Psychopaths feel little empathy and are usually cruel and often thrill-seekers, but how many of those traits could I believably omit from my character? Can I, for example, have a psychopathic character who--although capable of it--doesn't make any habit of hurting others? And not out of fear of being punished, either, but because s/he really just doesn't feel like it? I'd like to portray my character as oddly clueless, rather than evil--more like someone who has a learning disability with regard to emotions than someone who does harm without remorse (although she's certainly capable of that.) In your opinion, is this characterization believable?I love this question (which is, of course, actually multiple questions) because it gets at all the confusion surrounding psychopathy. And ... I don't have all the answers. I'm not a total expert in that area, but also, there's a bit of debate among the experts with regard to the definition and diagnosis of psychopathy.
|Ted Bundy was a classic|
psychopath. Charmer, liar,
Although a large proportion of incarcerated individuals meet diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, a much smaller percentage also meet criteria for psychopathy (as measured, for example, by Hare's Psychopathy Checklist). The question JJ has, though, is about someone who is not incarcerated. Someone who is not hurting other people, but who, I assume, has other characteristics of psychopathy. Would that person still be considered a psychopath? The first thing I suggest is going to check out the twenty items on that checklist (people are considered psychopathic if they receive a certain score, as rated by an experienced, trained clinician), just to see what kind of symptoms, behaviors, and tendencies are related to this condition.
I also suggest anyone interested in "socially acceptable" psychopathy check out this article in Forbes about this phenomenon in some CEOs. In that piece, it is suggested that the same lack of conscience and empathy can make for pretty good business sense, at least in the short term.
Now, JJ also questioned whether some other disorder might account for a disregard--but not malevolence--for human beings and emotional involvement. Absolutely. There are a few, actually, that you could consider (depending on the details of the character's presentation).
Autistic disorder (or Asperger's disorder) or nonverbal learning disability--individuals with these disorders often have some difficulty reading others' emotion cues, including facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors. Some of these folks shy away from social interaction because it's exhausting, aversive, or uninteresting, and some desire interaction but have trouble achieving social connection.
Schizoid personality disorder--individuals with this disorder show a long-term pattern of social isolation and indifference to others. They appear aloof, detached, and have no desire to share intimacy or engage in close relationships, even with family members.
Now--I am by no means saying that all individuals diagnosed with these disorders show a total disregard for their fellow humans. I'm saying that a tendency of that type might come along with those particular diagnostic profiles.
OK! Questions? Ever tried to write a psychopathic character? If so, how did you go about it? What tendencies/behaviors did you use to show that condition?
Also--check out Deb's response to her own Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question: How would you personify your muse?