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Until now the archetypes I’ve talked about have been heroes. Well technically some of them like the Rogue Cop and the Assassin are antiheroes but they’re all the protagonist. So how about a little love for the villain? In ancient myth the hero’s opponents are often pretty simple monsters, a dragon or a cyclops. But the need for character makes the best villains more interesting. Grendel isn’t exactly a fully fleshed character by modern stories but he does have a backstory and a mother and even though there’s no doubt they’re the bad guys the poet gives us a sense of theiry struggle and pain. In modern stories we have a bit of a problem though. Most people don’t wake up to go fight monsters, or at least not fantastical ones. The cops don’t get a whole lot of calls for minotaurs running around. There are of course human monsters; genocidal heavies like Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin. Story wise though these are army versus army type affairs. Most of the grunts who (heroically it’s true) took fortress Europe never set eyes on Hitler. But in a smaller, more personal story we need a more personal villain and we’ve got one who shows up a lot.
The Suave Pshycopath. It’s true that the Suave Pshycho is evil. He may be the head of a criminal organization or perhaps a serial killer. But man is this guy urbane! He’s most likely very well spoken with impeccable manners. It’s quite likely that he listens to a lot of classical music and can definitely quote Shakespeare as well as more obsure poets. If circumstances permit (he’s not in prison) he’s well dressed and a gourmande. He’s probably a handsome chap. And yes he’s pretty much always a he.
The prototype for the Suave Pshycho is probably Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes is urbane, witty, upperclass and has a keen mind versed in a wide range of topics. And so his archrival must be of a similar type. A professor of mathematics with a keen mind that in this case is turned toward the building and running of an extensive crime syndicate. Plus they’re both British so you know they’re terribly polite.
Despite his ruinous hatred of the Great Detective though it might be argued that Moriarty is not truly psychopathic. There are other examples, the Bond villains tend to fall into this type, Hans from Die Hard is another but we all know who the gold standard is. Hannibal the Cannibal. Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He is a monster. His own doctor says so. He lives in a dungeon, a cave worthy of any monster out of myth. Yet he’s soft spoken. He’s polite. He sketches. He even has perfect posture. He’s charming and in fact he’s fascinating.
And that’s the whole point. When we have to look for our monsters in ourselves we don’t like what we see and we shouldn’t. So maybe we make it look a little better. Good looking on the outside but also someone who you’d like to invite to a party. Someone who excels at dinner conversation. Why? Well here’s where it gets complicated because I think it’s more than wanting to take the sting out of the monster’s actions. Lecter is brilliant and sophisticated but that makes him more terrifying, not less. He’s not a foul smelling schizophrenic talking to himself in an alley. None of us would go into that alley but most of us would be thrilled to be invited to Dr. Lecter’s house (before we knew about all his hobbies).
When the Pshyco is suave we can’t tell friend from foe. A frightening thought by itself but there’s also the horror of knowing him afterhis true nature is revealed. All the times you were alone with him in his office. Maybe you helped him pick out a credenza for his well appointed study. Maybe you went on a date with him. And that’s the other side. We make the Suave Pshycopath charming so we can talk to him but it also absolves us of guilt. How could anyone have known? He was the perfect gentleman!
And for some reason they are gentlemen. The closest female equivalent I can think of are the great femme fatales in noir. They’re dangerous, smart, and fascinating but they’re not quite the same. For one thing, their allure is usually overtly sexual and the Suave Psychopath tends to use a gentlemanly charm that lacks sexual menace (Patrick Bateman from American Psychobeing a notable exception). And the target of the femme fatale usually has a good idea she’s trouble, he just can’t help himself (usually because of the aforementioned sexuality).
Of course when the Suave Psychopath is a serial killer is when he’s most modern. If the serial killer isn’t wholly a product of the modern age his proliferation certainly is. So are many of the investigative techniques that law enforcement use to track and catch them (in fact FBI Profiler is almost an archetype). Despite the monstrous, heinous acts of these defective humans and the workmanlike way that cops catch them; we want to glamorize. If you don’t believe me consider Saucy Jack. A real serial killer who in retrospect shadowed cases to come. Modern profiling techniques suggest that the Ripper was a man poorly educated, barely literate, whose first language was probably not English, had a deep resentment/hatred for women, lived in the area where the murders took place, was a poor working class man (perhaps a butcher), and it was likely the police had interviewed him but not charged him. Yet still movies portray a handsome man in evening dress, top hat, cape, and white gloves that will soon be red with blood.
Whether it’s the allure of the dark side of human nature or the wish to ignore the mundane aspect of murder and death I’m not sure. It’s poor police work but the good news for Storytellers is it makes a great character. Actors don’t want to play mustache twirlers and audiences don’t want to watch them. But a well done Suave Psychopath is impossible not to watch.