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Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: The Disturbed

Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: The Disturbed

The Joker Peeta Mellark (at the end of Mockingjay) Hannibal Lecter There are many emotional, psychological, mental, and physical disorders that can turn "good" people to "bad". Physical disabilities could either be the result of the villainy (think Darth Vader) or the cause of it due to resentment over mistreatment by a cruel society. Emotional, psychological, and mental disorders could push “normal” people over the edge, or could make them more likely to turn violent in the wrong situation.

The Disturbed: Origins

Psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, and many other characters with a broad range of disorders have been portrayed in fiction and mythology since the beginning of time:
  • Circe poisoned the sea as revenge for the fact that Glaucus was in love with Scylla, thus turning Scylla into a six-headed monster.
  • Tantalus stole from the gods, stole Zeus’ favorite dog, then roasted his son alive and fed the parts to the gods.
  • Narcissus, the god for whom “narcissism” was named, was so vain and self-obsessed he fell in love with his own reflection and starved to death because he couldn’t pull himself away from his pool.
It is only in recent years (late 1800s) that these disorders have been thoroughly researched and classified. However, it is very likely they have existed since mankind itself has existed. Let’s be clear: These disorders are a very delicate subject. Many people can lead productive, healthy, happy lives while living with a broad range of personality disorders. Many people with schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and all the others get married, have families, and become “productive members of society”. Calling all people with these disorders “disturbed” is an insult to them, and something I would never consider doing. According to the AMHCA: “Most persons with serious mental illness are never violent. People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. However, small subgroups of persons with serious mental illness are at increased risk of violence during certain high-risk periods, such as during a first-episode of psychosis and the period surrounding inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.” One Australian government website has an interesting outlook on why some people with certain mental illnesses (especially psychotic disorders) end up being violent: Violence is not a symptom of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. There is a slightly increased possibility that someone with a psychotic illness may be violent if they:
  • are not receiving effective treatment
  • have a previous history of violence
  • misuse alcohol or drugs.
Symptoms of psychotic illnesses may include frightening hallucinations and delusions, as well as paranoia. This means there is a small chance someone who is experiencing these symptoms may become violent when they are frightened and misinterpret what is happening around them. SANE Australia lists the strongest risk factors for aggressive or violent behavior among the mentally ill:
  • being male
  • being a young adult
  • having had a troubled childhood
  • having problems with drug and especially alcohol abuse.
Let’s be clear: not all people who fit this particular bill become violent, and it’s possible that those who do NOT fit this bill (women, older adults, etc.) can become violent or dangerous. However, this is the category of those who are at the highest risk of becoming aggressive to the point of harming others. The Canadian Mental Health Association has an interesting take on why some people with mental illnesses become violent: “There is a relationship between violent behaviour and symptoms which cause the person to feel threatened and/or involve the overriding of personal control. Examples of these criteria include specific symptoms such as command hallucinations and feeling that one’s mind is being dominated by outside forces. Current research shows that people with major mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society. This most often occurs when such factors as poverty, transient lifestyle and substance use are present. Another important factor is a violent background. Individuals suffering from psychosis or neurological impairment who live in a stressful, unpredictable environment with little family or community support may be at increased risk for violent behaviour. The risk for family violence is related to, among other factors, low socio-economic status, social stress, social isolation, poor self esteem and personality problems. Any of these factors make a person with mental illness more vulnerable to assault and the possibility of becoming violent in response.” One study looked at some of the factors likely to cause someone with a mental illness to become violent:
  • A family history of violence
  • Genetics (“Violence is likely a polygenetic phenomenon, with many genes acting in a coordinated fashion to produce an aggressive phenotype.”)
  • A family history of antisocial personality disorder
  • A family history positive for homicidal ideation and attempts
  • Disturbed homes
  • A low concentration of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA), a metabolite of serotonin
  • Drugs that increase norepinephrine activity in the central nervous system (CNS)
They summed it up by saying, “Impulsive aggression may be a direct response to the individual’s perception of deprivation or punishment, and is often coupled with feelings of frustration, fear, injustice, and anger. Aggressive individuals may develop a cognitive framework containing basic flaws in perceptions of social interactions, so that the individual sees others as responsible for all of his or her problems.” There are a number of disorders—including those listed in Psychology Today’s 10 Personality Disorders—that can lead someone to violence. However, not all those with personality disorders end up violent, and not all violence is caused by personality disorders. Understanding this is the key to approaching “villainous” characters correctly and portraying their disorder with respect and as accurately as possible.

In Stories

In the cases where people with mental illnesses turn violent, the violence can often be more extreme than “neurotypical” people unafflicted by these disorders:
  • The Joker of DC Comics is a psychopath and sadist, who uses his chemical engineering expertise to craft vicious, deadly gags to match his warped sense of humor.
  • Harley Quinn of DC Comics comes from a broken and dysfunctional home, and portrays symptoms of histrionic personality disorder. Her infatuation with the Joker ultimately causes her to give in and become a villain alongside him, as a result of his abusive and manipulative relationship.
  • Hannibal Lecter doesn’t fit any one psychological profile, so the psychiatrists call him a “sociopath” because they don’t know what else to call him. He exhibits some psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies, and is a cannibalistic serial killer.