When I was a kid, heroes were heroes and you knew it. They wore white, told the truth and fought for right, all the time. Villains really weren’t that important. They only existed in order for the hero to have something to fight.
Think about the Lord of the Rings. The side plots and subtext might brim with moral ambiguity and struggle, the main story line is pretty crystal clear. Sauron is evil embodied and his primary servants, the orcs are little more than beasts for the heroes to fight. Aragorn is the ideal king reborn and the hobbits are as good as a fantasy culture can come.
Tolkien’s legions of copy cats took it to another level. Fantasy book shelves filled with stories of brave knights fighting orcs, trolls and other evil denizens. Neither side thought much about their morality. The knights never behaved in ways that made you doubt their goodness, nor the orcs (or whatever) in ways that made you wonder if there was a goodness in them. By the time I was in my teens, I had read dozens of books along those lines.
I was growing up and so was the fantasy genre around me. Throughout my teens I discovered more complex, less heroic heroes. The First Sword of Shannara stuck close to the fantasy genre formula but as the series grew things changed. In one of the books, the druid Allanon tricks one of Shea’s descendants into sacrificing themselves to become the new magic tree that protects the realm, an underhanded trick that infuriates the main character and Gandalf would never have stooped to, but it made sense in that world. The White Gold Wielder (Thomas Covenant series) introduced me to one of my first true anti-heroes, a truly unlikeable leper who was accidentally thrown into a magical world and cast as its savior, despite his own wishes on the subject. The age of gritty magical realism had dawned.
Sorry, Game of Thrones fans, George R. R. Martin did not create the concept. He has, however, taken the idea to its logical conclusion. Early in the story we meet The Hound, a vicious soldier and anti-hero who hates knights because for all their holy vows, they are just killers in armor. As the story progresses we not only learn more about why he feels that way, we learn he’s mostly right. The vast majority of characters in the books are unlikeable, vicious and cruel.
Don’t get me wrong, they are well written and compelling. As we learn more and more about their backstories, we start to understand why they are the way they are. In some cases, we feel more sympathy for them. In other cases, we still cheer their bitter end. Its an engrossing series that forces you to keep reading.
At times it’s too much. Not in the I-can’t-take-it sort of way (though it’s close, sometimes, in that way too) but more in a I’m-having-trouble-suspending-disbelief sort of way. Seriously, is it possible that the entire isle of Westeros is filled with psychopaths and pathological liars? At times it seems so.
I was reading an article recently about psychopaths. Psychopaths and sociopaths are pop psychology terms that aren’t well defined and definitions may vary. In the psychiatric field we use the term anti-social personality disorder (ASPD).
Anti-social doesn’t refer to a lack of desire to be social, but rather an inability to form lasting social bonds due a lack of empathy. Poor empathy means that anti-social people don’t identify with the feelings of others. In the most extreme cases this can make them capable of committing atrocities with little or no remorse. They are often referred to as psychopaths in that case. More pedestrian and mundane cases of anti-social personality disorder shows itself in people who lie, manipulate, cheat and threaten to get their needs met with little or no regard for the consequences for the ones they are lying to, cheating or threatening.
A disorder in the psychiatric sense, merely means a condition that significantly interferes with life. ASPD sufferers have a hard time keeping a job, staying out of trouble with the law or keeping any sort of long term relationship going. Risk taking behavior combined with poor relationships puts anti-social personalities at a high risk for substance abuse, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Professional estimate the number of anti-social personalities around 3% of the population. To put that in perspective, studies put the gay male population around 6% and the transgender population less than one percent. The rule that you probably have one somewhere in your family is probably true of anti-socials as well LGBT people.
As anyone who works in mental health knows, a small percentage of the population can make a huge difference. ASPD individuals tend to stand out, both in psych and in the general population. A near brush with one can have lasting impact on one’s life and color one’s view of the world.
ASPD in Game of Thrones
There are three things that would greatly increase the number of anti-socials in a world like Game of Thrones. There are a couple important things that would greatly limit them.
A medieval world like Westeros is, in many ways, an anti-social playground. Most anti-socials are working at a fairly simple level of moral thinking, rewards and punishment. In a world with no central authority to punish them, they would run rampant, doing as they please. If they are lucky enough to be large and good at fighting, think of The Mountain, there would be almost no end to their cruelty.
In our society there is a not so subtle distinction between anti-social personality disorder and anti-social personality. A disorder means that it interferes with living your life in some significant way. Many in our society might have some anti-social traits but realize at some point that if they act on them in certain ways, they will get in trouble with the law, or lose an important relationship. So they rein it in. For them, it’s not a disorder.
In a medieval world the rules are different, and so to is the need to rein in these tendencies. Perhaps a number of law abiding citizens would turn into bloodthirsty psychopaths in that world. Who knows how many? A world where anti-social traits make sense would see a rise in such people, surely.
Thirdly, there are a number of other conditions that might appear like ASPD, especially if untreated, as they would be in a medieval world. The number of psychopathic assholes in games of thrones and the number of, if not random, sudden, bouts of violence bothered me until I realized one thing. These knights are running around in metal helms hitting each other. They are constantly being exposed to killing and violence. The rate of traumatic head injuries and PTSD would have to be astronomical. With no mental health system to speak of, wild mood swings, angry outbursts over small slights and a cycle of escalating violence makes sense in both cases.
There are two factors that would reduce the number of ASPD individuals in a society like Westeros. The laws of Westeros are brutal and quickly enforced. Many ASPD individuals have a history of brushes with the law, and in Westeros your first encounter with the law is likely to be your last. Royalty, and most of the characters are royal in some sense of the word, would protect the person to a degree but ASPD individuals would likely have a high turnover rate in any medieval world.
There are two important disadvantages of anti-social personalities that would show themselves in a medieval world, an apocalypse or anywhere else in literature where these individuals play a significant role. They tend to be grandiose and over estimate their own abilities and they tend to be impulsive. They overreach and that is frequently their downfall. Men like The Mountain might be the ultimate badass in armor, but you would expect that sooner or later they’ll take their armor off and some opportunist would put a dagger between their ribs or something.
Psychopaths and writers
What does this mean for writers? Anti-social characters can be fun to write. There’s a vicarious freedom in writing a character who just doesn’t give a shit, who will say or do whatever comes to mind.
Populating a world with them takes a bit more balance. Too few and your work might come across as too idyllic, too many and it isn’t believable. Most people feel empathy, even if their life has been twisted or they’ve experienced significant trauma. They pause before killing. They think, worry about the consequences for others. They create relationships and those relationships mitigate violence.
Psychopaths make easy villains, sometimes too easy. It’s cliche to make your villain simply evil for it’s own sake. Remember, every character has motivations of their own. Every character truly believes they are the hero of their story. Game of Thrones does this well, even though many (too many in my opinion) of the characters meet the definition of a psychopath, they all have deeper motivations than just being evil.
And finally remember the pretorian guard. I wish more writers would remember the pretorian guard. The pretorian guard protected the Roman Emperors, most of the time. Whenever an emperor started acting in ways that threatened the realm, or the life of the guard themselves, they often went along or even instigated assassinations and coups. The same dynamic will appear frequently around anti-social leaders, when their grip on sanity starts to slip, other folks will want a different leader by any means necessary. These may often be lead by normal men, otherwise loyal followers, who see the leader as a loose cannon, as much a threat to them as too the enemy.