Writing Sociopathic Characters, by April Henry
When you write mysteries and thrillers, chances are that you will someday write about a person who is a sociopath. In my upcoming book, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, one of the characters is a sociopath.
Even though I had written about them, it took me years to figure out that someone I knew was a sociopath. People will often hear sociopath or psychopath – the two terms are basically interchangeable – and think you must be talking about a serial killer. But no. Only a few are. Most are people you might work with, live next door to or be related to. For the most part, they are people who leave a trail of broken hearts, empty wallets and frustrated expectations in their wake.
In some ways, I’m like a sociopath. I was born with no real sense of direction. I can be facing the setting sun and still have no idea where west is. I routinely get lost. It can take years for me to grasp how one street relates to another.
Sociopaths are like that. Only instead of being born without a sense of direction, they seem to be born with an inability to value other people as real, vulnerable human beings.
Robert Hare, PhD, is a pioneer in criminal psychology, specifically the study of sociopaths. He’s come up with some traits common to most sociopaths.
Sociopaths have superficial charm. They are smooth and engaging. That’s because they are not in the least shy or self-conscious. The woman I know comes across well – at first. She easily struck up conversations with strangers.
Sociopaths have a grandiose sense of self-worth. They’re opinionated and cocky. They are so sure of their self worth that at first you might be too. The woman I know was thinking she should become a TV broadcaster – despite lacking any training or experience in this highly competitive field.
Sociopaths have a need for stimulation. They get bored, they take chances, they like thrills. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They are impulsive. The woman I know sometimes hooked up with near strangers.
Sociopaths lie, con and manipulate. It ranges from being sly to being outright dishonest.
The woman I know is an excellent liar. Caught in a lie, she simply layers on two or three more.
Sociopaths don’t feel any guilt. The only feelings they have about their victims are disdain. They have a lack of feeling in general – cold and tactless. I once saw the woman I know laugh because she had made a stranger believe one of her lies to the point the stranger cried with pity for her imaginary fate.
Sociopaths have a parasitic lifestyle. They are good at getting others to pay. The woman I know hasn’t had a job for years.
Sociopaths have difficulties controlling their behavior. They are annoyed, impatient, aggressive, hasty, and often angry. The woman I know ended up in jail for attacking someone.
Sociopaths have no realistic long-term goals. Or their goals are unrealistic – like become a rock star or a famous actor. Or, like the woman I know, to become a TV reporter.
Sociopaths are irresponsible. They may not pay bills, show up late, or do a sloppy job.
They also won’t accept responsibility for their own actions. According to the woman I know, nothing was ever her fault.
Sociopaths you have known
Sociopaths cause so many problems, but, at least right now, we have no way of curing them. Put them in the general prison population or in a mental hospital, and they’ll find ways to manipulate the other inmates.
In order for a person to be change, they must want to be changed. Dr. Hare and others say that sociopaths seldom, if ever, want to be fixed.
Think about people you have come across at work, at school, in your neighborhood, even at church. Chances are that there might be someone who embodies a large number of these traits.
April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com
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