

And if they are thwarted in that “love,” their feelings will quickly turn to rage and they will hurt the object of their passion with no compunction.

No amount of love will magically change their basic makeup. Also, they will not suddenly sacrifice themselves to save their partner. Indeed, push comes to shove, they are much more likely to sacrifice the partner to protect their own well-being.

If you want your bad guy or gal to be redeemed in some way by love, make him/her a narcissist (see below).

#3: Manipulative

Do have the psychopath and/or narcissist exhibit manipulative behavior.

They may not feel certain emotions but many psychopaths develop a pretty good intellectual understanding of those feelings, and will use that knowledge to manipulate others to get what they want. Narcissists also tend to be manipulative, although they may not be as blatant about it, nor as good at it.

#4: Love Interest

If someone falls in love with the psychopath/narcissist antagonist, do have that lover exhibit dependent and/or codependent traits.

The term codependency comes from the addictions recovery field. They are “co-dependent” on the addiction, in that they need to be needed by the addict. Their primary role in life is caretaker and they tend to enable their mates’ bad behavior by denying, rationalizing and covering it up.

Codependents can be quite sweet or very controlling, or somewhere in between. One possibility is to show them going from sweet to controlling when they feel the relationship, on which they are so dependent, is slipping away.

#5: Redemption

You can have a narcissist redeemed by love (but only if there’s some counseling involved as well).

Narcissists, like everyone else, can fall in love and indeed are likely to crave love, since they often didn’t get enough of it as a child. But they’re pretty bad at maintaining any kind of healthy relationship.

So any redemption through love will not come easily. They will do thoughtless things, not understand their partner’s feelings, make self-centered choices, etc. Any love interest who has a shot at redeeming them is going to be someone who holds their feet to the fire—a feisty lover, not a sweet, dependent one.

#6: Self-Sacrifice

You can even have a narcissist make sacrifices for love.

Making a sacrifice can be the ultimate sign of redemption—especially if they view the sacrifice as a way to finally prove themselves good enough. Because keep in mind that the driving force underlying the narcissist’s personality is self-doubt and insecurity, which they cover up with bluster and boasting.

#7: Option for Growth

But to truly make the redemption believable, you should show that the narcissist is getting professional help, in some way, shape or form.

In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a man with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder—basically a narcissist with several added layers of rigidity and obsession.

How can we believably make our villain redeemable? @KassandraLamb shares her tips... Click To TweetTwo things I really like about that movie is that his love interest, played by Helen Hunt, stands up to him whenever he’s being a jerk (which is most of the time), and as he is starting to get “better” toward the end of the movie, he comments over dinner one night that he is “taking his medication again,” the implication being that he is doing that to please her.

I wish they had made a bigger deal of that piece, but at least they got it in there that her love wasn’t the only thing that was making him better. Rather her love was inspiring him to do the things that would help him control his disorder better.

These personality disorders are very ingrained and deep-seated. That’s why they are called “personality” disorders.

To show such disorders being magically healed by love does a disservice to our readers who have to live and love in the real world, where such personality-disordered people do NOT get better without a LOT of counseling and motivation. (And a full-blown psychopath almost never “gets better.”)

#8: Court System

Do not have a psychopath’s attorney launch an insanity case because they have antisocial personality disorder.

Last but not least, a word about psychopaths and the judicial system. Although this is technically a psychological disorder, the court system does not recognize it as grounds for an insanity plea (in the U.S. at least, and I suspect in most countries in the world). And any halfway decent lawyer knows this.

In order to prove insanity in the legal sense, it must be shown that the defendant’s disorder caused them to not know what they were doing, to not be able to control what they were doing, or to not be capable of knowing right from wrong.

So a psychotic person who has lost touch with reality and harms his neighbor because he thinks said neighbor is an invader from the planet Zargon, he gets off on an insanity plea (and probably spends the rest of his life in a mental hospital).

But psychopaths know right from wrong; they just don’t care!

I hope this post is helpful to you as you decide how to develop your bad guys and gals in your stories. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.


Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist who now indulges her love of writing mysteries. She pens everything from cozy mysteries (her latest release, The Legend of Sleepy Mayfair) to edgy romantic suspense under the pen name Jessica Dale (Jessica’s new release, Binding Vows).

Website | Facebook | Pinterest | Goodreads | Twitter | Amazon | Jessica Dale Website


The Legend of Sleepy MayfairThe Legend of Sleepy Mayfair, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Cozy Mystery:

A Halloween romp that turns seriously scary!

Her adopted town is once again driving service dog trainer Marcia Banks a little nuts. The octogenarian, muumuu-wearing town matriarch wants to turn the new riding stable into a haunted house, a vandal is disrupting Mayfair’s small-town tranquility, and as Halloween approaches, an even darker evil lurks in the shadows.

Amazon | Kobo | Nook | Apple | GooglePlay

Binding Vows coverBinding Vows, A Binding Love Romantic Suspense
(by my alter ego, Jessica Dale)

Prudence Parker seems like a got-it-all-together young woman, but she has her share of personal demons—from hating her name to trying to control the “beast” inside her who tends to pick lousy, and sometimes dangerous, romantic partners.

Discovering she’s pregnant by an abusive ex-fiancé solves one issue, a particularly pushy biological clock. But then the s.o.b. files for custody. And despite an in-name-only marriage to her platonic best friend, her ex persists. Why is this man so obsessed with fatherhood, to the point where he will do anything? Even frame her for murder…or worse.

WARNING: This book contains some graphic scenes that may be triggering.

Amazon | Apple | Nook | Kobo


Thank you, Kassandra! As writers, we sometimes “hand wave” away the details and explanations for why our villains do the things they do, but this advice is perfect for getting us to think deeper about our characters.

I really appreciated how Kassandra points out how we can still make our villain realistic if we want them redeemable from guilt, shame, or love. They’d just need to be a narcissist rather than a psychopath, and thus have a different background and psychological profile.

Between these tips and her post last week, we can make even the most damaged or evil villain realistic rather than mustache-twirling. And the better our antagonists are, the stronger the conflict of our story. *smile*

Have you seen stories make any of the common errors mentioned here? What makes a villain unrealistic to you? Does that affect the overall strength of the story in your mind, and if so, in what way? Which of these tips is most important for the types of stories you tell? Do you have any questions for Kassandra?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Deborah Makarios

Thanks for this, Kassandra! If I see one more story where a manipulative narcissistic jerk magically (and instantly) becomes a decent human being because of love (or worse, some fool letting him walk all over her) I may puke.

I do believe that love can change people, but instant love isn’t love – it’s more likely infatuation or lust, neither of which have a propensity for helping people become better people. Real love takes persistence, and it has to be more than just a feeling.

Important take-away lesson: love doesn’t necessarily mean letting people do whatever they feel like, especially when it’s damaging to themselves or others.

Kassandra Lamb

You’re welcome, Deborah. “Real love takes persistence.” Ain’t that the truth!!

I feel that authors have a responsibility to show love (and other emotions) not only realistically, but also to show what it can and cannot affect or change. We all want to believe in the fairy tales, but we all have to live in the real world.

Thanks so much for your comment.

Rosi Hollinbeck

Wonderful post filled with great tips. Thanks for this.

Kassandra Lamb

You’re welcome, Rosi. Glad you found it helpful.


Very interesting, and what I need, though may I ask for a protagonist version of this? My character is utilitarian in his methods, doing whatever and manipulating everyone to save/care his loved ones. He means well and doesn’t kill or harm, but now that I’ve read this, it seems that he’s also narcissistic. He is starved of love, so that really hit the nail.

Thanks for this post!

Kassandra Lamb

Most definitely a protagonist can be a narcissist. Again, this personality disorder is on a continuum. So he can have narcissistic tendencies, that he at times realizes are self-centered. The struggle to overcome those tendencies can make for a brilliant character arc. But it is a long struggle that requires a lot of motivation. A sidekick or love interest who is good at holding up a mirror to make him look at himself is also a good idea.


Kassandra, would you say a sociopath is redeemable? (Developing empathy, guilt, remorse…) From what I remember, sociopaths don’t have the genes, but they were just brought up in an environment where such cruelty, coldness, manipulation, etc. was seen as the norm.

Kassandra Lamb

Yes, but they would have a lot to overcome. I would suggest avoiding the term sociopath though. Just portray them that way without a label. The labels are too confusing since they have been misused so much. And I would also suggest showing moments of doubt, indecision, etc, when called upon to do nasty things, to set up the idea that it goes against their natural tendencies. Hope that makes sense.

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