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Writing Narcissistic characters that are realistic can be a challenge. Narcissism is a complex and multi-faceted personality disorder that many misunderstand.
As a writer, it is important that your portrayal of Narcissism is an accurate one and the following article is meant to guide you down the right path.
Table of Contents
The Mythical Origins of Narcissism
Once upon a time, a young hunter who went by the name of Narcissus was admired by many for his ravishingly handsome looks. Son of the River God Cephissus, Narcissus was so beautiful that many would fall in love just at the sight of his person.
One day, as he was hunting in the woods, a nymph by the name of Echo saw him and immediately fell in love with Narcissus. She confessed her feelings to him, and he violently rejected her. Heartbroken, Echo would spend the rest of her life wandering the forest whilst slowly withering away until she became nothing but an echo.
However, just before she died, she prayed to Nemesis, the goddess of revenge that Narcissus would be punished and would feel the pain he had inflicted upon her. Answering her prayers, the goddess of revenge made sure Narcissus would fall in love with his own reflection.
One day, as Narcissus came across a river, he for the first time saw his reflection and immediately became obsessed with the handsome image staring back at him. He stopped eating and drinking and he refused to leave the riverside. His obsession which bordered on madness eventually led him to drown in that river.
There is a clear lesson in this Greek story. It warns against the dangers of extreme vanity and excessive self-love. Having an ego as big as that of Narcissus is counterproductive and downright troublesome.
Although this story does capture some aspects of Narcissism, it does not capture the full complexity of the disorder.
What is Narcissism?
In his book The Art and Science of Personality Development, Narcissism is defined by personality psychologist McAdams as “excessive self-love and the attendant qualities of self-centeredness, arrogance and a lack of regard for other human beings”.
McAdams identifies two main aspects of narcissistic personality disorder. The first is Grandiosity. Narcissists tend to have an inflated sense of importance. They believe that they are in every way superior to others, that they are smarter, more talented, and more deserving than those around them. They believe that they are special and, in many ways, destined for greatness.
The second aspect is an immense sense of entitlement. Because those diagnosed with Narcissism believe that they are special, they expect to be treated accordingly by others. They expect and believe that they deserve special treatment and admiration from others.
Another important part of Narcissism that is mentioned by McAdams is that they have extremely high self-esteem. The author mentions that several theories suggest this high self-esteem is actually “a cover-up for an underlying (even unconscious) deficit in self-worth”. Other theories propose that the high level of self-esteem of Narcissists comes from a genuine belief that they are special and the need for others to recognize that they are special.
Either way, what is certain when it comes to narcissists is that they are often the recipients of social rejection. They tend to display more aggression and animosity when confronted with any negative feedback. In his book, McAdams writes “Narcissism has been linked to extreme mood swings and intensity of emotional experience in daily life, and to problems in inhibiting negative social responses”.
Traits that your Narcissistic Character should have
They can come across as quite charming at first
Although Narcissists tend to possess many unpleasant traits, at first glance they can seem quite charming. Narcissists often have a more extroverted nature which can, in the short term, attract people to them. Additionally, their willingness to be the center of attention and their overall extravagant confidence can contribute to their initial charm.
Narcissists also “tend to wear flashy and attractive clothing” which will inevitably attract the attention and curiosity of others.
Over time, they will experience rejection from their peers
Although narcissists can master first impressions with ease, keeping up those appearances is much more difficult for them. Oftentimes than not, once their peers notice their more negative tendencies (such as their self-centeredness and their inability to see beyond their own wants and needs), they often end up suffering from social rejection.
McAdams writes that “In the long run, the social costs of narcissism can be high, leading to social rejection rather than the admiration that narcissists crave”.
Everything narcissistic characters do is in order to garner the attention they so crave and feed their overgrown, spoiled ego. Hence it is interesting to explore the psychology of a character whose actions have the very opposite effect of their expectations.
Tend to be Physically attractive
The story of the extremely handsome hunter Narcissus who was brought to his death by his own vanity does capture an element that is very real to the psychological disorder of Narcissism. The average narcissist actually tends to be more physically attractive than the average non – narcissist. The reason behind this correlation is not clear. McAdams suggests that “Being a physically beautiful human being like Narcissus himself, may breed narcissism”.
Whether this proposition is true or not, one thing is for sure; Narcissists tend to be more attractive than the average person. This quality of theirs may play a part in the initial charm they seem to have when they first meet other people.
However, your narcissistic character does not have to be attractive. Actually, writing about an objectively unattractive narcissistic character could be an interesting direction to explore.
Narcissists are self-centered
Narcissists tend to only consider their own needs and wants and fail to extend themselves to others. Because of their entitlement, they expect others to meet every single one of their demands without expecting anything in return.
This characteristic of theirs is exasperated by their heightened sense of importance. Hence, even if they recognize when a relationship is not reciprocal, they believe that they deserve the extra care and better treatment because they’re special.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, their self-centered nature will often times cause narcissistic characters to take advantage of others.
Can’t handle Criticism
Narcissists either can’t see their own flaws or refuse to see them. Either way, they tend to exhibit a visceral reaction when others point out something they might have done wrong or a character flaw they have. In these types of situations, they will often become defensive or downright aggressive because they simply cannot handle being criticized.
Narcissistic Characters are not good Partners
Unsurprisingly, Narcissists are not good partners whether it be romantically or sexually. In romantic relationships, they constantly fail to meet the needs of their significant other and will neglect them.
They will usually select partners that make them “look good” in an attempt to pursue that ideal image of themselves that they have in their heads. Their romantic relationships will feel more like a business transaction than a loving union.
In exchange for the companionship and the overall presence of the narcissist, the other partner (who is either very attractive or a high-status individual) is supposed to elevate the status of the narcissist and make them look better. Their partner is simply a part of their image, and they are not treated or seen by the narcissist as a whole individual with needs and wants.
The self-centeredness of the narcissist follows them in the bedroom as well. Although it is not always the case, oftentimes, narcissists will fail to please their sexual partners because they are too focused on their own sexual needs and fantasies.
They tend to have Grandiose Fantasies and are often driven by external motives
In psychology, there are two types of motives a person can have: Internal motives and External motives. When someone is pursuing something because it brings them joy and makes them happy, they are practicing their internal motives. However, when someone is actively pursuing external rewards such as money or popularity, they are driven by external motives.
All of us are driven by both external and internal motives but narcissists are almost always pursuing external motives. They want money, fame, popularity, or whatever else that will get them to be noticed by others.
Their dreams are usually grandiose and extravagant. They want to achieve unlimited success and want limitless admiration from their peers.
Note that Narcissistic characters not only want these things, but they believe that they deserve them.
Can Narcissistic Characters Get Better?
On one hand, it is very difficult for narcissists to even want to change. They tend to see themselves as perfect beings, so they don’t see the need to change their ways.
However, it is possible for them to change if they realize that their way of life is not giving them the desired results. If they realize that it is their narcissistic traits that are driving the social rejection they experience, they may be willing to change and seek help.
Often times with therapy, they can greatly improve but they must be willing to self-reflect and shed the idea that they are perfect.
If they do seek therapy, it is best to go to someone that is specialized in Narcissistic personality disorder.