Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why I Deleted a Popular Post

Hi, folks!

I have good news and bad news.  The good news is my blog is picking up a lot more traffic.  The bad news is that, since some of the new readers know me personally, I had to delete a very popular post called, "The Real Horror Story Behind My Character's Motivations."

The children involved in that years-long ordeal are not yet safe, and I'm terrified word will get back to the psycho they have for a mother that I posted their story.  She holds the upper hand because the law will not step in, even though her abuse has been reported.  I fear what she will do if she is angered.

I took great pains to disguise the kids' identities, but one reader recognized enough details to know who they were.  It's not her fault.  It was mine.  I had hoped by posting it I could show people how kids fall through the cracks, but it's too risky.

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?)