Practice Makes Perfect Villains

Fiction writers have an advantage in life that centers on the need to develop a rare skill for objectivity in creating a villain.

Memorable villains need to believe that the harm they’re causing is necessary and right. To accomplish this, their logic must be accessible and human. Villains can’t all be masochists and cardboard psychopaths. Even serial killers can believe they’re doing good work, or at least think the universe is a random place without right and wrong.

Having read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, I’m all about focused practice. But how do you practice objectivity?

Here’s an idea: select a highly controversial topic for which you have a strong personal bias, and see if you can make yourself realize that a decent, rational person could exist on the opposite side of the argument.

Personally, I might start with the war over vaccinations and this video…

The pediatrician on the left of the screen claims to be in the middle ground of this complex fight, catching hell from both sides. He has written a book he claims is pro-vaccination. He says he has given many vaccinations to his young patients and continues to. Yet because his book promotes temporal spacing of the inoculations, he says pro-vaccine people want his book banned.

The interviewer is fully in the anti-vaccination camp and says he’s devoted his professional life to the cause. Yet he seems supportive of the “pro-vaccine” pediatrician. Something is going on beneath the surface.

The offstage villain in the video is the CDC / mainstream medical community with their rigid vaccine schedules that seem to expand each decade, supporting a commercial industry that cannot be held liable in court for any mishaps or negative side effects of their product. That’s unique, isn’t it? Fortunately, our politicians didn’t grant Monsanto the same deal for their big product, RoundUp, touted as saving countless lives from starvation through the virtues of genetically modified crops that can tolerate glyphosate, the poison in their weed killer.

Since I’m highly disenchanted with mainstream medicine despite my degrees and indoctrination, my challenge here would be to give the “vaccine villain’s” logic and data a fair hearing, both intellectually and emotionally.

To do this, I would need to see the historic cause-of-death stats for all the relevant communicable diseases in the US prior to vaccinations. Then, to sense the emotional viewpoint of this villain, I would need to read historical accounts written by parents whose children suffered and died from the diseases in question.

Having done that, I would probably have enough objectivity to avoid ascribing two-dimensional evil to a pro-vaccination villain of a fictional tale.

But this superficial preparation wouldn’t be enough. I don’t write primarily to entertain. Wish I could, but it doesn’t hold my interest. I need to also teach. Because of this character flaw, I would strive to determine if I was placing my villain on the genuinely misinformed side of the vaccination war.

I’d have to read the relevant medical literature objectively and develop an informed opinion. My present opinion, though strongly biased, is weakly informed despite years of interest in autism. As a scientist and lifelong teacher, I need to know my biases and either abandon them or justify them with data. As a fiction writer not satisfied with entertainment, I have to do the same.

The side effect of realistic villain creation is a blessing to all who write fiction. The process, if we practice it, will force us to become skeptical of real-world character assassination, authoritative emotional claims we can’t verify, and the outraged black-and-white political reporting on all news outlets.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD


Round Characters Believe for Good Reasons


We stress the different personality types of our major characters, some of us studying personality types so our people ring true. Books like, “Please Understand Me,” are useful in this regard.

But one thing we don’t hear about is the importance of the knowledge supporting the beliefs of our characters.

You knew a guy in high school who was into conspiracy theories. He was socially awkward, smoked a lot of weed and was generally quiet until you got him started on the government, the corporations, the way they hide the truth and herd people around like sheep. Then he’s talking fast.

If you want to write this character you’ve got to read what he has read. You need to learn enough “facts” to understand his logic. If you don’t, the character can’t breathe. You’re not writing the peculiar type of truth that undergirds fiction.

When you do understand his thinking – if your bias won’t allow him to explain things plausibly, he’s still a puppet, not a real fictional character.

You have to be willing to let him speak his mind so convincingly that people reading your story may suspect that you believe the nutty stuff the guy is saying. That takes courage.

If you have a young lady who is convinced the UFO subculture is important, guess what?

You need to go there in your reading. You need to let her do her best to convince the reader she’s right. At least if she’s a major character.

My protagonist, Johanna, is so extraordinarily intelligent that she has an informed opinion on almost any subject. I have trouble letting her tell you some of the things she believes.

But her broad knowledge and off-the-chart smarts are themselves traps in a couple of ways.

First, she has a tendency to be synthetically “bigger than life.” (Unreal, Supergirl.) In a sense, I love her, so it’s difficult for me to hold back the “gifts” I want to give her.

But my gifts to her of great innate talent, like the toys we shower upon children, can ruin her.

If I’m not judicial and self-controlled, Johanna will become a non-person, just as two-dimensional as a spoiled brat standing behind his mother in line, predictable in the spectacle of his tantrum.

Secondly, reading and googling a taboo eye-roller is apt to have an influence on your own thinking. This can devastate relationships at home and at work. You can become the conspiracy theorist, the odd uncle or the weird kid at school.

If, for instance, you were to decide that your oddly interesting minor character needs to spout off on UFO’s, you must be able to support his viewpoint in a believable way. So ya gotta read the details on this “UFO crap.”

Problem is, in researching to understand the “crazy” info-motivation, you will sometimes come to question society’s normal dogma.

You will. Sometimes.

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth, which is a lot since I’m your humble and yet infallible hack writer.

If you’ve got the power within yourself, try to completely avoid having characters who believe in UFO’s, ghosts, conspiracy theories, alternate interpretations of Earth’s history, unfamiliar religions, unacceptable political views (from your support system’s perspective), demon possession… etc.

Or, if you must delve into darkness, don’t be fooled by the unrealistic notion that you’re too smart to be sucked in.

You’re not. The human process of “knowing” is unsound. Even for scientists working in narrow fields of “expertise.”

Hopefully you will be too closed-minded to drink the endless forms of Kool-Aid, but…

If you write fiction, you might not be all that closed-minded at all. You might be an open minded truth seeker with the courage to believe whatever makes sense to you, regardless of social consequences.

Fiction writers are not average, normal, comfortably superficial people.

We’re accustomed to being different. Most of us don’t have family members interested in our writing. Polite tolerance is the best support we get.

And worst of all, we care about the truth for the truth’s sake – as if the truth actually had inherent value.


So be careful. If you become interested in a fringe subject, such as UFO’s, “normal” people will treat you like an outsider.

Your boss is “normal.” Assume this and spare her the Ancient Alien rhetoric if you possibly can. Do not open yourself up to political arguments at work, no matter what amazing logical “facts” you learn. Let your characters talk to your readers about it. Let them rant.

Your mother-in-law is “normal,” too, don’t forget. Keep her on your side by tolerating the concrete subjects that fill her ISTJ heart. Forget the lecture you heard on chem-trails and the shocking stuff you read about fluoride in drinking water.

Even your spouse is going to be “normal” compared to you. Mine is, and I’m glad for it. Truly. But I don’t want to bore her to tears every time I open my mouth, so I need to care about who won “Dancing With the Stars.” And I need to say less to her about the implications of ancient rockwork in Bolivia, Peru and Egypt, the astonishingly broad spectrum of UFO believers, and the need to look beyond modern medicine for prevention of common diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

No matter how normal or fringie your support group (if you’re lucky enough to have one at all) you honestly shouldn’t allow yourself to become a crazy ranter, if you can help it. It isolates you. Isolation causes depression and anxiety.

It’s bad, umkay?

But if you are basically a crazy ranter at heart, enjoy it and save the world. The people worth having as friends may possibly accept you for who you are. If not, at least you have accepted yourself. That’s got to bring a smile to God’s face.

One last thought: when you read the ultimate “facts” on any subject, realize that you are believing them almost entirely because you trust the source (in 99.9% of situations).

It’s trust (faith), not hard data, that we base our beliefs on. Scientists don’t want to admit it, but in five hundred years, scientists will look back at certain “facts” of our era, such as the supposedly mindless origin of DNA, and they will scratch their heads the way we do when we stand on a beach, look at the curved blue horizon and try to imagine how a person could ever have thought that the world was flat.

In developing all of our opinions (science, art, politics, religion, sports, music), we are not forming truly scientific, primary-source beliefs based upon reproducible data and rigorous repeated testing. We are trusting someone else. Someone else who hasn’t done it either, except in the rarest of circumstances.

This reality needs to be clear to more of us in our polarized society. Objectivity matters. Knowing when you have a little objectivity is key to rational discussions. Recognizing and admitting when you don’t is even more important.

All of us take a position on polarizing subjects by faith in someone we trust. We often feel sure, but we’re not objectively sure of most debated things.

To think otherwise is denial.

Almost everything you believe falls into the category of “taken by faith” because you cannot personally reproduce the work that went into uncovering and interpreting the data in any field (other than your own niche of hard science if you have one. And even then, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” science, while subjective is foundational to the search for truth.

And even the notion that well-structured studies with statistical significance provide the best route to truth is a Western assumption that needs awareness of its context and deserves skepticism – in my humble and yet infallible opinion.


In virtually all your research into the fringes – sometimes necessary reading – any new opinions you might adopt are based on anecdotes that may not be worth ruining your reputation over.

Or maybe your interpretation of things matters more to you than your reputation.

I tend to be that way.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog ( Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.