Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Evil That Men Do: What Villains Reveal About Their Creators’ Personalities

Peggy Ehrhart

Psychologist Sam Gosling could teach Sherlock Holmes a thing or two. In his book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Gosling lays out the principles of snoopology. Its premise is that our possessions, and their arrangement, offer a window to our souls.

Gosling demonstrates his powers of deduction when he concludes from a tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a CD, and a photo of a bathroom sink that the bathroom in question belongs to a young, gay Asian man.

But what really got my interest was Gosling’s discussion of personality types. After all, if we’re to understand how snooping can illuminate personality, we have to understand what constitutes a personality. So Gosling introduces the “Big Five”--key traits that blend to make us what we are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The first two interested me particularly because they seem opposites--though Gosling insists that none of the traits cancels another out. But people who score high on openness tend toward liberal politics, are suspicious of absolutes, and question convention, while people who score high on conscientiousness tend toward conservative politics, value order, and have a strong sense of moral obligation.
It struck me that just as one’s stuff can reveal personality, so can one’s writing—-not a revolutionary idea, I know, but since I’m high on the openness scale and like to play with ideas, please bear with me.

Since mysteries celebrate the triumph of order, one might expect mystery writers to score high on conscientiousness. In its simplest form, a mystery pits a sleuth who’s a paragon of goodness against a villain who’s a paragon of evil, and goodness conquers.

Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed a page from nineteenth-century melodrama to give Holmes a nemesis so completely evil as to strike us, now, as laughable. And remember Dick Tracy? We might call the strip a graphic novel these days--a police procedural with a straight-arrow hero and villains whose grotesqueness signals their moral depravity.

Even modern mysteries--police procedurals and thrillers especially come to mind--show us worlds in which good and evil seem absolute. And I suspect the writers who create these worlds score high on the conscientiousness scale.

But when mystery edges further toward the literary, things become less black and white. Sam Spade, the ur-sleuth in the noir tradition, reveals considerable moral ambiguity, and Hammett’s bad guys, while not exactly well-rounded, are so entertaining that it’s hard to see them as evil incarnate. John Le CarrĂ©’s villain, Karla, ultimately proves to be as complex and human as Smiley.

Then there’s John Harvey’s excellent police procedural series--which I’ve just discovered. His sleuth, Charlie Resnick, is a square peg in a round hole. He’s an overweight divorced jazz-lover who is insensitive to the needs of the women in his life and keeps his flat tidy by waiting till the balls of dust and cat hair get large enough to be picked up and deposited in the trash. And Harvey’s villains aren’t people who set out to do evil, but rather people pushed into evil acts by thwarted love.

Thus we come around to something we might already have suspected. Maybe mystery writers don’t have to rank high on the conscientiousness scale--or if they do, it’s counterbalanced by high openness. Openness correlates not only with distrust of absolutes but also with imagination and creativity, qualities possessed by all writers.

Just like great novels, the best mysteries don’t paint the world in black and white terms. Rather, they show us people struggling with their humanity, trying to do what’s right but sometimes doing wrong. And the most admirable sleuths are those who empathize with the fallen humanity in the evil-doers they unmask. There but for the grace of God . . .

Subjecting my own writing to this analysis, I realized that my villains are just what one might expect from somebody with a high openness quotient, somebody who finds it hard to see the world in terms of absolutes.

Only one of my Maxx Maxwell mysteries, Sweet Man Is Gone, is out so far, but the sequel is sitting on a shelf in my study, and several prequels are lurking there too--most in need of major surgery but with plots worth salvaging. In looking back at them, I see that often the murderer is a person with the ability to love intensely but whose love turned to hate when it was rebuffed. Thus my villains tend to be people pushed to the extreme of murder by desperation--people who, given different circumstances, might have been heroes.

Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor who now writes mysteries and plays blues guitar. Her blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, is just out from Five Star. Visit her at


Paul Lamb said...

Are you saying that Professor Moriarty is laughable? I hardly think so. In fact, he reminds me of the vice president of a certain country because of his cold, calculating, quite real-world persona. Moriarty was all too real. I don't find any melodrama in him.

Helen said...

Today's antagonists seem to be less evil for evil's sake and more evil for a reason, even if the reason only makes sense to the antagonist.

L.J. Sellers said...

These are the antagonists I like to write about as well—borderline but functional people who slip over the edge because of frustration,rage, fear,or grief.
Nice post.

Marilynne said...

You are talking about villains at the same time I'm struggling with mine. Thanks for a very timely discussion.


Barbara M said...

Fascinating stuff. I write romance, and your article has given me food for thought about how one creates romantic heroes and heroines, and where one can take liberties with the conventions. I can never make my villains truly evil, and when they're female, they're often selfish bitches... Wonder how much that says about the underlying me? Thanks for a great post.

Peggy Ehrhart said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments on my post. I'm delighted to hear that some of my ideas were helpful.
To answer Paul's question: I'm not saying that there are not people who strike us as totally evil. (My husband saw a great bumper sticker the other day: "Cheney and Satan '08.")
I'm saying that plots in which the hero is a paragon of good and the villain a paragon of evil strike me as less satisfying than those in which the characters are all complicated mixtures of human-ness--and that those TOTAL GOOD vs. TOTAL EVIL plots seem to me somewhat melodramatic.