How to Write a Manipulative Scumbag Villain
Guest post by Doozy84
Are you a kind, compassionate, considerate person who values the lives of other human beings? Well, we better fix that quick: you need to write a villain! Here’s a small sampling of bad behaviours you can give to evil characters to make them relatable and hateable!
What Liars Do
A good liar will base their lie on a seed of truth, on something that is plausible, or at least has some kind of evidence that would deflect any casual attempt at scrutiny. Every good lie is just close enough to the truth to be believable. A good lie is not outrageous, but instead is within the bounds of believability.
For example, if a villain wanted to frame a stranger for a crime, they wouldn’t frame an innocent person. They would frame another criminal with a long criminal history, someone who is already known to be duplicitous or has had run-ins with the law. In this way, the lie is more likely to be accepted as truth, because it is more believable to accept that the hardened criminal committed the crime than the innocent person with no criminal record.
A bad liar makes up outrageous claims, or is too detail oriented. When a lie is too detailed, it requires the liar to remember those details. The more detailed the lie is, the harder the story is to keep straight, and the more suspicious it becomes.
In many ways, a highly-detailed lie is more suspicious than an outrageous lie. When criminal investigators and intelligence experts interrogate liars, they often look for details. This is because innocent people seldom remember important details: they are innocent, so they haven’t committed a complete list of random minutiae to memory. A person only needs to remember random and obscure details for something that is important, and if they are innocent and not lying, they have nothing to hide, and don’t need to remember those details. Only a bad liar would base their lie around a tiny and easily ignored detail, like the colour of duct tape on a car’s broken tail light, or a paint chip that flaked off a window sill. An innocent person just going through their daily lives not trying to remember every event in their day would not commit random small details like that to memory, but a bad liar would because they believe that a more detailed story sounds more truthful.
What Manipulators Do
A good manipulator goes unnoticed and is never suspected of manipulation. They never confront the target of their manipulation directly, instead acting through a proxy, like dropping hints on someone close to their target in order to deliver their poison through second-hand gossip rather than direct word of mouth. The good manipulator doesn’t speak with words, but with actions; they try to build a scenario where every option the target can choose will somehow lead back to or benefit the manipulator, and there are no available options that are detrimental to them. In film and literary tropes, this is called a Xanatos Gambit: a situation where the villain benefits somehow no matter what the heroes do. If the villain hires a bunch of ninjas to beat up the heroes in a bar, and the heroes defeat the ninjas, then the villain still wins because he owns the bar and collected the insurance money from the damages, then bulldozed the condemned bar to build a death laser laboratory. If the ninjas were defeated the villain still benefits, because he hired the ninjas from a rival clan through a proxy, and now that rival ninja clan is weaker because all their best warriors got beat up in the bar fight.
A good manipulator avoids direct confrontation and communication where possible, instead setting up Xanatos Gambits or manoeuvring other individuals into positions that benefit his plans.
A bad or amateur manipulator communicates directly, and does not use a proxy or set up a Xanatos Gambit.
An amateur manipulator can also typically be easily recognized by the hypocritical use of gaslighting. In most cases, people who are poor manipulators will accuse their target of the exact same behaviour that they themselves are doing. This is either done consciously to throw guilt off themselves, or subconsciously, because they have paranoid delusions, and believe everyone else is behaving the same way they are. It is easy to spot an amateur manipulator by analysing their gaslighting attempts. If they accuse their target of something that under scrutiny, looks exactly like what they’re doing, it's because they are.
Casting the First Stone
The Devil Loves a Hypocrite
The sin that every person hates the most in others is the one they are most guilty of themselves. We hate the flaws in others that we see in ourselves because we are reminded of our own weakness, or we feel that if we have defeated a specific personal demon, we often despise someone who is struggling with the same demon, even though we should probably be sympathetic.
Someone who hates a specific kind of bad behaviour probably came from a place of bad behaviour and has hard-won personal experience with it. This is not necessarily a negative trait. A victim of abuse can use that knowledge to avoid other abusers of the same stripe, if they are self-aware enough to spot the patterns. What makes the trait negative is a lack of self-awareness and judgment against individuals guilty of the same sin. A narcissist will always hate other narcissists, because the narcissist is the centre of his own universe and needs everyone else’s affirmation and love. Since another narcissist can’t give that kind of validation, the natural enemy of the narcissist is another narcissist.
Transactional / Adversarial
Quid Pro Quo Against The World
An evil and dominating mind that seeks total control of all things in their life does so because they are either compulsive and hate to leave anything to chance, or they fear that other people are trying to seize as much, or more control, than they are.
For a dominating and evil mind, every interaction is either transactional or adversarial. In a transactional interaction, the evil mind believes that every exchange is quid pro quo: that something is always being traded for something, there are no acts of charity, no benign gifts, no free lunch. Whenever an interaction does not appear to be transactional, the evil mind is extra suspicious, because they are trying to figure out what that person’s intentions were, and assume it is an attempt at manipulation.
The evil mind does not account for ambivalence or ignorance. To the evil mind, every interaction that is not transactional is adversarial; a person is either a friend or an enemy. Friends are useful pawns, and enemies must be crushed. The evil mind cannot process the idea that there are people that don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing, every person they interact with is processed as a useful tool to be used or a threat to be extinguished. When the evil mind walks into the McDonalds to order a Big Mac or rob the restaurant, they do not see the McDonald’s employee behind the counter as a person who is just going through the motions of their crappy job and is probably mentally and emotionally somewhere else. All they see is a human-shaped robot that will either serve them a Big Mac, or a potential threat that might catch them sneaking into the manager’s office to rob the safe. They are unable to process that the McDonald’s employee probably doesn’t care about the Big Mac, or for that matter, the safe in the manager’s office.
When a gift is not a gift
The evil mind that grooms its target is actively looking for someone who has a dependency that they can exploit, or to create one where one does not exist. Their goal is to use that dependency as a tool to manipulate the target and control them, to fulfil their own desires. The evil mind never gives a gift out of charity, and never gives a gift that would help the victim on a path to independence. They regularly, however, give gifts that seem like they foster independence, but come attached to leashes.
For example, the evil mind would give someone the gift of a cell phone or a car, but these amenities would have the payment plans or leases in the evil mind’s name, not the victim’s. That way, the evil mind could rescind the gifts by cancelling payments if the victim attempted to break away from them. In this way, the evil mind appears to be surrendering control, but in fact they are setting a well-laid trap to create dependency because their charity is dependent upon the victim’s compliance.
A street level drug dealer controls his addicts through access to drugs, giving the first hit as charity to hook them, and then controlling them through addiction. A manipulative wealthy man that seeks the love of a beautiful woman offers her jewellery, exotic vacations and homes, and luxury items, but always keeps the titles in his name and the receipts on hand, in case he becomes jealous and rescinds all his gifts.
Doozy84 had his book, Hell Patrol, published in 2022. Find it here on Smashwords.
Title image by murat esibatir from Pexels and used with their kind permission.