Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching with horror as Mr. Putin’s army invades Ukraine. It appears to be a senseless act, mindless in its wanton brutality. I’d never get away with this in a story, is a thought that has frequently recurred. In fiction, it has to make sense.
Putin was warned, and with each new development, he’s warned again. He had ample opportunities to turn back from this course. Now his country reels under the opprobrium and sanctions the world has leveled at them, with more to come. Is he, himself, feeling the pinch yet? Has it penetrated to that man way down there 20 feet away at the other end of his table, that he’s just joined the ranks of history’s most despised villains? Hard to say. But other Russians are certainly feeling it.
His military strategy basically sucks. Even his soldiers are conflicted, when they’re allowed a glimpse of what the rest of the world sees. This invasion is even more ill-conceived, ill-planned, and short-sighted than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But somehow it has to make sense to Putin, or he wouldn’t be doing it.
Villains Think They’re the Hero
One of the first rules of villain-construction that fiction writers learn is that the villain in a realistic story almost never sets outto be a villain. They think they’re the one with the clearest vision, the true grasp of how the world works or how things should be. Whatever they do, no matter how bizarre, it has to make sense to them.
This is essential, to support the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Cartoon villains in a parody may band together in a Guild of Calamitous Intent, create an organization like COBRA, or join forces in Skeletor’s castle. But nobody does this in real life (no, not even the Trilateral Commission or the Elders of Zion).
When I look at popular media I also see another glaring disconnect. Other than a general mistrust of “people who are smarter,” I’ve often wondered why the trope of the evil, mad scientist persists so stubbornly. Especially since the greater dangers in real life tend to come from people being irresponsible with political—not scientific—power. (Like You-Know-Who-tin).
Why does popular media keep giving our kids villains like the Smurfs’ Wizard Gargamel, Big Hero 6’s Professor Callaghan, or other (anti-intellectual) bad guys when real-life bad guys are of a completely different sort?
Why do we Cling to the Mad Scientist?
Fictional “mad scientists” descend from Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, and other, similar bogeymen from an earlier century. Individual scientists of today may be arrogant or have a “god complex” that results in grief and pain. But the really dangerous people are the ones who want to be (or are) dictators in their spheres of influence. They generally have ambitions much grander than dominating just one lab or hospital.
But here’s the thing. Back in Mary Shelley’s or H. G. Wells’ day, you had to have a certain level of wealth, privilege, and thereby political power via your caste or social class, to get any kind of education at all. (Wells’ family was less exalted than Shelley’s, but he joined a more privileged, educated class as his career prospered). It may be that the “scientist” part got more attention because cultural blindness made “undeservedly rich and powerful” invisible to the trope’s progenitors.
When a person is determined that “it has to make sense,” they come up with explanations that fit their biases. Villainizing the intellectual was easier and far, far safer than calling out the undeservedly powerful. Especially because they were part of that undeservedly powerful class (or wanted to be), and thus were blind to it.
Questioning Undeserved Privilege, and Other Uncomfortable Ideas
We don’t have any excuses today. If we do not recognize the existence of undeserved privilege and its corrosive effects after the worldwide awakening in 2020, that makes two things clear. (1) We are among the privileged group (or we’d definitely realize it exists). And (2) we’re willfully limiting our inputs to head off and eliminate any such troubling realization.
It’s frightening and threatening to question one’s own place in society. That tends to shake one’s sense of self. It’s equally scary to question one’s pet political ideas. We like our comfortable boxes, where everything makes sense. Well, makes sense as long as we don’t probe too deeply, or ask too many worrying questions. It has to make sense to us that we’re in our position, whatever it might be, so we frame it however we can to make it make sense.
All that said, it’s much easier and more comfortable just to blame all the ills of the world on that guy over there who’s too smart for his own good. He’s probably thinking subversive thoughts right now.
Is Actual Evil . . . Boring?
I believe there’s also another reason why a storyteller might be drawn to a villain of the Evil Mad Scientist variety. That’s because the Evil Mad Scientist, to be true to form, is also a genius. An evil one, of course. But one who is likely to have a variety of clever tricks up his or her lab-coated sleeve. Of course, I’m a fine one to criticize this trope! XK9 protagonist Rex’s primary antagonist in my novel What’s Bred in the Bone was an evil (greedy and self-centered, but not really “mad”) scientist named Dr. Ordovich.
Bottom-line, though. The protagonist must outsmart the antagonist. The outsmarting part must be hard to do, or where’s the fun in reading about or watching it? It has to make sense that the villain is intelligent and cagey, because if the villain is your ordinary stupid criminal, there’s no challenge for the hero.
And, can we talk? In factual reality, criminals are often not terribly bright. Ask any police detective. People commit crimes of passion or greed, and they often don’t cover their tracks very well because they didn’t think ahead before they acted. Or, really, think at all. They may get away with their crimes for a while, but if they do it’s likely because they lucked out or somebody on the investigation messed up. All too often, it’s both.
Criminals and Despots fall into Predictable Patterns
Most people have heard the phrase, “follow the money.” And it’s true that the spouse or significant other is frequently the murderer (consider the 2021 case of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie). The Jack El-Hai quote above points to the dawning realization in the 19th century that criminal behavior had a psychological aspect to it. Current law enforcement practice recognizes patterns of criminal behavior that often is linked to greed, strong emotions, or other related motivations.
Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I’d like to counter that blanket statement. There’s a consistent set of factors that characterize dysfunctional relationships and families (which I’d call “unhappy”). In the same way, there are several common factors that characterize much of what we define as criminal behavior. Despots and dictators fall into patterns, too. For case studies in point, watch the PBS series, The Dictator’s Playbook.
It’s not enough to say “They’re crazy. Who knows what they’ll do?” If that’s the extent of our thinking about it, criminal behavior seems terrifyingly random (and doesn’t generally “ring true” for readers). But people who do strange, horrifying, and vicious things usually have what they think are good reasons. They are delusional reasons, based on distorted understandings of reality. But it has to make sense to them, or they wouldn’t do it. Writers who want to portray either criminals or dictators need to study up on the patterns, and how they make sense to those who fall into them.
In Fiction it Has to Make Sense
Stories live or die by the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. If I want my readers to believe in sapient police dogs with the ability to talk, I’d better give them good, internally-consistent reasons to accept the idea. And if my stories are to resonate with readers, they need to offer something deeper than novelty.
We read stories and we write them, tell them, perform them, sing them to fill the age-old need to make sense of the world. Tales from ancient religious texts or stories ripped from today’s headlines, they all have that same goal. They all have been told to help us make sense of things.
Even when things don’t make sense, as in the case of Mr. Putin’s brutal, violent, counterproductive war, we resort to fiction. We tell ourselves stories about how it might make sense, if only we knew more. It has to make sense, you see, or it messes with us. So we use fiction to fix it.
We have a lot of images to credit, in this post – and for once, not a single one is a montage that Jan made! (well, she did kind of over-achieve on that score last week). Some of the sources for illustrated quotes are longtime favorites, such as AZ Quotes (thanks for Mark Twain’s words and photo) or Brainy Quote (thanks for the quotes from George R. R. Martin and Tom Clancy!). We’ve also previously used images from Quotestats (quoting children’s author Frances Hardinge). But we’re new to ReadersHook (thanks for the quote from Criss Jami!)
A Quote With a Story Behind It
We’ve used imagery from Wise Famous Quotes before. Thanks go to them this time for the quote from Jack El-Hai! But a bit longer story than usual must accompany that one. Thinking “it has to make sense,” Jan was curious to know who “he” was, at the start of the quote. She eventually tracked down the entire passage from which it was taken. It comes from a book titled The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, about Hermann Göering and Dr. Douglas M. Kelley.
The “he” of the quote is a 19th-century criminologist named Cesare Lombroso. As author Jack El-Hai notes in the full passage, Lombroso was often very far from correct in many of his understandings. He embraced phrenology, the idea of the ”born criminal,” and distinguished between “natural women” and “criminal women” (prostitutes), for three “biggies.” But in this case he made an important linkage between psychology and criminal behavior.
The Three Non-Quote Images
The photo of Mr. Putin’s long, long table actually comes to us from the Russian-government-controlled Sputnik News Agency and one of their photographers named Alexei (or Aleksey) Nikolsky (so identified by D. Hunter Schwartz on Yello). We also thank The Wall Street Journal, which is where we acquired it.
After a fruitless search for images from the Dictators’ Playbook series, Jan found an informative presentation on the patterns and Techniques of Dictators via Slide Player. Its author, Frieda Lilli Kohl, possibly is a history teacher/professor, but she doesn’t have an active online presence under that name beyond this presentation, as far as Jan could find. We thank her and all our sources!