Some people hate them, others hate to admit that they love them, and some people glorify them, but psychopaths have become a staple in movies, literature and popular culture. Some examples of the most iconic psychopaths would have to be The Joker (Heath Ledger/Batman-DC Universe), Walter White (Bryan Cranston/Breaking Bad), Vaas Montenegro (Michael Mando/Far Cry 3), Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones Series) and so many others. For writers, it can easily be tempting to write a character who embodies the tendencies of a psychopath. However, it is not as simple as many people think it is.
It would be best to define what makes an individual a psychopath. The definition of a ‘Psychopath’ according to the Oxford Dictionary is “A person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior”. Psychology Today states that a person who is a psychopath would have the following tendencies.
- Coldheartedness/Inability to deeply feel emotions
- Lack of Emotion and Guilt
- Prone to Violent behavior
- Prone to Boredom/Continual need for Stimulation
To put in an example; Let’s say a person is waiting in line for a cup of coffee at a coffee shop and someone cuts in front of them nonchalantly. Someone who does not have psychopathic tendencies would voice their outrage and anger at the individual, but would not attempt to pursue a conflict. However, someone who has psychopathic tendencies would approach the person and physically grab them to throw them out of the line before purchasing their coffee.
Now, commonly enough, people will often confuse the term ‘psychopath’ with the phrase ‘sociopath’. While both psychopaths and sociopaths share some common characteristics, they differ in how they think and act. Oxford Dictionary defines sociopaths as “A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience”. Psychology today would state that there are various differences that distinguish the line between sociopaths and psychopaths.
- Sociopaths tend to be easily nervous and agitated at the lightest disturbances which can result in moments of anger and violence (ex. someone near them is texting on their phone and the clicking sounds disturbs them). Psychopaths have the capability to control and restrain themselves if needed.
- Sociopath’s actions whether they are violent or nonviolent, are often spontaneous or ‘in the moment’. An example of this would be if someone decides to anger the sociopath over something such as a car accident, the sociopath would try to kill the person. Psychopaths are often methodical in their nature, willing to plan out their activities to the very last detail before acting.
- Sociopaths are often uneducated and unable to hold a steady job in any field. Psychopaths are often very educated, even at a university level and are capable of holding a career.
- Sociopaths can be more emotional in their nature while Psychopaths are often incapable of feeling emotion.
- Sociopaths are often antisocial and can almost be unable to form bonds with people. Psychopaths are capable of being social despite being unable to be emotionally attached.
Creating a character who is a psychopath requires creating a person who wants control over every aspect of their lives from their work to their social lives. They are not above violence to get something done or to resolve a situation, but they know how to practice restraint. A common problem that writers have when they try to create a character who is a psychopath is that they will often try to make them overly violent without rhyme or reason. If you create a character who is overly violent, then you risk creating a character who appears almost cartoon like in the sense that they are trying copy an example of someone who is violent. The secret to creating a believable psychopath is to tone down the violence and fine tune it. The character has to be able to show that they are methodically thinking about their actions before committing to acting violent. I am not saying that you should make them non-violent, but a psychopath does not just kill or harm a person without thinking about it. With this in mind, I hope that this helps writers create a more believable psychopathic character.