Writing the Narcissist

Portraying believable narcissistic characters in your creative writing poses a set of challenges that are similar to those posed by writing psychopathic ones. This is because both types of characters are extremely selfish, but there are many differences nonetheless. This article looks at the typical qualities of the narcissist so that a creative writer can most realistically portray such a character.

In that the narcissist is arrogant, self-absorbed and exploitative they are similar to the psychopath. Where they are different is that the psychopath seems dead inside to those that really know them, whereas the narcissist is full of emotions and life.

For example, narcissists are highly prone to strong feelings of envy. If the protagonist of your story achieved a major personal milestone, and received adulation from all around them, this could be the plot point that drove a secondary narcissist character into action.

That character might feel so bitter about the positive attention received by your protagonist that they began to scheme to bring them down. This could result in anything from gossip, to spreading false rumours, to a false accusation or even to violence. The more likely it is that the narcissist would step into the shoes of the protagonist if they took them down, the more strongly the narcissist will be motivated.

Narcissists also have a marked tendency towards magical thinking. If the narcissist makes a mistake, or lets someone down, or has an embarrassing failure of some kind, they are likely to use all kinds of implausible and bizarre explanations to escape any feeling of shame. Often they will simply distort reality rather than admit to being at fault for anything, and distortions of reality can lead to all manner of problems.

They are also likely to project their failures onto others, as a way of dealing with the internal feeling of shame. They are extremely reluctant to admit to either failure or weakness, and experience admitting such things as very humiliating. An intelligent character will be able to use this tendency as a way of determining the narcissist’s secrets, because they tend to accuse other people of what they themselves are guilty of.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the narcissist is grandiosity, which manifests as a deep sense of superiority. This frequently becomes difficult for other characters in short order, because in the mind of the narcissist this sense of superiority gives them the right to treat others with contempt or disdain.

For this reason, narcissists tend to upset other characters. The more narcissistic those other characters are, the more they are likely to get upset – which is why it’s often dynamite when two narcissists meet. The coming together of two narcissist characters could make a fitting climax to any story or comedy.

Similar to the psychopath, the narcissist is capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in other characters. These other characters are bound to feel that the narcissistic character is arrogant and rude, and the narcissistic tendency to be completely oblivious to the damage they cause only makes it more aggravating.

The narcissist is also capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in themselves. Not being the centre of attention and adulation can be extremely damaging to the self-esteem of the narcissist. They might find meeting someone like a famous politician or distinguished intellectual to be an extremely unpleasant and belittling experience, enough to cause them depression for a while.

A narcissistic character will not necessarily bring misery into your story world, and this is another major way they are different to the psychopath. They may have found a way to sublimate their narcissism into bringing a lot of joy to people, such as becoming an actor or professional sportsman. Such a character might struggle with the excesses of their narcissism at the same time as mostly succeeding in bringing people joy.

Usually, however, narcissists do bring misery to those they encounter. The nature of the narcissist demands that they try and get the most adulation possible, and this means that they are prone to aggressively seeking high-status positions, even when there is another candidate who is obviously better qualified (a narcissist is not likely to realise that someone else is better qualified).

The narcissistic character might have an unpleasant early history that partially explains why they themselves are not a pleasant person. Many theorists believe that narcissism in adults is frequently caused by a lack of empathy and respect towards them when they were children, leading them to overcompensate as adults.

Frequently the narcissist will have one, or both, parents who did not seem to treat them as valuable when they were children. This lack of a normal, healthy level of positive attention in childhood is what makes the narcissist so desperate to receive it in adulthood. The narcissist might reveal, in their behaviour and actions, the resentment they feel towards perceived neglect.

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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.

Writing The Psychopath

Psychopaths make for fascinating characters in creative writing because they are dangerous, ruthless and unpredictable

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.

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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.