This article is based on a 3 hour workshop at the 2011 Perth Writers Festival.
Following an exercise to get to know each other a little, Leah Giarratano went over her personal history as a clinical psychologist specialising in treating people who have been through traumatic experiences and conducting psychological evaluations of prisoners.
Leah introduced the characters and plots of her four novels featuring main character Sergeant Jill Jackson (Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, Voodoo Doll, Black Ice and Watch the World Burn).
Next was the topic of psychopaths, both in terms of clinical psychology and in terms of fictional characters. “I always wanted to meet a psychopath,” she began, “…until I did.”
She discussed that while characters like Hannibal Lecter (from Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, later made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins), who can kill and eat another person with no remorse have become a storytelling cliche, that doesn’t change the fact that people like that actually exist.
Leah discussed a distinction between:
Type 1 psychopaths, incapable of feeling empathy; and
Type 2 psychopaths (or just people with an anti-social personality disorder), who are capable of empathy, loyalty, human connections and feeling genuine remorse.
She discussed a range of traits common to many type 1 psychopaths, as well as the question of to what extent psychopathic behaviour tends to be due to biological factors and to what extent it tends to be due to factors which are learned (aka the nature/nurture debate).
She then discussed the problem of trying to rehabilitate psychopaths and that there is currently no effective program of treatment to cure adult type 1 psychopaths.
Leah gave an overview of two famous studies (Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority and Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study) to emphasise the capacity of everyday people to do bad things; that “all of us have a dark side.”
The workshop notes state: “When writing a villain we don’t necessarily have to get in touch with our shadow selves, but we do have to be curious about why people do terrible things.” She suggested thinking of the natur/nurture debate and asking: “If you were raised under different circumstances is it possible you could be anti-social?”
Leah advised, “One dimensional characters are flat, have a single motivation and are easy to pigeonhole and ignore.” She advised that well-written villains should have complex motives and act in ways which can surprise a reader.
She recommended that there should be a strong reason why a main character has a goal crucial to their wellbeing and an equally strong reason for another character (who you could call the villain) to stop this goal. Another important consideration raised was what the main character stands to lose if they don’t achieve their goal. (It is also useful to consider what the villain stands to lose if they don’t achieve their goal.)
She also got us to do several exercises to help identify with what it’s like to feel strong emotions and capture details about those emotions in writing, and to imagine what it’s like to be a psychopath and capture that in writing.
Leah read from her own writing to provide practical examples of what she discussed, as well as relating ideas her characters and other fictional characters, such as Dexter Morgan (from Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, which the TV series Dexter is based on) and Hannibal Lecter.
Leah Giarratano’s workshop Writing Nasty Villains was a mix of real-life psychology and the craft of fiction to create and understand realistic characters who do bad things, drawing from her experience as a clinical psychologist, as well as how such characters fit into stories as a whole. More on Leah Giarratano and her fiction can be found at http://www.randomhouse.com.au/Author/Giarratano,%20Leah.
The Australian Literature Review