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How to Write a Psychopath

A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.

So why not write one?

The instant reaction would be to make them a serial killer, pushing your police officer protagonist to the limit. But there’s so much more you could do. What about a tortured lover who can’t form the emotional connection your protagonist desires? Or a controlling boss? There are endless possibilities. 

Before you embark on creating a psychopathic character, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms:

They’re manipulative

Psychopaths like to have things their own way. They’ll do whatever they can to get that.

They’re good liars

Dexter, psychopath.

Image courtesy of Showtime.

Being a good liar goes hand-in-hand with being manipulative. Due to their lack of empathy, they don’t think about how the other person might feel about having been lied to if they were to ever find out.

They don’t understand emotions 

The main characteristic for psychopaths is a lack of emotional intelligence. Rather than actually feel the emotions, they act how they feel they should in a particular situation. For instance, if your character’s loved one dies, your psychopathic character may say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or show sympathy in some way, but they won’t actually feel it. They learn how to act in different situations based on the people around them. If they have a crappy upbringing, they’re more likely to act in a negative way compared to someone who had a happy childhood. Both scenarios are perfectly possible.

They can’t form relationships

If you can’t feel emotions, how can you form relationships? Psychopaths can act like they feel something, they may even be in a relationship, but they won’t feel exactly the same as the rest of us. When in a relationship, they’re more likely to speak in the first person about things they do with their partner.

For example, if they were going on holiday with their partner, they’d still say, ‘I’m going on holiday to…’ rather than, ‘We’re going on holiday to…’ like most of us would when speaking about a holiday we’re not taking alone.

They have to be in control 

Amy Dunne, queen of psychopaths.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Psychopaths love being in control. Think of someone you know who’s a control freak, and multiply it. If something doesn’t go their way, they become angsty and possibly aggressive. If someone upsets them enough to warrant revenge, they’ll meticulously plan it out. Think Gone Girl. They could spend years planning their revenge on someone. But they’ll get serious satisfaction from the process, and from getting what they want out of people.

High Sense of Self-Importance

Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s jobs, too, as they’ll feel like they contributed to it somehow, simply by being their boss or having minimal input in the process. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else.

Superficial Charm

Regina George, psychopath.

Image courtesy of Fanpop.

Think Regina George. They pretend they like people, possibly even pay them compliments, but really, they think that person is an idiot. Some people will be able to see through this, but not everyone will. It depends on how observant the person is, and how good of an actor the psychopath is.

There are many more characteristics of psychopaths, but these are the main ones to think about when crafting your character. For more information, check out the psychopathy checklist.

Psychopaths vs. Sociopaths

Angelina Jolie's character in Girl, Interrupted is a great example of a sociopath.

Image courtesy of Fanpop.

It’s also important to know the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. I won’t go into too much detail here, but the main thing that helps me to separate the two is that sociopaths are neurotic and don’t plan; psychopaths are controlled and plan things meticulously. Dexter from Dexter is a great example of a psychopath, whilst Angelia Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is a brilliant example of a sociopath.

Want to write a psychopathic character? Here's what you need to know.

Over to You

Have you ever written a psychopathic character? How did you find it? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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Kristina Adams

Kristina Adams is an author of fiction and nonfiction, writing and productivity blogger, and occasional poet. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. When she's not writing she's reading, baking, or finding other ways to destroy the kitchen. She can be found under a pile of books with a vanilla latte.


  • 11th April, 2016 at 13:15

    I’m currently writing an object narrative where the protagonist is a psychopathic knife. I’ve found that a weapon provides the perfect metaphor for a psychopath as it uses others in order to perform its function (i.e. killing), which is testament to the parasitic lifestyle.
    I’m finding all the research into the psychopathic personality very interesting but I think, symptoms and tendencies aside, it’s important to still characterise the psychopath as a human being with quirks and preferences. If all you’re conveying is a blank slate which exists to murder then the reader has very little to engage with. The character may not be able to empathize or relate but the reader still can!

    • 4th March, 2018 at 09:11

      What a brilliant idea: objects as metaphors for different psychological profiles. I shan’t use objects as protagonists, but I am going to match the characters in the WIP with an object, and perhaps use an image as a second avatar for each character. A great focus tool. Thanks, Jonny.

      If I hadn’t found this great site (and article!) via Pinterest, I would never have seen your comment. Serendipity. 🙂

  • 9th October, 2016 at 00:36

    Hi, I just wanted to point out that realistically, psychopaths might actually be blank slates.
    While the article and the site refers about sociopaths, some people there seem to be psychopaths according to this description, in particular the high-functioning ones. So the information may be useful to you

  • 3rd December, 2017 at 21:49

    I’m currently writing a graphic story where the antagonist is a psycopath, which is a great opposite-relation to the protagonist. This was really helpful!

  • 1st March, 2018 at 03:08

    Benedict in Sherlock Holmes claims to be a high functioning sociopath. He was very meticulous.

  • 18th August, 2018 at 12:36

    Both psychopaths and sociopaths suffer from antisocial personality disorder and lack empathy, however there’s a strong environmental influence on sociopathy. Psychopathy is usually heritable and passed on with genes. They’re just people who we born like that but it usually takes time for a condition to resurface. With sociopaths is a bit different. Usually it is their past experience that makes them the way they are but a person needs to have sociopatic predispositions in their mind to form irregular neuropathways. So if you write about psychopaths and sociopaths is better to put them apart by establishing their past very well. For a psychopatic character you may create a path of being “always different than others” in a way that was damaging others and/or themselves. With a sociopathic character you may want to plant a special, possibly violent event or chain of events that triggered the change which later led to sociopathy. Psychopaths are usually more organized and socially functioning (even though they have problems of formning attachments) but sociopaths are socially inept, defunct in many ways regarding social interaction. I hope this would help! 🙂

  • 14th December, 2018 at 16:15

    So do you have to be born a psychopath or can you lose all grip on emotions/feelings and go kinda insane?

    Can a psychopath have PTSD from a really tramautic childhood or would they not notice it?

    Is there a way to become a psychopath via some kind of messed up neaurotechnology or something?

    Do/can psychopaths hold grudges/be angry at someone for a long period of time?

    Do psychopaths pretend to be “normal” people?

    Is 17 old enough for a guy to be determined as a psychopath (did that make sense)? Or should I make him be 18 or 19…?

    Sorry if any of these sounded mean or unkind or anything…I’m trying to decide if my serial arsonist should be a psychopath or not. Cause he doesn’t feel any guilt for what he does and he burns things to hurt someone who hurt him and messed up his life. And he’s manipulative and trying to turn the tables and have control over the person who had control over him (and messed up his entire life.)

  • 20th January, 2019 at 09:11

    I found this really helpful. I couldn’t decide wether my character I was writing about was a Sociopath or a psychopath and I read both pages for them to figure out. In the end, I think they are more of a psychopath. I find the character quite interesting because I wouldn’t categorise them as evil but they are definitely not the protagonist. Thanks for this help, it makes things so much easier for me to understand 🙂

  • 11th April, 2019 at 04:49

    Thank you so much! This was extremely helpful for me. I’m currently developing a character that originally had only a few traits listed here, but you’ve helped me decide to make her fully psychopathic! Very well written.

  • 25th April, 2019 at 05:21
    Dave W

    (Q) So do you have to be born a psychopath or can you lose all grip on emotions/feelings and go kinda insane?

    (A) Nature versus Nurture. It’s a good discussion.

    (Q) Can a psychopath have PTSD from a really tramautic childhood or would they not notice it?

    (A) Yes, anyone can have PTSD from a traumatic event. I would presume a psychopath would know that he/she is a psychopath. A functional psychopath uses their psychopathy to “succeed” in life. Some pretend to be normal – it’s tiring. Unless you want to write the person as being “I’m normal, it’s everyone else!” But eh, if you want to keep it real, yea?

    (Q) Is there a way to become a psychopath via some kind of messed up neaurotechnology or something?

    (A) Realistically? Probably not unless it deals with sci-fi elements. Psychopathy is brought about usually by prolonged and severe childhood abuse.

    (Q) Do/can psychopaths hold grudges/be angry at someone for a long period of time?

    (A) Revenge is a dish best served cold.

    (Q) Do psychopaths pretend to be “normal” people?

    (A) Some do, some don’t. It’s tiring to pretend to be something you’re not, however, you “gotta do whatcha gotta do,” right?

    (Q) Is 17 old enough for a guy to be determined as a psychopath (did that make sense)? Or should I make him be 18 or 19…?

    (A) Depends on your story. My character was diagnosed at 6 years old.


    This article is way too general. For example, I’m writing about a psychopath with Co-dependency Disorder (CDD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).



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