The Writer's Cookbook

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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.

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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4 Comments

  1. Jonny

    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!

  2. Syobon

    Hi, I just wanted to point out that realistically, psychopaths might actually be blank slates.
    http://www.sociopathworld.com/2009/01/sociopaths-mimicry-and-blank-slates.html
    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

  3. 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!

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