When writing a character, we strive that they be verisimilitudinous. Not realistic per se, but that their behaviour, persona, their character strike the audience as authentic for the story at hand. This can get tricky when writing the sorts of eccentric, off-the-wall characters that can make a film come alive. How do you write, for instance, a maniacal and villainous clown hellbent on blowing up two ships to prove a point?
The answer, historically, seems to have been to incorporate psychology (mostly pop-psychology, but it gets the job done).
Working from archetypes or integrating behaviours recognised as legitimate phenomena under analytical psychology can be a powerful way to elevate characters that would otherwise ring hollow to audience members. It’s important to remember that a technique like this is a guiding principle and can result in a film that paints people broadly, and without much sense, but in the realm of the obviously fictional (or even fantastical) character, results can fare better.
Consider the Batman franchise; with the latest edition in theaters now, the trend for the rogue’s gallery has continued to stray from the Caped Crusader’s camp origins into darker, and more “believable” psychological territory. In the video below, Psychology Professor and Author Dr. Travis Langley demonstrates how Batman’s crop of villains, a set of cultural artefacts most everyone is overfamiliar with and which can easily fall into cringe-inducing theatricality, come to be redefined and retooled through
various iterations to be psychologically convincing to audiences.
The guiding principle of Batman’s legion of evildoers is that they are all a little screwy, just like Bruce Wayne himself. Thus, Wired puts Dr. Langley in the unique position of offering his perspective on the many, many mental illnesses and extreme personalities at play throughout the Batman film series, ranging from black and white serials where the villains have fewer hang-ups than their wartime audiences, to Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker-portrayal’s defiance of diagnosis, to why exactly (beyond the obvious)
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze was such a missed opportunity. Even the goofiest of characters, the Penguin for instance, have their behaviour motivated from a core personality that does not waver much through the years. We know that he has what is “informally known as a Napoleon-complex”, a small man who wants to be bigger, in every way.
So, each iteration of the Penguin is obsessed with appearing as both a legitimate tycoon, and a criminal reaping ill-gotten rewards. Each depicts him as portly to take up more space, dressing ostentatiously when he can justify doing so, and striking out when he believes he is not being “accepted”. The guiding principle when writing a new iteration of the Penguin is that he is consumed with an inferiority complex.
Dr. Langley runs through plenty more great examples, though stops short of 2022’s The Batman. That’s a shame, since he’d likely have had a field day with Paul Dano’s portrayal of The Riddler.