The psychopath, sociopath or person with Antisocial Personality Disorder has for centuries been one of the most interesting subjects for creative writers. Something about their nature reliably invokes a sense of horror in the reader – perhaps the ruthlessness, perhaps the callousness, perhaps the deep and smouldering hatred for life. This article looks at how you can believably portray a psychopathic character in your own creative fiction.
It’s important to note that ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychotic’ are two entirely different things. A psychopath is seldom a madman – there is usually a distinct logic and methodology to their actions, even if those actions are considered abhorrent by the majority of people around them.
Psychopaths are primarily characterised by a lack of shame or remorse. Essentially this means that they don’t feel bad about causing suffering to other sentient beings. If they do cause suffering to another person or animal they will rarely accept that they shouldn’t have done so, and even when they do they are never sincere.
A striking lack of remorse after the psychopath did something that harmed someone might be the clue that lets other characters realise that they’re dealing with someone who is a bit different up top. The psychopath might be unaware that they’re supposed to feel remorse (depending on their level of sophistication) and may appear to become confused when another character acts as if remorse would be expected.
Lying is another essential characteristic of the psychopath. From the perspective of the author, this presents an interesting challenge, because the characters that interact with the psychopath are unlikely to realise (at least, not initially) that they are being lied to.
This isn’t just a question of telling a lot of lies. Psychopaths are good at lying as well. They stay cool when telling lies – even if initially disbelieved, and this means that the microsignals that people subconsciously use to detect liars are present less often.
A character who encountered a psychopath might find themselves slowly figuring out that they’re being lied to. They might be so taken in by the glib charm of the psychopath character that they are reluctant to accept that that character has been misleading them, and only by thinking hard about the facts do they realise that something doesn’t add up.
These two traits combine as well, in remorseless lying. The psychopath does not care about the consequences of telling lies, neither when it comes to the suffering caused or the risk of being caught out. The lack of shame means that even if they are caught with indisputable proof that they are lying, they might continue to insist that their accuser must be mistaken, possibly mentally ill, or that they should just “get over it”.
These characteristics might be of more interest to psychological fiction than a psychopath who is just a remorseless killer. Although, if they are a remorseless killer, they no doubt will have developed a fantastic web of lies to divert attention from the fact. Keep in mind that some serial killers were even able to keep their streak of murders a secret from their own wives!
Another personality trait that typifies the psychopath is a constant need for stimulation. It seems that psychopaths do not derive the same satisfaction from everyday activities that non-psychopaths do, and this has leads to an increased incidence of risk-taking behaviours, such as sexual promiscuity, violence and drug use. The psychopath tends to be impulsive, on account of that they don’t have much in the way of inhibitions.
This means that a psychopath character will almost certainly not practice meditation, for example. Neither will they be fond of long walks on the beach, hiking, chess, Test cricket, gardening etc. They wouldn’t be able to sit still for long enough to partake in pastimes such as these.
A history of irresponsibility also characterises the psychopath. It’s common for psychopaths to be incapable of holding down a stable job or relationship because of the need for constant stimulation and because their lies and callous behaviour tends to limit social opportunities. Some other characters in your story might find this history a warning sign.
Another decision that the author will have to make is whether their character is a psychopath or a sociopath. Although both conditions generally fall under the rubric of Antisocial Personality Disorder, there is a distinction in that psychopathy is innate whereas sociopathy is a learned condition from the environment.
Depending on the needs of the story, the character might have been “born bad” or they might have lost their natural empathy as a consequence of massive physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The author will have to decide this once they decide what emotional reaction they want to reader to have, because a character who has had everything good beaten out of them in childhood will be more engaging to some readers, particular those with a higher demand for psychological realism.
Taking these considerations into account when writing a psychopathic character should allow the author to make an accurate portrayal of someone with the condition while avoiding the common cliche of mindless, uncalculating sadism.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.