CJ Lyons, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-seven novels, discusses her new book Fight Dirty and why we love bad guys.
Why are so many of us drawn to the dark side of life for our entertainment? We devour serial killers, blood thirsty villains, and homicidal maniacs like they’re tasty treats, constantly on the hunt for more twisted, cunning, and diabolical crimes to plunge into.
If someone does all the wrong things for all the right reasons, does that make them evil? Does it matter what their intentions are if innocents suffer? What if their actions serve a greater good?
Serial killer, Dexter Morgan, -from the show Dexter- justifies his killing sprees by the fact that he lives by a code instilled in him by his police officer father. According to this code, he only kills victims who are vicious killers targeting innocents. In other words, villains so heinous that in comparison, Dexter himself is on the side of angels.
Of course, that’s all smoke and mirrors. Like any good sociopath, Dexter twists his father’s code to suit his own needs. It becomes an excuse, a way to justify Dexter’s bloodlust rather than to truly rehabilitate Dexter…until Dexter’s perfect sociopathic existence begins to crack, allowing a few real emotions to surface. Never guilt, of course, but during the course of the TV show (which differs from the books), he finds himself swayed by affection for his sister, his wife, and finally his son.
He’s Pinocchio, yearning to become human, and with the help of his loved ones, eventually gets close. And during his struggles we, the audience, can’t help but cheer him on.
Another famous sociopath who has earned a place in the hearts of millions is Hannibal Lecter.
Yes, Hannibal is a fiend. His goal in life is to rid the world of those who he feels are ugly and inferior—and with an ego the size of his, that's 99.9% of the population.
But Hannibal has a secret desire, one that Jack Crawford exploits when he sends Will Graham and Clarice Starling to Hannibal in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.
Hannibal wants to kill. But he needs to be loved. He's searching for a partner, someone he can care for, protect, mentor, respect.
Aren’t we all? By endowing this fiendish killer who in his mind is doing all the right things for all the right reasons, we can’t help but feel a touch of kinship at the primal, universal need driving his actions.
Both Dexter and Hannibal are sociopaths—as are about 4% of the real world population. Sociopaths are known for their charm, impulsiveness, need for constant stimulation, and lack of anxiety about the consequences of their actions. They make for excellent surgeons, spies, trial lawyers, and police officers—any occupation where their sense of self aggrandizement and need for power is satisfied.
An interesting twist on this paradox is Sherlock Holmes. Who didn’t smile when the BBC’s latest incarnation of Sherlock proudly proclaimed he was a highly functioning sociopath?
Realizing that his lack of conscience and empathy impede his ability to do what he loves most: solving crimes no one else was genius enough to solve, he recruits his own “angel on his shoulder” in Dr. Watson.
Watson may not have a lot to contribute to Holmes’ ability to outwit his foes, but he does act as a guide as Holmes travels this oh-so-boring world filled with “tiny little people with tiny little brains.” He helps Holmes to avoid succumbing to the temptation of turning vigilante or worse. Without Watson, Holmes would be no different than his nemesis, Moriarty.
It’s this delicious tug-o-war, revealing the hard work it takes a true sociopath to avoid temptation and fight against their inner need of instant gratification, that makes for wonderful conflict and allows the audience to both want Holmes to succeed while simultaneously feeling sorry for how empty he really is as a human.
I’ve tried to instill this same tension in my new Renegade Justice series featuring fifteen-year-old sociopath Morgan Ames. In the first book, FIGHT DIRTY, Morgan’s serial killer father, the only role model she’s ever had, is now imprisoned for his crimes. Morgan realizes she’ll do anything to stay out of prison and preserve her freedom, even give up killing—the only skill she has.
She’s torn between her own violent impulses and her desire to avoid prison and so turns to help from a VA trauma counselor whose wife was one of the FBI agents responsible for Morgan’s father’s capture. As she struggles with her own true nature, she realizes there are plenty of people around her who are just as evil, if not worse.
How far will she go to stop them without jeopardizing her own freedom, if not her life? When is it okay to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons?