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Let us suppose that one certain villain's motives and actions can be mostly explained by a particular medical condition or other misfortune. Consider a tyrant who commits atrocities due to mental instability at the onset of paranoia, etc.: the condition itself is the cause, not their intentional exploitation, or the natural result of mistreatment by others.

Unfortunately, any discussions on this issue I found online always seem to end up suggesting adding a token foil character with similar conditions to contrast the villain, or avoiding the practice altogether. And on my side, although considerable effort has been made in researching medical references to ensure logical consistency and accuracy, I am aware of the following two possible controversies:

  1. The condition can be viewed as a way to excuse and even justify the wrongdoing of the villain;
  2. Conversely, this can be seen as an unfair accusation that stigmatizes the group in question by suggesting that the condition is solely responsible for creating evil.

What else can be done to minimize these two negative influences as much as possible?

Update:

If I may elaborate on my intent in asking this question, I want my fiction to be believable more than reader-friendly. I am not against but rather in favor of the use of tropes, including stereotypes, but only when they are substantiated by sufficient factual research and logical consideration. Being called factually inaccurate is much, much more hurtful to me than being accused of insensitivity.

To give more context, the fiction in question involves an attempt to examine the basis of morality (reason vs. emotion) and whether moral responsibility derives from free will. This villain protagonist of the Mad Scientist archetype with SzPD and/or ASD does fit the stereotypes of apathetic (coldness, detachment), unfeeling (alexithymia; lack of empathy), and amoral (insensitivity to social norms; "moral unevenness") very well, but would later take a step up in moral responsibility through character development. I am working to make sure these stereotypes do have clinical evidence support, and, when I have done my due research, the last thing I want is to be criticized for "misinterpretation."

So, to append a new question here: How can I avoid conveying the wrong message when establishing a character with "boring stereotypes" of some mental illness, negative experiences, etc., that are actually factually and logically self-consistent?

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    If you allow that a medical condition is the root cause of your villain's villainy, will other characters in your work also be denied free will? Will they too be automata directed by forces outside their control, some good, some bad? Bad because ill is something of a lazy trope. Much more interesting villains, and villainy, emerge from the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune hurls, or has hurled, at them, oft-times accentuated by inherent character flaws. Dec 1, 2022 at 12:51
  • I don't think it's necessarily a denial of free will. There are a lot of conditions that affect your perception of reality (for example Capgras syndrome where you think loved ones have been replaced by imposters). But you still have a choice how you react to that. If you react to a delusion the same way a reasonable person would if it were real, then it what way has it removed free will?
    – user54131
    Dec 1, 2022 at 14:18
  • Interestingly enough, one focus of the fiction in question is an attempt to examine the basis of morality (reason vs. emotion) and whether moral responsibility derives from free will. In my initial design, one way this particular villain protagonist would justify their wrongdoing is that they "don't 'feel' bad" given their mental illness, or something like that. @HighPerformanceMark
    – HWalker
    Dec 2, 2022 at 4:29
  • How high are the stakes of villainy in the story? Does the villain kick a puppy, burn down an orphanage, or raze a whole country to the ground? (This doesn't necessarily impact the basic message of the story, but does affect how harmful it is if someone misinterprets it.)
    – user54131
    Dec 2, 2022 at 6:33
  • Then I guess it would end up being very unfortunate, since this villain both resembles von Braun's life story and at the same time is the protagonist. :( Besides the discussion on moral philosophy, another basic message is that science, just like our villain, is itself amoral and therefore needs more guidance by society to do good for humanity. Then there is also some satirical humor in the "see, 'Murica makes the bad guys good" sense. @towr
    – HWalker
    Dec 2, 2022 at 7:04

2 Answers 2

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Firstly, always do your research. Google information about the disorder in question, find some articles that will help you better understand, and read accounts of people who suffer from the illness to get a better idea of what it's like to live with it. Finding someone who knows about the disorder may give you more information. If you can find such a person, ask them to look over your work and see if your portrayal is realistic and fair.

Now let's address issue number one.

  1. Does this excuse the actions of the villain?

Not necessarily. Many people have a mental illness, other ailments, or tragic pasts such as losing loved ones, but they still wouldn't hurt a fly or become the villain. Batman, for example, lost both his parents and probably has lingering trauma, but that doesn't make him the bad guy per se.

Suffering explains why a character does things but doesn't justify it. However, the more tragedy you pile onto a character, the more reasonable it is that they snapped. You mentioned the tyrant archetype, so say your character is a king.

Let's say the king suffers from paranoia. Does this justify him for killing any political rivals? No, not at all. If you're mentally ill, you should seek professional help before things get out of hand. He should step down from power.

But what if the king is so severely mentally ill that he doesn't even realize what's happening? He could have so many delusions, hallucinations, and severe mood swings that he can't determine who's friend or foe.

That doesn't make him burning down an orphanage, strangling his wife to death, and burning half the countryside down any less horrible. However, if he's so unstable he believes his family members are shapeshifting demons, then I think he at least deserves a chance to get some therapy.

  1. Does this create an unfair stigma?

Was your character's illness well-researched, looked over by a trusted expert, and handled with care? Then you've done your due diligence and should be fine.

So what should you avoid?

I've noticed that authors usually fall into two problems with their villains. Either they show their villains no sympathy or absolve them of all crimes.

When they show the character no sympathy, I mean the author tells the audience, directly or indirectly, that the person is a born monster Irredeemable. Innately evil.

Dissociated Identity Disorder gets the worst of this treatment. The evil split personality trope is rampant in media and often paints a harmful stereotype for people with DID. Split by M. Night Shyamalan was criticized for this because the main villain follows these tropes to a T.

These tropes are especially concerning because DID patients have some of the highest rates of child abuse (https://www.sheppardpratt.org/knowledge-center/condition/dissociative-identity-disorder-did/). Yet they are constantly shown in media as villains and very rarely as heroes.

The opposite is using the villain's illness to absolve them of all wrongdoing, which is reductive because it pretends they have no agency.

You don't want that because the character should be treated respectfully as a person regardless of whether they're depressed, Schizophrenic, bipolar, or have PTSD.

The last thing you want is to go, "I know my character wiped out the Eastern Sea Board, but he's got mild depression, so he is innocent."

But if you said, "Yes, my character stabbed the man, but he has PTSD, paranoid delusions, and severe auditory hallucinations since he was twelve."

Then it'd be much more reasonable to cut them a little slack and consider getting them court-ordered therapy rather than jail time.

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The main thing to keep in mind is, characters never believe what they do is wrong. Otherwise, they would not do it.

They will always have reasons. Maybe those reasons are silly, not logical, vague, rationalizations that any sensible person would reject out of hand. The reasons will vary from the scurrilous to the convincing (or not so convincing but maybe plausible).

"It's right for me to burn down this public school because it is not fashionable to wear white after Labor Day."

"It's right for me to burn down this public school because they really are not school kids but aliens in disguise plotting to enslave everybody."

And so on.

So your challenge is to find those reasons and fit them to your story. And do it in an interesting fashion that produces the effects in your audience that you intend.

Maybe the reason seems whack-job but turns out to be true. Or the reverse. Maybe you mislead your reader to believe the reason is sensible (or the opposite). Maybe there is reason that the villain would believe his reasons.

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    It appears that the question is not about how to justify a villain's behavior, but how to handle the issue of not implicating a whole class of people as evil or dangerous if the villain's behavior is traceable to a mental illness or negative life experience.
    – Jedediah
    Dec 1, 2022 at 22:58

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