How to Write a Psychopath

Fiction is enamored with psychopaths. The concept of an emotionless, calculating genius is a fascinating one, and one I’m always down to see – except it’s almost always wrong. Off the top of my head, I can think of one good example of a Hollywood psychopath, and it is Cillian Murphy’s character Jackson Rippner in the movie Red Eye. (I love that movie. If you haven’t seen it go watch it. I’ll wait.) But enough preamble, let’s dive into what a psychopath looks like in real life.

• Psychopaths are inherently manipulative. This is one point Hollywood usually gets right, at any rate. A psychopath, however, is far less likely to be a mastermind genius than they are to be the freeloader on your cousin’s couch who always has another grand scheme, another excuse, another seemingly good reason you should let him keep living off your good will. They don’t tend to be glamorous. They tend to be That Person You Can’t Stand.

• Psychopaths are charming. Most people who encounter psychopaths describe them as extremely charming, talkative, and interesting. They will keep you dazzled and entertained as long as they want, but you can’t trust anything they say. Interestingly, many of the people who described their psychopathic conversation partners as ‘charming’ indicated they felt the charm was insincere and more snake oil than truthful.

“What makes psychopaths different from all others is the remarkable ease with which they lie, the pervasiveness of their deception, and the callousness with which they carry it out.”
— Robert Hare, criminal psychologist and creator of the Psychopath Checklist
Psychopaths are unable to work on a team. This is a fact of how they operate. They either have no interest in ‘making it’ and are content to live without effort, or they thrive in competitive, get-to-the-top situations. Wall Street is full of psychopaths. Many psychopaths also choose to become surgeons, or engage in another job where they will be seen as the Top Dog and be able to either give orders or work alone. A while back they tried an experiment, placing psychopaths on bomb squad teams (I would cite this except I can’t remember which book it was in – I’ll list all my favorite books on this subject at the end of the post, however) and it turns out it was a terrible mistake. Psychopaths didn’t want to listen to orders, employed ‘cowboy’ behavior that constantly endangered not only themselves but their teammates, and the idea was quickly put out of practice.
Psychopaths do not learn from their mistakes. They will either blame others for those mistakes or refuse to believe a mistake happened in the first place. While not all psychopaths are criminals (and indeed many are not), the major percentage of Maximum Security Prison inmates are psychopaths. The usual cause of their being caught is their inability to learn from their mistakes. They have almost no concept of consequence, and will continue to repeat the same behavioral patterns over and over again until they are unable.
Psychopaths do not care about you. The concept of ‘a psychopath with a heart of gold’ is what I like to call Actual Garbage. Brain scans of psychopaths reveal an atrophied amygdala, among other things – they cannot feel the feelings you might want to project on a psychopathic character. They will act out of their own best interest and nothing else. It might sound harsh – but it’s also the truth. Korean Dramas are full of psychopathic characters who are not, in fact, psychopaths – they can be the BEST characters and I adore them, but they don’t hold up whatsoever against the reality of what a psychopath truly looks like.
“Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.”
Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
Psychopaths do not believe anything is wrong with them. There has been one program (still fairly new in the grand scheme of things) attempting to see signs of psychopathy in children and treat them in unconventional (i.e. actually good + helpful) ways and they have a fairly high success rate, but there has been no success with any teen-or-older psychopath. You cannot treat someone who doesn’t believe anything is wrong with them, and psychopaths will staunchly refuse to believe they have a problem. They are extremely happy existing how they are, which brings us to the next point—
Psychopaths have no empathy. The subtlety of human emotion is something psychopaths have to learn and pick up on, and when they do, they exploit it in others. Sometimes they simply refuse to learn, leading to a life of social dysfunction. A psychopath is never going to ‘feel sorry’ for you, ‘understand what you’re going through,’ or ‘want to change.’ They are incapable of feeling guilt.
“Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects their actions have on others. Often they are completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the pain and destruction they have caused, and that there is no reason for them to be concerned.”
Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
Psychopathy and sociopathy are not the same thing. The words are often – incorrectly – interchanged, but there are distinct differences between the two. When asked whether they would rather be sociopaths, psychopaths have been known to show distaste toward sociopaths as ‘lesser’ and more emotive (again, I can’t recall which book this was in but they’ll all be listed below).

Psychologist Kelly McAleer says of the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, “

“The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.

“Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have ‘normal temperaments.’ . . .”

When in doubt, align your fictional character with the PCL-R. This twenty-item ‘psychopath test’ is now used in the criminal justice system (and now anywhere this determination is needed) to determine whether or not someone is, in fact, a psychopath. It’s not a list of attractive traits, in case you were wondering. Here are the traits it measures – all of which are accurate to clinical psychopaths.

• glib and superficial charm
• grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
• need for stimulation
• pathological lying
• cunning and manipulativeness
• lack of remorse or guilt
• shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
• callousness and lack of empathy
• parasitic lifestyle
• poor behavioral controls
• sexual promiscuity
• early behavior problems
• lack of realistic long-term goals
• impulsivity
• irresponsibility
• failure to accept responsibility for own actions
• many short-term marital relationships
• juvenile delinquency
• revocation of conditional release
• criminal versatility
Honestly I should have titled this blog post ‘How NOT to Write a Psychopath,’ but it’s a little less catchy. I hope this helps you in your quest to write accurate-to-life psychopaths (and maybe even be able to spot them in real life).

RECOMMENDED READING LIST

Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare m.d.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak m.d. and Robert Hare m.d.

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, m.d.

The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Harvey Cleckley

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton Ph.D

Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion by Kevin Dutton Ph.D

(A NOTE ABOUT KEVIN DUTTON: Much of what is contained in his books is pseudoscience and anecdotes. I highly recommend them for both entertainment and insight, but they can’t be wholly ingested as perfect truth.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Schriver (this book is fiction, yes, but provides an extremely accurate look at not only raising a psychopathic child, but dealing with the aftermath of that child’s horrific criminal actions.)

AND my personal favorite,

The Psychopath Whisperer by Dr. Kevin Kiehl (a protege of Robert Hare and longtime maximum-security prison psychologist)

See you all next time!

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3 thoughts on “How to Write a Psychopath”

  1. *gentle applause from the balcony* Bravo, darling. You’re doing good work in the world with this post. Bravo.

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