Personality Theory in Fiction Writing IV: The Depths of Evil – “Bad Guys”
In part three of our four-part series on applying personality theory to fictional characters, we went over some ideas for how authors can explain oddities in characters’ behavior without losing touch with their personality type, either because the story requires such departures or because the characters themselves are odd. But what about using personality types for dark forces – the “bad guys” of fiction? That’s the topic of this final installment in our series.
Violence or cruelty might seem hard to fit into personality types. In a realistic examination of people, which is what our theory focuses on, evil is, frankly, quite uncommon.
In the world of fiction, however, the requirements of drama make evil a commonplace thing. In common fictional contexts, evil characters are cruel, violent, and generally working against the main characters. They destroy things. They hurt people. And they often seem to be perfectly okay with such aberrant behavior, as unrealistic and shocking as it would be in real life. As a society, we’re far more comfortable with unrealistically evil characters than we are with unbelievably good ones, leading to some pretty cookie-cutter villains in fiction.
Personality type theory can help authors make evil characters more dimensional, with interesting shades of gray instead of simplistically black souls. Assigning types to evil characters is tricky, though, because their behavior would more likely be the result of some mental illness than their personality type. It is accordingly false to think that any specific personality type would be more associated with evil acts, as people of any type can take a wrong turn down a dark road.
Each of the above examples involve characters taking trait-defined behavior far beyond what a healthy individual would be comfortable with, but it’s important to note that such extremity is not actually caused by their personality type or traits.
What a Difference a Trait Makes
Personality types cannot be used to define evil, only to paint how it might be expressed. For this reason, it may be useful for authors to separate a character’s “evilness” when focusing on how personality type shapes their interactions with peers, their style and methods, and the part they play in the plot. Depending on the nature of the story, an author can describe an antagonist’s behavior in accordance with their personality type, while making sure that personality type doesn’t drive the character’s evil. Let’s consider, as an example, a male mob boss character.
Example: The author knows that the mob boss character will be a despicable, violent criminal but is trying to decide how to express that behavior. The character has built a vast illegal empire, and the author has decided that he’s an Extravert but has yet to decide on a personality type. Two avenues might be:
- Assertive Commander (ENTJ-A): This mob boss could be coldly efficient, often one step ahead of his enemies, because he sees probabilities and makes rational decisions. The police have a hard time keeping up with him, but he doesn’t trust many of his associates, because he logically assumes that they are always calculating what’s most beneficial to themselves. He uses people as chess pieces and expects similar machinations from them in return. He doesn’t have deep connections with anyone, but he is confident in his social life, even witty. People are respectful of him but don’t generally like him, knowing that while he’s civilized and deliberate, he’s also remorseless and capable of anything.
- Turbulent Entertainer (ESFP-T): This mob boss could be passionate, given to outbursts and personal indiscretions, even when it hurts his business or brings the law down on him. He doesn’t always make rational choices, being led boldly by his heart more than his head. Anyone close to him is there because he feels he can trust them; loyalty is everything to him. He values his bonds with his associates, but he has a hard time keeping his cool and can easily become arbitrarily violent. He worries a lot, suspicious of what others might be doing behind his back. He loves his family and friends, and they love him, even if they sometimes fear him.
Either of the above characters could fill the author’s need for the mob boss to be quite nasty in his behavior, but when he is cruel, to whom, and why might differ. The mobster’s evil and criminality isn’t directly caused by his personality type, but the nature and timing of his evil actions might be shaped by his type. And again, even with an evil character, personality type theory can help the author keep the character’s behavior consistent, making him more interesting to the reader.
Working Personality Types into Bad Guys
Characters who behave badly for complicated reasons can be fascinating. Here are just a few ideas for how villains can be developed with the support of personality types.
The Personal Nemesis
It is possible for an antagonist to be opposed to the main characters but not decidedly evil. Real life is full of sharp personality conflicts, and finding a yin to any character’s yang is far easier if both of their personality types are known. Authors can think about what the main characters hold most dear, select a different personality type that would likely clash with those views, discard patience or understanding between them, and let the battle commence.
The Fallen Angel
An evil character might not always have been evil, but rather a person with normal trait-driven behavior subsequently twisted by trauma or other events. While the author can direct the character as needed, their underlying personality can show through, in order to give added dimension and prevent them from being bland conduits of a wicked plot. They could even earn some sympathy, with the right backstory and context.
The Remorseful Offender
A character with a reasonable personality type could have done an evil thing in the past that forever taints their existence. The author doesn’t need to worry very much about reconciling evil behavior with their personality type, because they have no current motivation to be evil. Such characters can provide dramatic tension, because although they may seem functional and relatable, other characters (and readers) will wonder if they might suddenly revert to their old ways, becoming a threat.
The Unstable Menace
Some characters may be gripped by compulsion, but their personality stands separate from their evil deeds, existing as a precursory framework. They may lose control due to overwhelming emotion, desire, or psychological stress, but they otherwise act according to their type much of the time.
The Crazy Psycho
If an author decides that a character will lose control frequently, they become the “crazy psycho.” This archetype can alternate chaotically between their “normal” self and an inverted, corrupted version of themselves. A useful trick for authors is to have the character mimic a twisted, nasty version of a few traits that are opposite of their usual personality type.
The Comfortably Cruel
This archetype is tough to reconcile with personality typing, because sane people are unlikely to commit heinous acts of evil. A character who simply relishes hurting people is mentally ill. To have a character that is believably sane, sober, and very evil may be a tough sell. The character might somehow give themselves permission to feel good about doing bad things and probably wouldn’t consider themselves evil as a result.
Studying personality type theory can not only help authors revolutionize character composition and behavior, it can also inspire intriguing ideas for plot and character interplay, as well as boost creativity. Having a detailed map of characters’ personalities illuminates how they would think, feel, and act in response to others and to their environment. Indeed, characters can live even greater multidimensional lives inside the mind of an author before ever being translated onto the page.
This depth and believability will inspire and fascinate readers, since such thoughtfully developed characters have an uncanny resemblance to reality. Infusing fictional works with authentic truths about human personality that have been quantified through research can ground readers amid even the most fantastical material. A well-written argument between Faerie Royals on Venus can still be a relatable interplay if readers can understand and care about the characters, and readers will appreciate this.
It should also be clear that personality typing need not be restrictive, and is in fact a foundation that supports creative freedom and development. With insight into personality traits, authors can balance challenging character elements realistically and create solid, believable plots, letting their imaginations roam freely and with more confidence than ever before in the quality of their work.
For some fun, try this personality type writing exercise:
- Flip a coin to determine each trait of two characters, including Identity. Research both characters’ personality types.
- Flip the coin again to determine their genders.
- Flip the coin again to determine the setting: if heads, a Chicago pizza parlor in 1940; if tails, a negotiating table between two conflicting human colonies on Mars in the near future.
- Flip the coin again to determine a sudden event: if heads, heretofore undiscovered aliens attack from underground; if tails, a seismic event and crack in the overhead structure threaten all with imminent mortal danger.
- Flip the coin again: if heads, the characters willingly choose to cooperate but offer different views; if tails, they are forced to work together but cannot stand each other or cease their bickering.
- Flip the coin again to decide if the scene will be comedic or dramatic.
- Compose a page highlighting how the characters successfully overcome their challenges and escape from the situation, despite or because of each other.
- Read it back and then consider whether your characters seem believable and realistic, along with how well they match their assigned personality types. Reflect, research further if desired, and adjust.
- Share your short story and see if others can identify the personality types that you used.
Have you used personality type theory in your creative writing before? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!