If you want to create a story that chills and thrills, there is no better way than having a psychopath as a character. Unpredictable, impulsive, self-serving and vicious, using the psychopath in fiction will engage your readers and leave them with a memorable impression of your work. Many of the plot kernels in this story generator involve exploitation and misery, so a psychopathic character can easily be worked into a tale. This article looks at the considerations involved in writing the psychopath.
What is a psychopath?
A psychopath is someone who suffers from a severe mental illness known as Antisocial Personality Disorder. The major characteristics of this illness are: an inability to form normal human attachments, making the psychopath someone who cannot be a true friend or a lover; and an abnormal lack of empathy. What makes the psychopath a terrifying character is that they are often able to mask these flaws so as to appear normal and even charming, until, of course, their true nature is revealed in horrifying fashion. Psychopaths derive pleasure from antisocial behaviour and are usually unable to feel guilt, shame or remorse.
What causes a psychopath?
Psychopathy is likely caused by a combination of social and genetic forces. It is possible that psychopathy is mostly genetic in origin but that its expression depends on social factors. For example, a psychopath raised in a loving home might become an exploitative businessman, a womaniser or a politician. A childhood history characterised by abuse and neglect is more likely to lead to the violent psychopath found in most popular culture. It is also possible that psychopathy is entirely social, and this possibility makes for more interesting fiction. If a child is frequently abused, they can draw the conclusion that the world is a nasty and cruel place and that one must be callous in order to survive in it. This allows the writer of the psychopath to delve deep into their character's past and create a rounded and believable person.
How to portray a psychopath in fiction
Depiction of a psychopath in fiction depends on whether you are trying to write realistically or not. Most psychopaths do not roam the neighbourhood hacking up people with an axe, because most psychopaths are intelligent enough to know what's to their benefit and what isn't (in fact, they're excellent at this because it's all they care about). True psychological horror can be evoked from the degree to which a psychopath will subtly manipulate their victims to their own ends.
The first person is probably best avoided when writing about such a character, unless you're writing from the perspective of one of their victims, but even then you run the risk of sounding like a true-life story in a women's magazine. Third person is better, as this affords you opportunity to slowly drip-feed a victim's awareness of their situation to the reader through a limited point of view. Using the third person allows you to portray how a person might be sucked into the psychopath's web of glib lies and superficial charm, and then slowly realise that they're trapped in a game where the psychopath wins by making them suffer.
As conflict is the heart of dramatic fiction, having a psychopathic character is an easy way to create a compelling tale. Whether you want to write mindless splatterpunk or a darkly psychological story, the psychopath affords you plenty of opportunity to write a page-turner.
Vince McLeod is a research psychologist and writer from Nelson, New Zealand.