Part One: What is a Sociopath and what’s it got to do with writing?
What really makes people (and characters) ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ (or sometimes just brilliant) and what’s it got to do with writing? By Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of World Wide Development.
I was lent a fascinating pop-psychology book last year which really opened my eyes. Now the bad things that people do in the world all make good sense to me, and the things that other people agonize about in ‘public morality’ don’t trouble me. But what’s most useful about this book and this approach – which we should all handle with caution anyway – is what it can teach writers about how to understand and explain ‘bad’ people in their stories. Really, it’s an interesting account of a vital aspect of life, that we should all be aware of, especially writers, and which gives us a great view into it.
I treat all theories as a kind of prism. You can look through them to see the world from an interesting, vivid new angle. But they’re never a total, complete or full picture of things – in fact the deeper you go into them, the more distorted you’re probably making things look. But the perspective they give can be extremely useful. I’ve actually found this one very therapeutic in life – I’ve been able to relax about a lot of things in life that really used to trouble me, after a year of watching these ideas playing out in the world.
For writers, a very high proportion of antagonists – and a growing number of protagonists – fit the personality type I’ll describe in this article, so understanding the reasons behind it is extremely important for writers. In this article, I’ll show you how to use this aspect of human character to help you craft driving characters who’ll convincingly challenge your other characters right to the limit. We see so many stories in which the ‘villains’ feel hollow, stereotypical and one-dimensional. But if a writer can truly understand the cause of that person’s condition, then they can ensure that their ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ characters can still transcend stereotypes and truly convince us. Stories are always at their most powerful when they’re utterly convincing, about some important aspect of life.
I’ve laid the article out with a series of activities, to help you put yourself into the mindset of these people and characters better. Too often, the problem with antagonist characters, is that they’re written “from the outside” rather than with the understanding that enables us to let them speak and act convincingly for themselves. We tend to lose interest in stories with one- or two-dimensional villains once we’re reaching adulthood, because they just don’t feel real or threatening enough.
Firstly… think back through all the news stories about people whose actions have ever shocked or appalled you. Write out this sentence starter, and complete the sentence, for every story you’ve ever been appalled by.
How could anyone…?
The main inspiration for this article is: THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR, by Martha Stout phD (Officially: THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, Broadway Books 2005).
Stout is a practicing psychologist, and she’s an instructor in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, so she’s got the credentials to back up her work. But there are plenty of fair criticisms of the book – such as this hostile review in the New York Times, from another psychology author: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/06/books/review/the-sociopath-next-door-ruthless-people.html?_r=0. So I recommend we look at this theory in the way we would one by Freud or Marx. It’s not necessarily true – but it’s interesting and potentially a powerful tool for us as writers, if we handle it right.
Is bad really bad? How bad is bad? – The difference between a sociopath and a “psychopath”
Well actually, there’s no reason to assume that someone who is a sociopath – or even a psychopath – is actually bad at all. They may use their energies and talents to pursue goals that actually do a lot of good in the world – maybe in a destructive way sometimes, but with good intentions. But as writers, we probably need to most improve our understanding of the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ ones, who we often rely on to give our stories some kick.
Clearly, a lot of violent people can be described as ‘psychopaths’, and many of us might use the term interchangeably with ‘sociopath’ – but we’re wrong to. When we consider their crimes, it’s easy enough to recognize that known psychopaths are somehow ‘different’ from the rest of us, and that ‘no normal person’ would do the things they seem to do – mass murder, serial killings etc. But what is a ‘psychopath’? What’s the definition of this? Can you suggest the difference between a psychopath, and someone who is “only” a ‘sociopath’?
Complete this sentence:
The definition of a psychopath is someone who…
Only scroll down when you’ve sketched out a few ideas…
A definition of “psychopathy”
Well, let’s handle all this carefully as well, for reasons you can see here: http://www.medicaldaily.com/psychopath-definition-may-be-different-you-thought-7-facts-about-psychopaths-361112. But the most useful definition of a “psychopath” I’ve come across is that a psychopath is a person who cannot empathize with others. They can’t relate to the feelings of other people, and are therefore less likely to respect that other people (or animals) therefore deserve to be respected, valued or given any rights in life. So if you’re writing a character who behaves in those ways, that’s your working definition of this person’s personality type: they have no empathy with others. This is the cause – and the behaviour they exhibit in your story is the effect. It’s important to write these characters that way round – to avoid cliché and stereotyping, and to generate genuinely new and convincing stories and characters.
Now, it’s important to say that even a “psychopath” isn’t necessarily a violent or dangerous or even bad person – lots of “psychopaths” successfully integrate into society and can be excellent at the work they do – perhaps especially if it needs a ruthless streak. For example, boxer Tyson Fury and soccer star David James have both said on public record that they suspect they may have the “psychopath” personality type (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/boxing/34341535, https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2013/feb/09/david-james-psychopaths-football). Most of the time, when people refer to psychopaths, what they mean is “violent psychopath”.
Of course, a lot of psychopaths may also be sociopaths – there’s plenty of overlap. But I’d like to suggest that we find the actions of sociopaths much harder to recogniZe, accept and deal with than “violent psychopaths” – because these people are not different from everyone else in any recognisable (or even provable) way!
So now try to complete this sentence. Try several options before you scroll down:
The definition of a sociopath is someone who…
A definition of “sociopathy”
According to Stout, a sociopath is someone who has no conscience.
That means they also have no guilt, shame or remorse. Ever. But in every other way, they can come across as a completely normal human being. And – crucially – because they do have the power to empathize, they are able to present themselves much more convincingly as a perfectly normal – even wonderful – human being. Which is the front behind which they can pursue their goals with the kind of ruthlessness that Stout is preoccupied with.
I’ll explain a bit about the possible causes and clinical and treatment aspects of this in a follow-up article. But it’s vital to recognise that because of this definition – it’s actually impossible to ever know if someone is a sociopath, and probably libellous to infer that they are. Better to keep your views to yourself – but it’s useful to be forewarned and forearmed about these kinds of people’s existence, and that’s the point of Stout’s book. She gives eye-opening true examples of children, bosses, boyfriends and many other people who – in so many different forms – are playing out sociopathic personalities and goals unnoticed within society, but wreaking havoc upon the people unfortunate enough to fall under their influence. It’s a quick, vivid read.
The subtitle of Stout’s book is “The Ruthless Against the Rest of Us.” Apparently, 1 in 25 Americans is a sociopath – that’s a huge number of people we can’t help dealing with in life, and no doubt a disproportionate quantity of the people in the news. But significantly less people become sociopaths in cultures like Japan where the culture insists more on the interrelatedness of all things. So perhaps sociopathy correlates with individualist cultures and attitudes. Indeed, it’s easy to see how someone who refuses to accept any kind of shame, guilt, or regret would also refuse to take responsibility for personal actions or obligations to society, and therefore would naturally champion individualism and deregulation in all matters in life – but of course many perfectly responsible people also favour those views, and I’ve heard enough firsthand stories from all sides to confirm that there are horrible people on every side of the political spectrum. I suspect that a sociopath has no shame about pursuing whatever their goals or values are, and are liable to egotism and a superiority complex (even a ‘moral superiority’ complex) – out of their sense of how foolish and inferior other people are to let their lives be stunted by a naïve sense of conscience when such higher goals ought to be within their reach. What losers!
And it is a typical trait of sociopaths to see life as a game, in which there are only ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Sociopaths are usually determined to be winners – but what they consider to be ‘winning’ could take any number of forms. So the key is always to understand what this person actually wants. Because it may be as simple as ‘a picture postcard family’. And there may nothing that they may stop at, in order to achieve it. And no regrets about the collateral damage they cause in order to do so. Dumping their dying spouse might be a perfectly valid method to achieving that goal, in their minds. But this doesn’t mean that in their way they’re not generous, responsible, thoughtful, and kind, in every other context in life.
Now take a look at these three characters who some might consider to be showing sociopathic traits – the three I’ve chosen I’ve chosen intentionally because what they do is not “bad”, nor are they what most people would consider as bad, but the personality traits are there that we might associate with a sociopath.
- Greg House is someone who views each patient as a puzzle, as a game, and he has to figure it out before time runs out. This is his game – he wins by curing the patient and loses if they die. Now we do see over the 8 seasons of HOUSE that he can empathize with others, of course, he also has that infamous House ego, too. But on the rare occasion he does show guilt… but is it mainly guilt at his own failure?
- A clearer example may be the character on which House is based, Sherlock Holmes, especially in Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC incarnation (who describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”). His character has the ego, and when someone smarter (Moriaty) comes along he must ‘outdo’ him, and he wins this game by ultimately cheating death in the episode “The Reichenbach Fall”. Sherlock is the smartest and greatest detective there is. Sherlock even has the catchphrase “the game is on” to really show that he thinks life and these cases are just a game.
Finally, Sheldon Cooper of THE BIG BANG THEORY, another egotistical character who believes he is better than everyone else. Sheldon is even a childish person who loves comic books, science-fiction, and more “nerdy” things. While his friends and colleagues also like this stuff, they live their lives as adults and are not as attached to these things as Sheldon is. Importantly, Sheldon does show some limited ability to empathize with others, but when apologizing he does so with a sarcastic manner – he knows he should apologize but he doesn’t really mean it. But is Sheldon actually a sociopath, is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, or is he just a headstrong geek? Either way – he is a multi-dimensional comedy character.
These characters all show some sociopathic traits and they have been specifically chosen because they aren’t bad people or what we would usually associate a sociopath as being.
Spend the next week looking around for signs of sociopathy at work in the world. Then come back to my follow-up article with a view of whether or not you actually think these ideas are useful for us as people or writers. This article is a speculation, about things that can’t really be proven. So you should treat it as a point of departure for your own view of the world – not a ‘grand theory’ to shoehorn everybody and everything into somehow. Next time out, I’ll show you how to use it as a tool to build strong and convincing characters who will naturally generate antagonism around themselves.