Good Guy/Bad Guy

Are you a good guy or a bad guy?

A hero or a villain?

If you’re like most, you look in the mirror and see a pretty good guy or gal staring back at you. After all, everyone is the hero of their own story. But, I recently discovered a fascinating article by Caroline Kaufman, Psy.D. that made me look at writing villains and interviewing criminals in a whole new way. According to Dr. Kaufman, most evildoers don’t see themselves that way. In fact, she argues most bad guys believe they’re good guys. After meeting with hundreds of men whom society has designated as the very, very worst bad guys, I understand her perspective. Dr. Kaufman cites the work of Albert Bandura in explaining how humans justify, rationalize, and misrepresent their behavior to fit their own self-image. These nifty little tricks are called cognitive distortions, and they’re used by hero and villain alike. After all, as Dr. Kaufman notes, “the only real thing that differentiates a protagonist from an antagonist is that the author is taking the protagonist’s side and showing his or her justifications rather than the justifications of the antagonist.”

In my work as a forensic psychologist, it always surprises me—no matter how many times it’s happened—when an inmate with a lengthy rap sheet answers my question, “Do you view yourself as a criminal?” with a no. Same for those convicted of multiple sexual crimes who deny being sexual offenders. So, how do these cognitive distortions, these fantastic tricks of the mind, prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are?

First, they enable us to disregard the consequences of our actions. For example, an inmate I recently evaluated told me that he never felt badly about robbing homes or stores, because no one was physically harmed, and the victims could easily recoup their money. Another inmate shared that he felt justified in agreeing to murder a woman’s husband for money, because he believed (wrongly or not) the man had harmed the woman he loved.

Second, these thinking errors allow us to dehumanize or blame the victims of our actions. A chilling example of dehumanization is an inmate who told me that he neither loved nor hated his twelve-year-old victim. Rather, he viewed her only as a “tool” to achieve sexual gratification. During acts of abuse, he covered her face with a pillow to further distance himself from her humanity.

Finally, cognitive distortions let us displace responsibility onto someone else, and anyone or anything will do just fine. My crime partner pulled the trigger. If she hadn’t provoked me, I wouldn’t have hit her. I was drunk and I couldn’t control myself. I tripped, and the gun went off.

I’ve just begun writing a new villain, and I’m keeping Dr. Kaufman’s article in mind. Think of the best bad guys (and gals) you’ve read—Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, Count Dracula, Amy Dunne. All of these villains are skilled in deceiving others…and, most of all, themselves. Wouldn’t each claim to be the hero/heroine of his or her novel?

“It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.”
  –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

A timely example of the consummate villain oblivious to their villain-hood is Carolyn Kepnes’ chilling narrator, Joe Goldberg. Kepnes’ thriller, You, reads as a how-to for developing an all too real bad guy, as she inhabits the mind of a sociopathic stalker in a way that is both accurate and terrifying. Worst (and best) of all, she makes us like him just a little. She puts us on the antagonist’s side. Consider this passage in light of the cognitive distortions identified above:

“It wasn’t my fault that Candace followed me down to the water’s edge and it wasn’t my fault that I picked her up and held her down in the water and watched her pass on to the great beyond. She wanted to be there, or she wouldn’t have gone down there with me. She knew she was killing me and she knew that I was not the type to go down without a fight.”

But consider too, all of the bad that good guys do in the name of being good. Real life or fiction, the line between villain and hero is razor thin. And most of us our days skirting either side of that line. So, this brings me back to my question. Are you a good guy or a bad guy? A hero or a villain? If there’s one thing this forensic psychologist turned author has learned, the only right answer, the only true answer is: It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

March 31, 2016

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