Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Villains and Antagonists: Sociopaths and Psychopaths, Non-Entity Antagonists

Welcome to the next installment of the Villains and Antagonists series. Today we're going to be talking about sociopaths or psychopaths, and the non-entity antagonist.

Some psychology nerd out there is probably already penning a lengthy nastygram to send to me and let me know that there is a difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. If you are writing one of these villains, it behooves you to do some research into the nuances and apply them to your character. If you're a lazy author making an internet video, meh, lump them together. Nah, I'm just kidding.

As most people understand it, the defining characteristic of either a sociopath or psychopath is their lack of empathy and ability to connect with other human beings on an emotional or spiritual level, although they may sometimes bond with animals. They are not incapable of expressing emotion, they just don't understand or care about your emotions.

Now, sociopath and psychopath are just the layman's terms to describe the official psychological diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder. Despite my general skepticism of the field of psychology, I am not going to take the time to redefine or reclassify the terms. It would require more time and effort and a few more rabbit holes that would quickly go outside the scope of our discussion on fictional villains.

With that in mind, I will take a moment to discuss the differences between a psychopath and a sociopath. It is believed that a psychopath is born the way he is, and there are reports of autopsies done on known psychopaths (usually serial killers) that show a physical deficiency or deformity in the part of the brain that governs emotion and what we would call the moral compass, processing right from wrong. Sociopaths on the other hand, are typically the subject of debate on nature vs. nurture. While favor tends to lean toward nurture, it is by no means exact. Both types, though, don't process emotion normally; in a psychopath, natural emotion may be absent and they resort to mere imitation.

Second, psychopaths tend to be calmer, more collected, and are capable of blending in normally with the rest of society. They may even have families. Typically, whatever they set their mind to, they accomplish. Remember all those times when neighbors say, about a murderer, “He seemed so normal.”? A psychopath may be able to imitate emotion as he sees it, but rarely feels it himself. Conversely, a sociopath tends to be erratic, almost as if he feels too much. He may be given to fits of rage, making plans but never following through, having goals that are impossible to meet, and just never seeming to have his stuff together. Sociopaths may also be diagnosed as bipolar.

Both psychopaths and sociopaths are highly manipulative. However, a psychopath is logically manipulative. Everything is calculated so that the psychopath is the ultimate benefactor. It may not be that he doesn't know that someone could be hurt by this manipulation, he just doesn't understand it. There is no moral difference between walking into a store to buy a T-shirt, and walking into a store to rob the clerk. A sociopath, meanwhile, tends toward emotional manipulation to get what he wants. Because sociopaths tend to be more erratic, they know how to use that to their advantage.

Violence and aggression, especially sexual aggression, is not always a factor in either psychopaths or sociopaths, as long as they have figured out that “kill them with kindness” is more productive. But either one is capable and unrepentant of breaking rules or the law, though they may say they are in order to get off easier, or get off completely.

Perhaps the most nuanced thing about either psychopaths or sociopaths is that everything they do, when left to their own devices, is just reflex, habit. It's just part of who they are, not a facade that they put up to keep others out or whatever. The facade is the normalcy they advertise.

So, this isn't meant to be a self-diagnosis thing, or trying to diagnose your parents, your kids, your spouse, your friends. This is just a brief overview to help you find the boundaries for your psychopathic or sociopathic villain so he doesn't come off the wrong way.

But wait, you say. In the first video about defining a villain, you say that a villain needs the ability to reason and plan, and that mental impairments that prevent someone from understanding the consequences of their actions exclude characters from being true villains.

That is true, but the thing here is that psychopaths and sociopaths can reason. Their manipulative charades are all about getting what they want, in both the short- and long-term. They know exactly what they're doing. Compared to someone who is inebriated or has dementia or maybe a traumatic brain injury, psychopaths and sociopaths are fully functional individuals.

I think the prime example of this is Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones. The initial events of the series, the murder of Jon Arryn, can be traced back to Baelish as he manipulates Lysa Arryn who is obsessed with him, making her believe that if Jon is out of the way, they can be together. But he also knows that killing Jon will inevitably bring King Robert and Ned Stark back together, bringing him, Baelish, closer to Catlyn, whom he loves, or believes he does. Ned being a man of honor, will be able to uncover the truth, while posing little real threat to the monarchy, likely getting himself killed, upending the system, and leaving Catlyn a widow for Baelish to marry, assuming he even cares or is in a position to do so. That is all purely speculation on my end within the narrow confines of this discussion. I also believe he had some plan that ended with him on the Iron Throne. Then it all spirals out of control from there. But his goal is to elevate himself in the end, whatever he would have other characters believe.

So that's a psychopath in a larger scope of things, and I fully believe that there are proportionately more psychopathic individuals in politics than any other work environment or industry in the world. While a noble few may rise to the top, such as Ned Stark, the vast majority are soulless, emotionless, self-serving psychopaths. And that applies across the board, regardless of party affiliation. And no, I'm not sorry for saying so.

But most of us aren't too caught up in such a world of intrigue, and thank God for that. Instead, most of us are the nine-to-fivers, even if our hours aren't exactly nine to five. Average is what I'm getting at.

For a more comedic approach to psychopaths, I submit to you the movie How to be a Serial Killer.

So a lot of the things that I find humorous, you kind of need a special sense of humor for, and I've been known to laugh at all the wrong things. This movie is not one of them. It is wickedly funny and I just love it.

The story is actually told from multiple viewpoints. First, you have the story at hand, told from the main character's point of view. His name is Bart. He is just a guy who works at a movie rental store, endures the same abuses that everyone else does, and is pretty much your wimpy skinny white guy.

The second view is Mike's point of view. He's the serial killer. He goes into the movie store one night, apparently a regular customer, and finds Bart taking some serious verbal abuse from another customer. He asks Bart what he would do to the abusive guy if he could. Bart tells him and, through a series of events, the abusive guy is murdered. Mike then takes Bart under his wing and introduces him to a ten-step How to be a Serial Killer program. This program is basically played out all in Mike's head, as though he were giving a TV lecture or an ad for a guest speaker position at a university or something.

Finally, the third point of view is the psychologist's point of view. And even as you have Mike who is giving these mental lectures on How to be a Serial Killer, and Bart who is going along with it all, there is a bit of a voice of reason as the psychologist lays everything out about what's going on, why, what Mike is thinking, and so on. In the end, the psychologist interviews Mike as he is eating his last meal before being taken for execution.

I say all this to sort of preface the idea that Mike appears normal. He owns a home, lives with his girlfriend, holds a steady job, goes out to rent movies, and he does a little killing on the side. Throughout the movie, you get the impression that he really doesn't have any feelings except sheer Narcissistic pride in his imaginary speech to his ultimately nonexistent audience. If it were any other movie, he could be accused of possibly bad acting the way he portrays emotions when interacting with Bart or his girlfriend, but the point is that he either only mirrors what others are feeling or else he draws on a bank of limited information, showing people what they want to see.

At the end, when things start to unravel and the killing gets out of hand, even as Mike panics a little, he still has a plan and keeps his cool.

Now then, the big question becomes, was Bart a psychopath all along, born with similar psychological impairments which allowed him to tolerate Mike's killing, or a sociopath, conditioned to be so? Again, arguments can be made for nature vs. nurture, but for this point, we're going to say that psychopathic tendencies are nature, and sociopathic tendencies are nurture. And I would say that Bart is actually sociopathic.

Reason one, he's genuinely submissive to Mike. For a psychopath, no emotion, no moral compass, what use is submission except to get what you want? Reason two, he tolerates a lot of crap and does nothing, yet he also doesn't have much of a problem when Mike takes care of things. Anyone who has worked customer service of any form knows that you always have that one guy who, for some inexplicable reason, always chooses your store, your shift, to be in a pissy mood and give everyone (you) a hard time. Except for reasons where it wouldn't benefit to be rid of such an annoyance versus letting him live, a psychopath isn't likely to tolerate such abuse for long. It doesn't necessarily mean murder, but self-interest comes before anything else. Reason three, while Bart may have ideas on how he'd like to kill people, he never follows through before Mike comes along. And as Mike is teaching Bart, each point he makes sort of elicits that erratic, punctuated behavior indicative of a sociopath versus a psychopath, though he always remains submissive to Mike.

An argument could also be made that it's Stockholm Syndrome that Bart has for Mike, but seeing how he doesn't take the out that he is offered and instead continues Mike's work, all details covered in the movie and open for speculation, I would still say that Bart is more sociopathic than Stockholm.

The last example that I'm going to present in this category comes from a series of books that I neither liked nor finished, but I feel present an interesting example of a sociopath. That is Cole from The Left Hand of God.

I always had a sneaking suspicion about the true intentions of the books from the get-go, but I was willing to let it slide for the sake of a different take or perspective on a particular piece of history. I stopped reading actually because the story started to confuse and bore me in books two and three, but reading the note, my suspicions were basically confirmed. For anyone who doesn't want to do any hard digging, it's sort of a revenge fantasy against the Catholic church. I don't know whether the author himself was abused or if he knew someone who was (my guess is the former), but the whole purpose of the book was to destroy the church, in his own imagination if not in real life. As I said, I stopped reading because the story got confusing and boring, not for any theological reasons.

But it presents an interesting perspective and follows the story of Cole who was raised in a monastery and chosen to lead the armies of this surrogate Catholic church to destroy the rest of the world and establish rule and reign, etc. etc., he is dubbed the left hand of God. He has a brilliant mind and is perfect in every way for this job except for his sin of free thought.

He escapes from the monastery with a small group of boys and quickly sets his goals on destroying the church before they can take over the world, or at least before they can ruin any more lives. He sets about securing alliances, convincing people of the evil of the church and to stand against them when they come.

Now this all sounds well and good and definitely not sociopathic, except the one underlying goal in Cole's mind is to kill Friar Bosco. Okay, so, as an aside, it's been a while since I've opened the books, so I don't know if that's his title or not, but Bosco is the guy in charge, basically the Pope. He's the one who ran the monastery, who trained and abused Cole.

Anyway, everything Cole does, he does in order to bring himself closer to killing Bosco. He is convinced that if Bosco dies, the church dies with him.

But wait, you say. In your first video, you said that a villain has to be conscious of his actions and consequences, and revenge stories can't fall into that. True and false. I said that villains need the ability to plan and reason, to have sound cognitive ability. Killing the man who you found in bed with your wife last week? Not exactly of sound mind, I think. Taking years to plan a murder and the destruction of an entire ideology and its institution, complete with forming social and political alliances? Planning, reasoning, cognitive abilities in tact.

But Cole was abused and manipulated. Was he really in control of himself?

An argument could be made that because Cole was isolated and shaped to be a weapon, that his ability to function outside of that singular environment is greatly diminished. However, this would only feed the argument of him being a sociopath, nurtured disregard for others. The priests wanted him to slaughter the world as the head of their armies. They never expected that weapon to turn and be used against them.

Hold up, then, you say, grating on my patience. This is a series on villains. If the story is told from Cole's point of view, does that really make him a villain?

Seeing how the author is imagining, I believe, himself in the role of Cole and being the one to destroy this surrogate Catholic church, the author would probably say that Cole is, at best, an antihero. Given that a protagonist is defined as simply the main character in a tale, that doesn't necessarily mean that a protagonist has to be the “good guy.”

Personally, I don't think there really are any “good guys” in the Left Hand of God series, and maybe that's why I was more disappointed in the writing than the story. In the end, everyone was a villain or antagonist of some form. You really didn't want to root for anyone because there were so few redeeming qualities for any side. It was actually kind of sad, and it still hurts that the writing was so bad because the story and concept itself was really great.

But that is neither here nor there.

Now within the Timekeeper Chronicles, depending on at what point you are seeing this compared to where you are in the books, you may have some different thoughts about Rifun and Cassius, whether they are psychopaths or sociopaths. I am going to clear up the mystery and say that at least Cassius is a sociopath, and he is a sociopath by choice. Rifun, meanwhile, is actually neither psychopath nor sociopath, not really, although he does display some psychopathic qualities. He actually falls into another villain category which we will discuss later.



The Non-Entity Antagonist


The non-entity antagonist is any non-character difficulty that must be overcome, and I don't know that the definition can get any simpler than that. This could be the weather or nature, as in a survival story. It could be, say, financial difficulty as in a rags to riches story. Anything where the situation itself is the problem.

Now, you may say, but wait, vicious packs of wolves and hurricanes are definitely tangible. Yes, they are, but they're just doing what they do. I didn't say that an NEA is intangible, I said it's not based on a character, but a situation.

Many stories are littered with small non-entity antagonists. In the Circle series, in addition to the villainous Horde, the desert itself is a non-entity antagonist, having to cross this wasteland to get from forest to forest. Game of Thrones has the onset of winter which is known to last for years. How do the people prepare for such a thing? Even a simple river crossing that hinders the progress of the heroes can be considered a small non-entity antagonist.

But a creator shouldn't limit their arsenal of NEA's to mere weather and geography. In fact, there are some pretty creative NEA's out there.

In the book world, I'm going to present two different cases of the same NEA. See if you can guess what it is. The first book is 11/22/63 by Steven King. The second is The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski.

11/22/63 is about a man who goes back in time to try and stop the JFK assassination. He really only gets one chance because every time he steps into the “reset portal” that takes him back to 1963, everything resets. There's a comical bit about a Roadkill Cafe conspiracy theory surrounding it, but the point is, if at any time he came out before completing his mission, everything resets, gets straightened out, and he would have to start all over from the beginning. If he goes back into the portal after completing his mission, his whole mission is undone. It's part historical fiction, part alternate history thought piece.

The Company of the Dead is about a man who tries to stop the sinking of the Titanic. Spoiler alert, as it turns out, there are competing interests here, and every time someone causes the Titanic to sink or not sink, the future gets even more wonky because of the breakdown of the space-time continuum. I mean, it's more nuanced than that—it's a huge book—but that's a quick summary. Again, part historical fiction, part alternate history thought piece.

By now you should be able to guess the NEA. Time. Time is the antagonist here. In these examples, it is time in the sense of time travel, altering events to change the course of history. But it could also be time as in a certain time limit, trying to meet or beat a particular deadline. It's intangible, true, but it is also something that the characters can't really manipulate. They can try to work with it, work around it, grapple with it like an overinflated balloon, but it remains its own entity.

Next we have the TV show Revolution. Yeah, it's been off the air for a while now, I think, and I never really watched it, but the premise was fascinating. All technology—I think it was something that had to do with stopping the electricity—is wiped out and mankind is sent back to at least the Industrial Revolution, if not earlier.

Again, the situation is the antagonist that the characters must overcome. Because of this technological breakdown, families are separated, the government is rendered useless, the military is unable to communicate, all is in chaos. Factions arise and shenanigans ensue. It's something a little more tangible than time, and a physical problem may have a physical remedy, but it's not anything that is evil or malicious in and of itself.

NEA's can also be an ideology, and I want to be careful how I phrase this in trying to get my point across.

The example that I will use is Europa, Europa. It's a German movie about a Jewish boy in Poland during World War II. Initially, his parents try to smuggle him and his brother out of the country, but he ends up being captured by the Russians. He spends several years in a Russian school, trying to lay low amid the communist propaganda.

Eventually, he makes it back to—I believe it's actually Germany—where, under a fake identity, he is admitted into a Nazi military school. He endures more propaganda, falls in love with a girl who is absolutely brainwashed, and is eventually sent to fight in the war.

At the end of the movie, he goes to a concentration camp, not dropping the Nazi charade and still not admitting to his true identity. The Russians who just liberated the camp tell the prisoners to have their revenge on him, but at the last minute, his brother identifies and saves him. The two go on to live happily ever after...basically.

The Nazis were very much people, and World War II was a very physical threat. However, the main character here isn't fighting against anything really tangible. He isn't going to duke it out against Hitler, and the plot doesn't revolve around him versus one of his professors. His mission in this whole thing is to simply survive. Don't get called out as a Jew, don't let himself get brainwashed by propaganda, don't try to start anything. Just stay alive. Period.

There is a difference between ideology as a non-entity antagonist and an ideological villain, like we'll cover later. Ideology as an NEA exists, not so much as a character who can be defeated, but as an idea. Ideas are the hardest thing in the world to fight.

The final example that I will submit comes from a video game called Endless Ocean: Blue World. Yeah, don't give me that look. I didn't play it for the story or the political bias.

The basic story to the game is unraveling the secret of the mystical Song of Dragons and finding the Pacifica Treasure. At regular points in the game, you'll go somewhere or do something, and the Song of Dragons will sound and bad things happen, from doors in underwater castles locking behind you, to being sucked into ancient underwater pyramids and trapped there.

First I just want to say that many of the story mechanics make no sense. None. I mean, okay, so an ancient civilization domesticated whales and trained them to do a lot of things. Fine, I can live with that. I think it's cool. But how or why would they install current-changing devices in their pyramids which would have been above water at the time they were built and whose passages are too small for the whales anyway? I mean, I guess it's great if you don't think about it, if you're like me and just want to explore some really cool places and poke fish, but it doesn't really stack up to anything tangible.

So, yes, I am aware that ninety percent of the story is BS. I know, I get it, moving on to the villain part. The NEA in this case, if you haven't already guessed, is this mysterious curse. It's not anything especially specific to any of the characters, though it is somehow linked to the Dragon Flute you obtain. In the course of your explorations and whatnot, you just have to deal with the curse and the bad things as they happen. If you didn't, then the plot couldn't happen, so...does that really make it a curse? I don't know, but you get my point.

And as an aside, if you do decide to go the vague curse route for your NEA, do better than EO for the big reveal and any subsequent unraveling. Spoiler alert, the Song of Dragons was just echoes. You heard that right, it's echoes. Game completely blows off basic physics for a sloppy, annoying reveal. If you want to reveal or unravel your curse, fine. But at least pretend to know what you're talking about, or build up your world and your plot so it makes a tiny bit of sense within the plot? Please?

As for the Timekeeper Chronicles, I've generally stayed away from NEA's as a major antagonist, however, Leap Second, which is Book Six of The Chivalrous Welshman, will feature a prominent NEA that is only hinted at or casually referenced in previous books.

So that's the bit on Sociopaths and Psychopaths, as well as Non-Entity Antagonists. I hope this was helpful for you and your future endeavors. Come back next time as we tackle one of my favorite types of villain of all time: The Hero.

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