5 tips to writing more believable bad guys based on Psychology.
1. Authority figures are incredibly powerful: The Milgram Experiment (1963) set out to test whether or not "just following orders" and obedience to authority figures was a justifiable defense for Nazi soldiers who helped commit genocide. The experiment showed that people are likely to follow an authority figure's orders even to the point of killing another person simply because an authority figure told them to do it. The reason for this is because we expect the authority figure to take responsibility for whatever it is they've asked us to do. When people feel like they are responsible for their own actions they're far less likely to listen to other people's suggestions. So, if you have a character that's going to stand up to an authority figure, make sure you take the time to show why.
Example: In Legend by Marie Lu June is a soldier who follow's the Republic's orders without question. She believes that Day is the criminal that the Republic tells her he is and follows their orders to hunt him down. June remains obedient to the Republic for most of the book. It takes a number of events for her to start questioning her authority figures. Lu also sets the scene to show why June is later able to break away from these authority figures by portraying June as a girl willing to break the rules to prove her worth to the Republic. She gives her a fierce independent streak which makes it believable when she later disobeys the Republic. At the end of the book, June learns new information that sheds lights on the Republic and she's reminded that Day is going to die because she turned him in. Feeling responsible for his situation she sets out to rescue him.
2. What we think we're supposed to do plays a big role in how we act: The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) sought to explore the cause of brutality against prisoners by their guards. It tested how quickly regular people would conform to the stereotypical roles of prisoner or guard. This experiment demonstrated that though regular people were randomly assigned the roles of either "prisoner" or "guard" they quickly adapted the characteristics of their roles. Guards for example, began treating the prisoner's as criminals though they had entered the experiment the same as the guards had. The guards became more aggressive and the prisoners more submissive. A clear divide formed between these two groups simply because they were given specific roles. The experiment showed that much of our behavior is a result of conforming to social expectations based on the roles we play in our lives.
Example: In The Hunger Games the people of Panem watch a group of twelve teenagers kill one another as a source of entertainment. Though this act is barbaric, it's considered normal for the people of Panem. It's expected that these twelve children will participate in the Hunger Games and fight until death.
3. People generally seek instant gratification: When given the option of receiving a reward immediately or waiting to receive it in the future, our instincts push us toward instant gratification. Delayed gratification, or holding out for a better reward is something we learn over time as we gain more self-control. Authors often like to have their villains be a few steps ahead of their lead character. This is, after all, what keeps the plot moving forward. Be careful not to have your villain planning too far ahead or your reader will find them unbelievable.
Example: In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy has a ridiculous amount of self-control and sets up an elaborate (spoiler) ruse to frame her husband for her own murder. Amy is a sociopath and capable of looking ahead and waiting for delayed gratification. Most villains are not true sociopaths, and most people are not capable of planning things out to this degree. And, even Amy changes her plans at the end of the book when she decides she no longer wants to see Nick end up in prison. If your character is motivated by vengeance it will be more believable if they act quickly. The more time it takes your character to get their reward (vengeance) the more likely they are to change their mind before they receive this pay off -- whether that means they give up, come to their senses, or find forgiveness.
4. Villains should have a reason for doing the bad things they do. They need to be motivated by something. People justify the things they do. Basically, we want our how we act to be in agreement with what we believe. If we act in a way that disagrees with our beliefs we deal with a type of mental stress called cognitive dissonance. People generally don't like mental stress so, when our action and our beliefs are not in agreement we seek justification to remedy the disagreement. This would be like someone who insists that cigarettes won't harm them because their "grandfather smoked until he was 90 and died of old age." A person who says this probably knows that cigarettes are bad for them, but because they smoke they feed the need to justify it.
Example: In the Lux novels by Jennifer Armentrout Blake betrays Katy, handing her over to Daedalus. Though Blake cares for Katy and knows he's putting her in a position to basically be tortured, he justifies betraying her by believing that it was the only way to rescue his friend, Chris, and later it's shown that he believes it was for the greater good.
5. Discrimination, racism and hate are learned behaviors: The Stanford Prison Experiment does a good job showing how the power that came with being a "guard" affected the actions of the participants and even how the "guards" felt about the "inmates". Jane Elliot's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise also does a good job of emphasizing this point. Her experiment, where children were told that certain kids in their class were superior to the others based on the color of their eyes, basically showed how discrimination and racism are viewpoints we are taught the believe.
Example: There are many books that explore discrimination, racism, sexism, and class and you can check some of them out here. One novel that particularly demonstrates Jane Elliot's experiment well is The Selection by Kiera Cass. In the Selection not only are people's worth determined by the caste they're born into, but so is their occupation. One's are royalty and eights are "untouchable." The book's main character, America Singer, is a five and as such must choose to work in a profession related to the arts. Like in Jane Elliot's experiment, people look at others differently based on what they're told to think of them.
If you liked this post, check out Psychology Tips for Better Writing (Part 1: Believable Characters)