Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Author's Guide to Psychopaths-Introduction



The Popularity of the Psychopathic Character

The psychopath is a perennial favorite character-type amongst authors in every genre, though they are most often used in mysteries and thrillers.  Often authors get the very nature of the psychopath incorrect.  I'm not a criminology expert, but I've studied them extensively, both on my own and through my sociology coursework, and seeing a story with an unrealistic psychopath is an instant turn-off for me.

I've long wanted to do more than screech incoherently at the television or book that portrays them as the product of abuse or other fallacies, but the topic is quite large and I've been hesitant to broach the subject.  Tonight, I'm fueled by enough caffeine to wire a moose and I'm trapped inside by yet another winter storm.  I've decided to do a series of blog posts based around the characteristics of a psychopath, and how we authors often get them wrong. 

Myths about Psychopaths

Wiktionary defines psychopathy as, "personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, exploitation, heedlessness, arrogance, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, and lack of empathy and remorse."  Keep in mind that the terms psychopath and sociopath are the same, though some experts occasionally argue for the use of one over the other.

The following are common things I've heard, either from my fellow criminology students, my family, and my own students.
  • A psychopath is a criminal genius. 
    • Think of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.  Statistically speaking, a genius who happens to be psychopathic is almost impossible.  It's theoretically possible.  I think Ted Bundy was the closest thing to Hannibal, but though he was intelligent, he was far from a genius.  Remember that intelligence is one thing and personality is another, and psychopathy is an extreme personality disorder.
  • Psychopaths are created through violent abuse.
    • Dr. Robert Hare has found consistently that abuse only shapes the type of crime a psychopath will commit, not the likelihood of them becoming criminals.  Psychopaths are psychopaths because they were born that way.
  • All psychopaths are serial killers.
    • Many serial killers are psychopaths, but not all.  Additionally, a lot of psychopaths commit white-collar crime, as opposed to violent crime.  I should note that varying definitions of what constitutes a serial killer makes this one tricky to address.
  • Psychopaths are crazy.
    • Psychopaths very, very badly want you to believe this because it seems to diminish their responsibility for their actions.  Psychopaths are perfectly aware of what they are doing.  They just don't care.
  • Psychopaths can be rehabilitated.
    • Believe it or not, traditional psychological treatment makes them worse, not better.
I think almost all of these myths result from several things.  First, I think the sensationalism regarding them in the news and popular culture skews the truth about them.  Second, I think the term "psycho" gets used interchangeably, with some folks meaning "psychotic," and others meaning, "psychopath."

I also think that folks who believe that people are naturally good really struggle with the concept of a person who is completely past redemption.  In their minds, something in the psychopath's life must have made him/her that way, because the potential for good is inside everyone.  One of my friends became nearly hysterical, screeching, "That's not true!" when I showed her the research.  Sometimes I think the denial of the true nature of psychopaths allow ordinary people to keep the worldview they already possess.

The Importance of Getting It Right


As fiction writers, and especially those of us who write speculative fiction, we get to play with truth and reality quite a bit, but I feel the constant found in good fiction is the nature of the characters.  Whether the character can mind-meld with a tiger, lives on Mars, or can shoot death rays from her eyes, the personality of the character is what makes the whole shebang feel real.  Personality is what makes the character do what he/she does, and psychopathy is a personality disorder.

Furthermore, I believe that even though our audiences understand that the story is fiction, it still subtly shapes their subconscious thoughts on how they view the world.  I fear that portraying psychopaths as helpless victims could result in the rest of the populace softening the consequences for their actions.

In subsequent posts, I will give examples of good fictitious psychopaths, as well as bad ones, and discuss what it is that makes them good and not-so-good.  Realize that I'm not trying to argue different scientific views of psychopathy.  Researchers far more knowledgeable than myself will continue to do so.  I am focusing on presenting what I have been taught, which is largely based on the expertise of Dr. Robert Hare, arguably the world's leading expert on the subject.

What image do you think of when picture a psychopath?

(This discussion is continued with Are Psychopaths Born or Made?)

4 comments:

  1. This is a great article. You brought up some things I'd never thought about. I too find it a turn-off when people write something they don't know anything about (but I do), and they obviously didn't do any research. (my peeve is hackers who can break into the CIA database in 5 minutes. LOL)

    India Drummond

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your kind words, India. I know nothing about hacking, so I wouldn't have noticed that as a problem. Thanks for the info!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think it's important to note most studies done of psychopaths (even Dr. Hare's) are done through prison programs. I believe this skews studies of this personality type/disorder more than a little.

    I saw some intriguing MRI data that makes me think psychopathy (on a biological level) is similar to autism. Not saying it's the same thing, but the study indicated the same area of the brain may be affected.

    Sorry, it's a subject I'm very fascinated with and frustrated by...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, kayiscah. Hare recognizes that the percentage of the general population that are psychopaths is significantly lower (1%) than the prison population. (40%) New research suggests that the general population percentage could be closer to 4%, though.

    The MRI data is fascinating. I work with autistic kids, and I can see how there could be similarities between psychopaths and autism, but the big difference is that autistic kids can feel empathy, they just can't always express it or misinterpret social situations in which it would be appropriate.

    ReplyDelete