Hold My Beer: The Challenges of Writing the Psychopath's POV
My work in progress, about an infant abduction, was inspired by a story I saw one night watching the news. A pregnant woman went missing the same day her best friend came to visit. The best friend had returned home with a baby, though she hadn’t been pregnant before. The natural assumption was that the best friend had stolen the baby. I was confounded who might be able to trick her friend, steal her baby, and kill her. What would make her do it and think she could get away with it? I wanted to understand how that mind—in many of such cases, the mind of a psychopath—worked, and I knew I’d have to write about it to figure it out.
The problem is, not much is known about psychopathy, and many psychiatrists will say there is no such thing as one. Clinical studies on psychopathy started with Dr. Hervey Cleckley’s 1941 book The Mask of Sanity and was carried forward by Robert Hare, who devised a checklist of 40 behaviors to diagnose psychopathy. But studies are being conducted on this population every year that change the conversation about what is most often referred to Anti-social Personality Disorder. Psychologists don’t even agree what to call them or how to diagnose them, whether they can treat them or if they should. Add to that, the public often interchange psychopathy and sociopathy, muddling many reported articles and personal accounts. Two kinds of psychopathy exist, as well. Primary tends to be genetic and nonviolent, and secondary—the violent kind—seems to either be triggered or caused by a troubled childhood. Both kinds present on PET scans the same, with the prefrontal cortex completely inactive when the subject is presented with an emotional situation.
Every year, a new study seems to contradict a previous one, so that when researching, I found that some psychologists believe psychopaths can feel empathy and others do not, only understanding empathy cognitively. Some first-hand accounts, such as James Fallon’s, a neuroscientist who, while scanning the brains of psychopaths, accidentally discovered he was a psychopath himself, suggest they can lead 'normal; lives, have very successful careers, and even engage in rather ‘healthy’ marriages, as he has. Their key to success, it seems, is friends and family who see them for who they are, appreciate their strengths and passions, and know how to play to those strengths while downplaying their adverse traits, like not falling victim to their risky behaviors.
On the lower end, scientists estimate around 2% of the population is made up of people with anti-social personality disorder. On the higher end, that number climbs to 8-10%. Why? Because like autism, psychopathy exists on a spectrum and is sometimes confused with OCD, borderline personality disorder, and other comorbidities; many cases are probably never revealed or diagnosed. Part of the problem is that early research focused on incarcerated, violent offenders, finding that many of them showed signs of psychopathy. Thus, all psychopaths or people with anti-social personality disorder
were assumed violent. However, new research is finding psychopaths all over the general population.
After this research, I realized that many of the stereotypes about psychopaths presented in television and literature are largely wrong, and I didn’t want to repeat those inaccuracies. Not all psychopaths are violent, natural-born killers. They don’t have nervous ticks and present as either monstrous (Freddy Krueger) or beautiful, rich, and delusional (Patrick Bateman). You might not even know you were talking to or working with a one. Many are often successful, hardworking, active members of the community, identifiable only when you become close to them and they disappoint you time and again, promising to be best man at your wedding, for example, but instead driving to Vegas on a whim. That is because not only are psychopaths driven and focused individuals, they spend their entire lives learning to be normal. For many, their primary goal is to fit in. And they are good at it. They can mimic emotion, understand how their various behaviors elicit different effects and manipulate those behaviors for the desired one. They can lie easily and readily, passing lie detector tests and looking you in the eye while doing it. Psychopaths learn, often quickly, what to say and do to get what they want from you. Some, however, don’t believe in lying on principle and find no reason to do it. The people in their lives accept their actions are part of their innate being. I suspect many of the stereotypes found in movies and literature perpetuate because the stereotypes are easier to write and make good villains, which I was really tempted to repeat.
Writing a realistic psychopath started to seem as muddied as the definition of one. So, I researched more, searching for nuances, avoiding the archaic studies on only male, violent killers, looking for grayer ends of the spectrum, finding cases in which people portray traits of it—some even many traits of it—and yet experience some, muted emotions and attachments. But, I was still challenged. It turns out psychopaths, even average ones, don’t fit neatly into any protagonist’s arc.
So, what kind of pitfalls does all this create in trying to write a realistic psychopath?
1. Many of their real traits become unbelievable on the page. For example, psychopaths are often poor planners and risk takers and have little awareness of consequence. When I wrote my character making a terrible, dumb decision based on little forethought, a beta reader suggested it wasn’t realistic, that anyone with half a brain would’ve known they would get caught and would’ve planned better. The challenge, then, was to write that character and her hair-brained ideas as believable while not making her seem vapid. It isn’t easy, and I’m not sure I pulled it off, but I focused on placing the obsession in the forefront of the character’s mind to preclude rational thought. I tried to establish her authority in other ways, for example with expert knowledge about something unrelated to that choice. Therefore, the character was still a bad decision maker, but she was also bright and knowledgeable in other ways.
2. Risk can manifest in all kinds of ways: business investments, romantic leaps, or thrill-seeking sports. This trait works to the writer’s advantage, as it gets psychopathic characters in trouble. Lots of trouble. However, when placing themselves and often loved ones who tag along into these risky scenarios, psychopaths don’t hesitate, get scared, or show regret. Thus, a writer cannot easily pair that risk-taking with internal conflict, unless that internal conflict is weighing two possibilities that both benefit the psychopath. Here, the trick is to discover the two selfish reasons for the character to debate, weighing which is more advantageous, but have both of those decisions appear to be moral choices or adhere to the psychopath’s vision of justice or code.
For example, does a psychopathic character run into a burning building to save someone? Likely not. But, if that someone owes him money—lots of money—he might weigh getting physically burned against getting financially burned and end up saving the person and appearing the hero. Or, maybe that character’s idea of a hero is someone who rescues, and heroes get attention and fame. If he rescues the person, he will be celebrated on television, maybe get money out of it, become loved, etc. He weighs that against getting the money from the victim to pay off his gambling debts so he doesn’t get his thumbs broken, because he knows the guy he owes money needs it for his daughter’s surgery and takes getting his money back very seriously. Here, the lines begin to blur.
One psychopathic character, Rosa, from The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine, is a middle-aged woman with callous indifference to those suffering around her. Though she tries to better her family’s lives, sometimes sacrificing a great deal of comfort to do so, she has no moral qualms about essentially pimping out her daughter and granddaughter to a strange German man to get them out of Russia or forcing her husband out and seeing him marry another. Her only motivation is to care for her granddaughter, who, unlike her daughter, resembles her (i.e., is beautiful and smart). Rosa’s care for her granddaughter is thus merely self-care. It is vain. And, yet, this goal seems like a noble one.
3. Discovering the central goal of a psychopath is easy: they want to dominate objects (everyone and everything not “I”). They choose an object of fascination and strive to possess and dominate it, only feeling at rest when the object is theirs and no longer covetable. However, because anything can be an object to a psychopath, including women or men, babies, friends, a career field, an unanswered question, a sport, etc., their options of coveting are endless. This hyper-focused drive on those ‘objects’ makes psychopaths successful and dangerous. However, in stories, because people are not objects, writing them through the eyes of a psychopath creates flat, static characters. Characters become dehumanized and therefore unfelt.
4. Psychopaths, by nature, are not introspective people and thus don’t grow in dramatic leaps and bounds but rather by small degrees. This makes giving them an arc difficult. They also don’t often admit guilt, unless it’s to get what they want. If narrating, these characters would not likely admit to a reader that they are to blame for the events in the story. Or, they might take all the credit, playing God. Thus, they are always unreliable. To Lisa Cron’s question about the driving force of a story, “What would it cost, emotionally, to achieve that goal?” a psychopath would say “nothing.” They are poor planners and big risk takers, specifically because they do not have emotional stakes to their problems. There are no emotional costs.
5. They also don’t respond or react to stimuli; as J. Reid Meloy reports, they don’t feel anger, guilt, fear, depression, sympathy, empathy, gratitude, remorse, sadness, loneliness, or joy. Rather, they only try to diminish feelings of shame and envy, and the answer to both is often to destroy the thing evoking those emotions. And isn’t story a series of reactions to stimuli? A writer then must focus on the psychopath’s feelings of shame and anger. However, I did not want to play into the stereotypical way psychopaths in story react to their shame or envy, that is, by killing those who have shamed them. Rather, my main character strives to negate envy and shame by obtaining said object (the baby) and becoming a person someone can’t shame (the perfect mother).
6. One of the trickier aspects of writing a psychopathic main character is that they don’t reflect on the past often, feel regret or nostalgia, or linger consciously on their feelings of shame. If they think about the past, it is by unconscious association. If they are bitter, they likely do not know why. Their backstories form their obsessions, but how does a writer include that backstory without the character thinking about it? My novel is mostly told in close 3rd person, which means the reader is in that psychopath’s head. There is no objective backstory, only what the character chooses to remember. Thus, I incorporated backstory as association and metaphors, for example, “She looked at the mountains as she did as a child, when driving as they moved from one state to the next, thinking she wanted to not merely climb them, but tear their flesh from their bones.”
Because so much thinking goes into structure, narrative, and character that goes into creating psychopathic characters and the limits they pose on storytelling while writing them, psychological thrillers prove to be complex and challenging novels to compose, even if they are speedy ones to read. They require months of research, drafts upon drafts of reorganizing and shaping, cutting where the narrative becomes too introspective, and lots of creative thinking. It is because of these challenges that I write them and continue the research long after the book is written.