If you want to craft a story that includes a great villain, chances are that villain is a psychopath. Now, most people rely on the colloquial usage of the term and assume that psychopath = killer, but that’s not necessarily true. Most psychopaths are not murders. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this fact makes psychopaths harder to spot in a crowd than you might think (hint: he’s usually not the crazy-eyed guy in the black trench coat walking down the abandoned street). Research suggests that 1% of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy. That may not sound like a lot but this means 1 in every 100 people you know is a psychopath. They could be your neighbor, your coworker, your friend, or maybe even your favorite blogger 🙂
With all these psychopaths running around, how do you spot one? Psychologists have been conducting research on just such a question. Information gleaned from such research can greatly benefit writers because it provides us with a clear and accurate portrayal of what psychopaths are truly like. That’s important, because when we think of the word “psychopath,” what usually comes to mind first are commonplace media portrayals of crazed killers. The kind you see in Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But these depictions are a far cry from what actual psychopaths are like.
So how can you make sure your villain is realistic and authentic, especially when most media depictions of psychopaths are so often not?
The answer is simple. To craft a truly authentic psychopath, the writer needs to know what a psychopath looks like in the real world. Lucky for us, others have already done the heavy lifting for us and published extensively on the subject. So let’s look at what the research says.
Although theories of psychopathy may vary, most researchers tend to agree that real-world psychopaths demonstrate a cluster of three personality characteristics. This cluster is referred to as the “Dark Triad” because people who possess these three traits often exhibit malevolent behaviors (e.g., crime, ethical violations, etc.). That means that your villain should possess these traits too. They should be apparent in your villain’s personality, behavior, and motivations.
People high in Machiavellianism are duplicitous, cunning, and manipulative. They place a higher priority than most on power, money and winning. They easily disregard moral and social rules and as a result, lie to others and manipulate them with little to no guilt. Think Gordon Gekko from Wallstreet or Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.
For people high in this trait, manipulating others is an impulse, much like an alcoholic has an impulse to drink. Sometimes this manipulation is done to achieve a personal gain (e.g., to get a promotion) but other times it is just done for fun or because they can’t stop themselves (e.g., internet trolling). Depending on type, these people’s tools of the trade are deception, guilt, bullying, feigned weakness, or flattery. But whichever they choose, they regularly wield these tools in an attempt to twist the emotions and behaviors of those around them.
Because such people are master manipulators, they are often charming and well-liked, at least on a superficial level. They may feign interest and compassion for a short time, but that façade wears off quickly and it becomes clear they only really care about themselves.
A perfect literary example of this trait is Amy Dunne from Gone Girl [SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie]. Amy Dunne goes to extreme lengths to victimize the men in her life, often because their only sin was not giving her the attention she thought she deserved. Her particular tools of manipulation are sex, lies, guilt, fame, and of course her well-crafted diary. Even we as the readers get duped by Amy’s lies, and it isn’t until midway into the book that we see her for what she really is: a master manipulator.
You know that little voice in your head that tells you to return a found wallet or treat others as you want to be treated? Well people high in psychopathy don’t have that voice, or if they do its volume is turned down very low. As a result, they lack many of the social emotions that normal people take for granted, including guilt, remorse, sympathy, and pity.
It is this lack of a conscience that enables psychopaths to engage in behaviors that normal people may secretly fantasize about but never actually do. When someone hurts us or makes us mad, we may think, “I just want to punch him!” or “I could kill him!” but we would never actually do it. Psychopaths don’t have that brake pedal. Generally speaking, if they want to do it, they’ll do it.
This also hints at another quality associated with psychopathy—low impulse control. People high in psychopathy are quick to violence and aggression, they have many casual sex partners, and they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. Their mantra is, “Act first, think later.”
Once again, Gillian Flynn crafted an excellent representation of this trait with Amy Dunne. Amy is cold and calculating and almost reptilian-like in her lack of compassion. She seems absent of any sense of right and wrong or empathy for what she puts others through. Instead, she has a calculating, pragmatic nature, regardless of whether she is lying to the police or getting rid of a human obstacle. Through her actions and lack of emotions, the reader finally sees Amy Dunne as a glacial beauty who lacks even a hint of warmth or humanity underneath.
People high in narcissism are self-centered, vain, and have an inflated sense of their qualities and achievements. They see themselves as perfect. Any flaws they may have they refuse to see in themselves and instead project onto those around them. For example, a narcissist who secretly worries she isn’t smart enough will accuse those around her of being dumb as a way to boost her own ego.
Narcissists love compliments, can’t get enough, and lavishly praise anyone who admires or affirms them. The flip side of this coin means they are extremely sensitive to insults and often respond to criticism with seething rage and retribution. They have what psychologists refer to as “unstable self-esteem.” This means they put themselves up on a very high pedestal, but it doesn’t take much to topple them to the ground. What a normal person would perceive as constructive criticism, narcissists see as a declaration of war.
Because of their self-focus, they don’t get along well with others. They have problems sustaining healthy, satisfying relationships and so they tend to seek positions of authority where they can work over, rather than beside, their colleagues. Such authority also helps because narcissists never blame themselves for their problems. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault (Notice that this blame is a spark that writers can fan into a strong, burning motive for their villain’s behavior).
There are lots of examples of narcissists in popular literature (and many more in historical literature), but in my opinion, one that holds true to this description in a non-obvious and non-stereotypical way is Annie Wilkes from Misery. Annie doesn’t immediately come off as arrogant or boastful (although her claim to be Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” is our first hint of her inflated sense of self). But as the book unfolds, we are subjected to her constant complaining of the world and those in it. These rants demonstrate that she does see herself as superior. Everyone else is a “lying ol’ dirty birdy” and anyone who falls into this dreaded category is not worthy of sympathy or even basic human dignity. The character of Annie Wilkes is an excellent example of how to incorporate narcissism (or any of these three traits) in a way that is subtle and unique, but still clearly present.
Now let’s put it all together. Keep in mind that just being high in one of these traits doesn’t automatically mean a person is a psychopath. People can be risk-seekers or arrogant and not necessarily engage in malevolent behavior. In fact, some research suggests that real-world heroes share some, but not all, of these traits (perhaps a good topic for a future post!). What matters is the combination of these three traits. Your villain needs to have all three. The perfect storm of egotism, manipulation, and a lack of conscience.
So when it comes to crafting your villain, try to steer clear of the blatant crazed killer trope. Dig deeper and craft a more interesting and believable bad guy or girl. Make your villain a master liar and manipulator. Make them callous towards others and a risk taker. Make them highly arrogant but easily threatened. Make them interesting but also realistic.
Who is your favorite fictional psychopath and why? Share your answer in your comments.