How to write MENTALLY DISORDERED VILLAINS - Guest Lecturer: Mo!

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I was having a conversation with a couple people on whether or not villains should be written with mental disorders. There's a negative stigma around mental disorders, and if a villain has one, sometimes it can be interpreted that the mental disorder itself is villainized. Not good. Someone made the argument that we shouldn't write villains with mental disorders because it promotes that stigma of "insane" and anyone with any kind of mental health issue is evil. They said heroes almost never have mental disorders, and it's only the villains.

My good friend, Mo, made a good counter-argument on why it's acceptable to have mentally disordered villains and how to write it non-offensively, and she graciously let me share it with you guys! check it out:

The problem we face when stepping over into the realm of mental disorders, is that pretty much anyone, villain or not, can be categorized into some kind of disorder.

How much it influences the character or how much the story hints at it, most of the time, it's never just outright stated that anyone has any sort of disorder.

It's really different for everyone too. Some people let their disorders define them and try to use it as an excuse for the things they do, while other do not, and some even become very successful in life despite their invisible problems that they face every day.

Captain Hook has PTSD, Two-Face is obsessive compulsive, Jafar is a sociopath, Gaston is narcissistic, Cruella De Vil is just downright out of her mind, the original Maleficent is probably suffering from borderline personality...

None of these are stated outright, but anyone who's taken a psychology class would be like, "Damn."

A lot of villains tend to become paranoid about losing their status, leading to a breakdown of their mental state, and it influences them, but they still have the ability to differentiate right and wrong and take conscious actions.

Their mental illnesses don't define them, even if it's clear, such as Azula's psychosis towards the end of AtLA when she starts banishing everyone for fear of being overthrown, having hallucinations, and then even turns on herself, chopping her hair apart. It's never stated, "She has a mental illness that justifies her actions."

I mean, there are people who are downright crazy, like the Joker, who was originally just a murderous psychopath, but then there's The Killing Joke, where he was an engineer in a chemical plant who ended up falling into a vat of chemicals, and his new appearance and other traumatic events throughout that day caused him to have a severe change in personality, changing him into the Joker. He was a good guy gone bad, just wanting to support his pregnant wife. Then, in The Dark Knight, while he's clearly a psychopath, he tells the story of how he got his scars, which could have been his breaking point. however, he changes the story every time he tells it, so we can't be certain as to what has made him be the monster we see in this stage of his life.

However, if you say that someone with schizophrenia is a murderer simply because he's schizophrenic, then no, that's a huge problem. I've never seen that though. Sure, I've seen things like Law & Order where the person is deemed not guilty by mental defect, but again, it's different for every person. Not everyone who is schizophrenic will have a psychotic break and kill someone. 

Again, it's not generally stated outright that someone has any sort of mental illness, and it can apply to heroes just as much as it can apply to villains, it just happens to stick out more with villains, because (at least to me) they're more memorable unless someone gets really creative with the hero. Batman definitely has some sort of PTSD, haunted by his parents deaths, and also an intense phobia of bats. Holden Caulfield (though i wouldnt consider him to be a hero) is clearly suffering from being bipolar and having manic episodes, Ariel is a hoarder and suffers from dysphoria, Flounder and Piglet have major anxiety problems, Rabbit is obsessive compulsive, the lists go on and on for both sides.

Of course, as writers, we should never use these to justify a person's evil deeds, but (at least in what I've seen) that is a rare occurrence. Yes, mental illness can affect decision-making, but it's never the illness making the decision for them, and most of them know what their actions will lead to. None of these people are defined solely by their mental illnesses, nor are the illnesses villainized, which is absolutely 100% a no-no.

So, as writers, we shouldnt villainize mental illness, and as readers, we shouldn't focus solely on what disorders they may or may not have, because it's not the mental illness that makes them who they are, it's their choices and actions, regardless of whether the illnesses they may have are influencing them or not. I'm sure it can be done well, but only if it's really a story about overcoming mental illnesses. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to overcome them, and bad things can happen either to the person or to the people around them, but again, that should be reserved for writing solely for shedding light on mental illness, not motivating a villain.

However, still keep in mind that some people with mental disorders do happen to do terrible things, sometimes just because of whatever they might be dealing with inside their head that they can't handle. Some sociopaths tend to murder simply because they're so. As I've said more than once, it's different for everyone, but the truth of it is that some people with mental disorders do what they do simply because they have a mental disorder, and it gets backed by psychological analyses of the person. This happens in real life, so to have it in fiction isn't farfetched at all. It just shouldn't be written as a generalization of everyone with the illness being a murderer or something like that, and it shouldnt be written at all unless the author knows what they're talking about.

So what are your thoughts on mentally disordered villains and heroes? Share in the comments below!

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