*The information in this article is based on Without Conscience: the disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, a book written by Robert Hare.*
The reputation of the psychopath is a well-known one. Feared by some and admired by others, psychopaths are the embodiment of sin and immorality. Writing a character with this personality disorder can be daunting because psychopathy encompasses many distinct characteristics and can be manifested in different ways.
However, writing about psychopathy is an enthralling way of adding tension and drama to your story, but it’s important that you remain accurate in your portrayal of this personality disorder. Otherwise, your story might just aid in perpetuating false notions of psychopathy and what the disorder entails. So, how does one go about writing individuals the like of Ted Bundy or Richard Ramirez, the night stalker? More importantly, how do you accurately portray the symptoms of this destructive personality disorder?
First, it is important to note that identifying this disorder in people is something that even well-trained professionals still struggle with. So, although there are common traits that most psychopaths share (traits that you should include when writing your character), the diagnostic criterion for psychopathy is not set in stone.
In order to properly write about this personality disorder, it is important that you know the primary symptoms and behaviors of real-life psychopathy. Robert Hare, the author of Without Conscience, uses the psychopathy checklist as a tool for diagnosis.
Here is an overview of the main symptoms within this checklist:
Before going over each symptom, I would like to mention that not all psychopaths are cold-blooded killers. In fact, many of them are not involved in criminal activities at all. Although, their personality disorder makes it easier for them to go that route, some of them are able to live pretty normal lives.
Hence, when writing your character, keep in mind that they don’t necessarily have to become criminals or be involved with any illegal activity for your representation of psychopathy to be accurate.
Writing about Psychopaths
“Early behavioral problems”
Young children who are later on diagnosed with psychopathy often display alarming behavior from a very young age. These children tend to lie, commit petty crimes and are sexually promiscuous.
Animal cruelty seems to be a recurring symptom in young children who may have this personality disorder. They may also display violent behaviour towards their siblings.
Having your character display abnormal behavior from a young age can be a great foreshadowing tool for your story.
“Glib & Superficial”
Psychopaths are often very talented at carrying conversations and don’t have trouble coming up with witty remarks. Because of this, they do not have a hard time presenting themselves in a positive light. Psychopaths have a talent when it comes to word vomit and coming up with absurd qualifications. They don’t seem to care if they get caught up in a lie.
“They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming. To some people, however, they seem too slick and smooth, too obviously insincere and superficial. Astute observers often get the impression that psychopaths are play-acting, mechanically “reading their lines.”
So, you can think of a psychopathic character as having the ability to fake being extremely charming individuals especially when they first meet a person. However, over time, their charm may come off as “over the top” and suspicious because it is only a facade.
“Egocentric & Grandiose”
Psychopaths tend to view themselves as being the center of the universe and because of their inflated egos, they feel justified in prioritizing their needs/wants above anybody else’s. The author notes that:
“Psychopaths often come across as arrogant, shameless braggarts-self-assured, opinionated, domineering, and cocky. They love to have power and control over others and seem unable to believe that other people have valid opinions different from theirs.”
Another noteworthy trait is that they often possess very grand ideas and they tend to freely express them to anyone willing to listen. However, psychopaths, more often than not, fail to follow through with their plans. Although they lack the discipline to follow through with their long-term goals, they have unfounded confidence about their abilities and are able to convince others that they’re capable of accomplishing grand things.
“A Lack of Remorse or Guilt”
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Psychopaths have a remarkable lack of empathy or concern for other people’s pain. Although intelligent beings, they have difficulty understanding the depth of certain emotions or how their actions can impact others. They tend to explain, in a rather cold and distant manner, why they do the things they do.
“Psychopaths’ lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior and to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause shock and disappointment to family, friends, associates, and others who have played by the rules.”
Their lack of empathy and inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is probably the most intriguing and incomprehensible aspect of their personality disorder. Empathy and guilt are key emotions that aid in society functioning harmoniously.
The idea of certain people being able to function without the burden of these emotions is both captivating and terrifying. It is important to note that people who are not diagnosed with psychopathy can still experience a lack of empathy towards other individuals.
However, this lack of care is usually selective. Thus, you may not be pained by the mistreatment of a group of strangers but have empathy for your friend’s grievances.
This is different from psychopaths. The author mentions that psychopaths “display a general lack of empathy”, meaning that they are as indifferent to strangers as they are to lovers or friends. Hence psychopath characters are not selective in their disdain and carelessness. Everyone can become a target if they see an opportunity to benefit themselves.
“Deceitful and Manipulative”
The art of manipulation and lying comes as naturally to psychopaths as breathing does. This talent of theirs is a source of pleasure rather than of shame. Their ability to fool the minds of the impressionable and unaware quenches their thirst for duplicity and manipulation.
“When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they are seldom perplexed or embarrassed-they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so that they appear to be consistent with the lie.“
Another symptom of psychopathy that you can portray in your writing is the psychopath’s seeming lack of emotions. These individuals are often described as cold-blooded and lack the capability to fully experience emotions the way we do.
In his book, Hare writes about an individual named Jack Abbot who is diagnosed with psychopathy:
“Jack Abbott made this revealing comment: “There are emotions–a whole spectrum of them-that I know only through words, through reading, and in my immature imagination. I can imagine I feel these emotions (know, therefore, what they are), but I do not. At age thirty-seven I am barely a precocious child. My passions are those of a boy.”“
This is not to say that psychopaths don’t experience any emotions at all or that your character must never display any feelings, but rather that the emotions they do experience are rather shallow, surface-level, and centered around their wants and needs. Whereas at times we seem to be controlled by our own emotions, psychopaths have this innate and quite puzzling way of controlling their feelings.
They can turn their anger on and off with the flip of a switch without ever losing control. A very nice analogy that was mentioned in this book was that it’s as if psychopaths were color blind to the emotions of others. They can conceptually and intellectually understand what colors are, but they can never fully experience the depth of color perception like we do.
The author also mentions that multiple experiments on these individuals showed that “psychopaths lack the physiological responses normally associated with fear”. They do not experience the sweaty hands and the heart palpitations that come with what most of us would consider frightening events.
Psychopaths are very impulsive individuals. They don’t spend much time, if any time at all, pondering on the consequences of their actions. As mentioned previously, they are preoccupied with satisfying their immediate desires.
Most of us have learned through social conditioning to delay satisfying our immediate needs and wants because they might cause trouble in the long run. Psychopaths seem unable to do this.
Not surprisingly, they also have poor control over their behavior and act with quickness at the sight of a perceived threat or slight.
“Most of us have powerful inhibitory controls over our behavior; even if we would like to respond aggressively we are usually able to “keep the lid on.” In psychopaths, these inhibitory controls are weak, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to overcome them”
A psychopathic character would be quick to react with anger and frustration to failures and critiques. So much so that their anger would seem disproportionate to the situation at hand. However, their outburst should often be temporary. The author notes that:
“But their outbursts, extreme as they may be, are generally short-lived, and they quickly resume acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.”
“Need for excitement”
The psychopath’s worst nightmare is being constricted to a life of boredom and banality. These individuals live for excitement and adrenaline and find themselves easily bored when following routines. Excitement may come in many forms. The rush of a con, the elation of drugs the thrill of a lie, they live for it all.
“Lack of responsibility”
Psychopaths are as irresponsible as they are unreliable. Their lack of behavioral control and impulsiveness makes them incapable of committing to something and seeing it through.
“ Their performance on the job is erratic, with frequent absences, misuse of company resources, violations of company policy, and general untrustworthiness. They do not honor formal or implied commitments to people, organizations, or principles”
Rules & Regulations
It is of no surprise that society has many rules that keep harmony that are in place to keep balance and harmony between its civilians. However, whether the rules be legal or social, psychopaths do not feel the need to follow them. They see rules more as suggestions than obligations and think of them as inconvenient.
This does not mean that these individuals function without following any rules or that they are lawless. They tend to pick and choose which rules they want to adhere to (which tends to be the ones that benefit them the most) or they create their own.
More on Psychopathy
Psychopathy in movies
It is no secret that the concepts of psychopathy and criminology have been explored many times on the big screen. From Hitchcock’s famous Psycho to the infamous Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, time and time again, movies have been created displaying the horrific acts of these fictional cold-blooded killers.
Why is psychopathy so fascinating to us? Why do we indulge in such entertainment in masses? Why do the masses seem to have this magnetic attraction to this genre?
The short answer provided in “Without Conscience” is simply that evil is entertaining, even alluring at times. Exploring the world of the twisted & perverse can be thrilling, especially when one is not actually in danger when doing so.
The longer answer that psychiatrists, including Ronald Markman and Joanne Intrator, have proposed is that, through cinematography, the audience is able to not only relate to these vicious killers but also live vicariously through them.
Allow me to explain this a bit further. When we see these individuals pursuing their every desire with no internal controls holding them back, we might see ourselves in them, living out all of our wildest fantasies unbothered by the rules set by society.
Your wildest fantasy may not be to go on a murder spree (at least I hope not), but these movies can still be a way of imagining a world without restrain, without rules.
Joanne Intrator writes that film “allows us to slip easily into the vicarious pleasure of the voyeur. A darkened room subdues our conscious moral world and allows us another focus of an inner state not dominated by the constraints of superego [conscience]. In the dark we are enjoying, with a subtle consciousness, aggressive and sexual pleasure at seemingly no cost”
Psychopaths in real life & their dangerous attraction
Now that we’ve talked about psychopaths in film, what about those in real life? Are these cold-blooded killers as alluring as their fictional counterparts?
The short answer is yes, so much so that they have become legendary, almost mythological. Considering their level of fame and notoriety, individuals the like of Ted Bundy have pretty much achieved celebrity status.
Part of their fame can likely be attributed to the curiosity of the masses. It’s not every day that a serial killer gets caught and prosecuted on live TV so, of course, news like this is bound to be the talk of the town.
However, curiosity is not the only reason these men and women are so popular. They seem to have this magnetic hold on the public, a dangerous attraction that seems inexplicable.
Let’s take for example Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker, who raped and killed several women, killed men and old people, and sexually assaulted multiple children. Similar to Ted Bundy, there a number of people who attended the trial in support or admiration of Ramirez.
Rather than being repulsed by this individual, some young women expressed a great physical attraction towards him and one of these women even sent him nude photographs of herself. Mind you, this was during a trial in which there was no doubt that Richard Ramirez was beyond guilty of all of the most atrocious crimes.
Can they grow out of it?
What happens when psychopaths grow old? Do they get tired of living a life filled with manipulation, lies, and/or crime? Can they grow out of their dangerous habits? The author of the book suggest that their defining personality characteristics remain fairly consistent.
There is no significant or dramatic personality change in a 20-year-old psychopath versus a 60-year-old psychopath. However, Hare writes that “On average, the criminal activities of psychopaths remain at a high level until around age forty, after which they decrease sharply”.
Why does such a decline exist? Well, we don’t know yet. However, there are multiple theories attempting to explain this decline in crime. Maybe they just get tired, either physically or psychologically. If they’ve already been to prison, maybe they just don’t want to go back, or they develop new and improved ways of fooling the system so as to not get caught.
Either way, it is important to never underestimate an older person with this personality disorder.
“A decrease in criminality does not necessarily mean that there has been a fundamental change in personality”
Psychopathy in children
We’ve talked about the old, but what about the young? There seems to be a notion that diagnosing children as psychopaths is unethical or that children cannot be psychopaths. People are uncomfortable mixing the perceived innocence of childhood with the pervasive personality traits of the psychopath.
There is a disconnect between the reality of the disorder and what people imagine. The truth is psychopathy does not just appear out of thin air once an individual turns 18. As mentioned previously, there are a host of symptoms that can appear as early as the age of 5-6.
“Clinical experience and empirical research clearly indicate that the raw materials of the disorder can and do exist in children.”
Even the parents of these children already had become aware that something was really wrong/different in their children.
Why therapy doesn’t work
An interesting question to ask that the public wonders is can therapy help in any way. Psychotherapy, however, requires a patient to be in some sort of distress and to actively participate & engage with the therapist in order to better themselves.
Psychopaths meet neither of those requirements. They do not believe that anything is wrong with them. They are not in any distress and do not feel a need to change their behavior or thought patterns.
It is very difficult to help a person that doesn’t want to be helped, and even harder, a person that doesn’t see their flaws. In fact, therapy may provide them with new manipulation techniques because it gives them a glimpse into the human psyche.
You can use this knowledge to your advantage and write about psychopaths that learn to take advantage of therapy.