Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Wretched hives of scum and villainy

Being a fiction writer, I think about villains a lot.

Of course, the proper word is "antagonist," but "villain" is a lot more evocative, bringing to mind such characters as the the dastardly Snidely Whiplash from the brilliant Adventures of Dudley Doright of the Canadian Mounties.

Left to right: Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Doright, Fair Nell Fenwick, and Dudley's horse, who is named... Horse.  They just don't write comedy like that any more.

One of the things that I've always tried to do with the villains in my own novels is to make them three-dimensional.  I don't like stories where the villains are just evil because they're evil (unless it's for comedic effect, like Mr. Whiplash).  My college creative writing teacher, Dr. Bernice Webb (one of the formative influences on my writing) told us, "Every villain is the hero of his own story," and that has stuck with me.

Of course, that doesn't mean you need to sympathize with the motivation the villain has, whether it be money, sex, power, revenge, or whatever.  For example, I find this villain one of the most deeply repulsive characters ever invented, because what motivates her is pure sadism:

But it works because we've all known people like her, who use their power to hurt people simply because they can, who take pleasure in making their subordinates' lives miserable -- and because of that twist in their personality, a frightening number of them become bosses, teachers, and political leaders.

The reason this whole villainous topic comes up is because of a study published in the journal Psychological Science this week called "Can Bad Be Good?  The Attraction of a Darker Self," by Rebecca Krause and Derek Rucker, both of Northwestern University.  In a fascinating study of the responses of over 235,000 test subjects to fictional characters, Krause and Rucker found that people are sometimes attracted to villains -- and the attraction is stronger if the villain contains positive characteristics they share.

For example, Lord Voldemort was ruthless and cruel, but he also was intelligent and ambitious -- character traits that in a better person are considered virtuous.  The Joker is an essentially amoral character who has no problem killing people, but his daring, his spontaneity, his quirkiness, and his sense of humor are all attractive characteristics.  Professor Moriarty is an out-and-out lunatic -- especially as played by Andrew Scott in the series Sherlock -- but he's brilliant, clever, inventive, and fearless.

And what Krause and Rucker found was that spontaneous and quirky people (as measured by personality assessments) tended to like characters like The Joker, but not characters like the humorless Lord Voldemort.  Despite his being essentially evil, Moriarty appealed to people who like puzzles and intellectual games -- but those same people weren't so taken with the more ham-handed approach of a character like Darth Vader.

"Given the common finding that people are uncomfortable with and tend to avoid people who are similar to them and bad in some way, the fact that people actually prefer similar villains over dissimilar villains was surprising to us," said study co-author Rucker, in an interview in the Bulletin for the Association of Psychological Science.  "Honestly, going into the research, we both were aware of the possibility that we might find the opposite."

What seems to be going on here is that we can admire or appreciate a villain who is similar to us in positive ways -- but since the character is fictional, it doesn't damage our own self-image as it would if the villain was a real person harming other real people, or (worse) if we shared the villain's negative traits as well.

"Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves," said study lead author Rebecca Krause.  "When people feel protected by the veil of fiction, they may show greater interest in learning about dark and sinister characters who resemble them."

Which makes me wonder about myself, because my all-time favorite villain is Missy from Doctor Who.  

Okay, she does some really awful things, is erratic and unpredictable and has very little concern about human life -- but she's brilliant, and has a wild sense of humor, deep curiosity about all the craziness that she's immersed in, and poignant grief over the loss of her home on Gallifrey.  Played by the stupendous Michelle Gomez, Missy is a complex and compelling character I just love to hate.

What that says about me, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

On the other hand, I still fucking loathe Dolores Umbridge.  That woman deserved to get eaten, one bite at a time, by Hagrid's hippogriff Buckbeak.  Being sent to Azkaban at the end of the last movie was too good a fate for her.


Finding a person who is both an expert in an arcane field like quantum physics, and is also able to write lucidly about it for the interested layperson, is rare indeed.  Such a person is Sean Carroll, whose books From Eternity to Here, The Particle at the End of the Universe, and The Big Picture explore such ideas as the Big Bang, the Higgs boson, and what exactly time is -- and why it seems to flow in only one direction.

In his latest book, Something Deeply Hidden, Carroll looks not only at the non-intuitive world of quantum physics, but at the problem at the heart of it -- the "collapse of the wave function," how a reality that is a field of probabilities (experimental data agrees with quantum theory to an astonishing degree on this point) somehow converts to a reality with definitive outcomes when it's observed.  None of the solutions thus proposed, Carroll claims, are really satisfying -- so physicists are left with a dilemma, a theory that has been experimentally verified to a fare-thee-well but still has a giant gaping unexplained hole at its center.

Something Deeply Hidden is an amazing read, and will fascinate you from page 1 until you close the back cover.  It will also repeatedly blow your mind in its description of a universe that doesn't behave at all like what common sense says it should.  And Sean Carroll is exactly the author to navigate these shark-infested waters.  This is a book you don't want to miss.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. As much as I like Buckbeak, I don't want him to have a stomach ache. I say we feed Dolores to her cats! :P