There was a girl who went to a funeral.
There she met a boy that she really liked.
She did not get his phone number.
Two days later she killed her mother.
How many people do you know? Think about it a second. Fifty? One hundred? More? Or let’s do it this way. How many people have you ever known? Think about all of the college courses you’ve taken, the various jobs and obligations, pinning you shoulder to shoulder with people who may or may not have become your friends. Perhaps you were hard pressed ten minutes after the meeting to remember some of their names. That’s fine. You connected. Let’s come to a round number just for fun. How about two thousand people? Sound good? Good. Twenty of them were certifiably psychopaths of the Ted Bundy variety. Eighty of them were sociopathic enough to raise red flags in a psychiatry appointment.
History is littered with lives ruined by the sociopath. We remember their names without much prompting. Jeffrey Dahmer. John Wayne Gacy. Maybe you have been around long enough to remember Charles Whitman and his perch in the Texas clock tower. Some sociopaths have stood the test of time, leaving a mark so indelible that lore has been built up around them, like Vlad the Impaler, Al Capone, Lizzie Borden, Genghis Khan, or Lady Bathory. We remember these people and some romanticized version of what they did, but what is it that made them the embodiment of evil? Or more accurately, what does it mean to be a sociopath, and why should you care?
Sociopaths (or psychopaths if you prefer. The terms are interchangeable) lack empathy. They have no emotional connection to other people or living things. In a word, they lack love, even for themselves. Other people are things; they are objects to manipulate and use and then discard once that usefulness is exhausted. It is not a choice for a sociopath to care. They are simply incapable. Imagine it: your life without love and connection to other people, without the joy of having a puppy lick your face, the sadness of losing a loved one, or the elation of that first kiss. Hard to do, isn’t it? Well imagine this: Sociopaths think your empathy is just as hard to imagine. They think it’s silly. For them it’s impossible.
The lack of empathy is just one of the things that make them stick out and captivate our interest. One in one hundred people could remove you from the planet and not lose a wink of sleep over it. One in twenty-five people score pretty high on the psychopath test. Do you know twenty-five people? I do, and after reading the test and a few books on the topic, I could think of more than one person that was suspect. Let’s take a look at the test to get a better idea of what we’re talking about.
- glib and superficial charm
- grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
- need for stimulation
- pathological lying
- cunning and manipulativeness
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
- callousness and lack of empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioral controls
- sexual promiscuity
- early behavior problems
- lack of realistic long-term goals
- failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- many short-term marital relationships
- juvenile delinquency
- revocation of conditional release
- criminal versatility
These criteria are from the Hare Psychological Checklist. It’s scored on a point system. Score high enough and you raise red flags. Score really high and you are likely a threat to society. These high scorers are your neighbors, friends, colleagues, and if you are unlucky enough they are your loved ones. After reading this list, I’m sure you can think of at least one or two suspect people that you have known, or worse yet know.
So we have the basic definition, but why should you care? There is, of course, the precautionary tale of “buyer beware,” and if they seem too good to be true they probably are, but as a writer how does this information benefit you? The answer is that history is also littered with literary characters pulled straight from the worst that humanity has to offer: the sociopath. Many of those characters are based on real people, but the acts are rarely as awful as the real thing. Remember Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter? He’s based on Robert John Maudsley, one of Great Britain’s most notorious and ruthless killers. Buffalo Bill, also from Silence of the Lambs, would surely fit the profile. Most of us know that Dracula is really just Vlad the Impaler. There is Sherlock Holmes, a high-functioning sociopath, and his nemesis Moriarty. Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey fits more than one of the attributes of the list. Alexander DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange is most certainly certifiable. O’Brien from 1984 is to this day chilling. Fernand Mondego from The Count of Monte Cristo just makes me mad. And the list goes on and on and on. These characters fascinate us. They keep us up at night, safe in our beds and grateful that it was only a story. They live long after the final page and become the boogeyman for otherwise rational adults.
Now to be fair, not all sociopaths are bloodthirsty vampires, necrophiliacs, or home invaders. Most are non-violent con artists making their way through the world just like you and me, or rather by using you and me. They are politicians (yup, you probably voted for one or two. Sociopaths are drawn to politics). They teach college courses and ring up your groceries. They are corporate raiders (remember Gordon Gekko?) and janitors. They are even psychiatrists. Sociopaths fill every station of life because they are as varied as any other segment of society. Housewives and football coaches. Preachers. Childcare providers and the children who blow up frogs (remember The Bad Seed, The Good Son, and The Omen?). They can be all of these things, and they don’t care — not about your welfare or your child or your vote or that frog. They are remorseless con artists who are good at it and come in all shapes and sizes — as do characters in the literary world
Do you need a sociopath in your story? No, not necessarily, but sociopathic tendencies offer a great place to start for some really interesting plot developments. Imagine a housewife with an abnormal appetite for money. What is she willing to do? How about a librarian who spends her time spreading rumors? Or how about this:
Greg is a mechanic. He’s especially smart and can spark up a conversation with just about anyone. He has friends, but likes his quiet time. His favorite food is tacos. In the back of his house are oil drums filled with people parts.
Alicia is a pretty fifteen year old and the head cheerleader at her high school. On weekends she goes to local concerts with her friends. Her car is on its last legs and needs some work, but she is kind of glad. Alicia has a crush on Greg.
Read over the Hare Checklist (the PCL-R officially) and pick just one attribute, then apply it to a character you are developing. Not enough? Add another, and then keep going until you are happy with the person that is coming to life on the page. Let those tendencies make the decisions and see where it goes. If it gives you the creeps you are on the right track, because it will probably give me the creeps too. And just when you think you have gone too far, read a detailed report of Jeffrey Dahmer’s or Ted Bundy’s activities. I promise you haven’t gone too far, but I’ll bet the character you are brewing will be one for the ages.
One in one hundred people are sociopaths. One in twenty-five are leaning heavily in that direction. In the Greater New York City area there are no less than one hundred and ninety thousand sociopaths. Look around. You know them, and they are using or abusing you. It’s time you started using them right back. Write them down and see what they do. I’m willing to bet you will be a bit surprised and maybe even a little startled. If not then you aren’t close enough to reality. And for the record, if you are feeling bad about using a person’s condition as a tool to further your literary masterpiece — don’t worry. Remember, they don’t care if you live or die. You can’t hurt them emotionally, but even if you could, would you care if you hurt Ted Bundy’s feelings? I thought not. Plus, if you’re feeling remorse I applaud you. It mean’s you aren’t a sociopath. Congratulations.
We began with a riddle about a girl and a funeral. It’s just a bit of fun, but it does show how a sociopath might think. Hopefully you have a guess. Here’s the answer:
She hoped the boy would come to her mother’s funeral so she could see him again and get his number.
So… Did you get it right?
Want to know more? Here are a couple of recommended books. Both are great, even if you don’t include a sociopath in your next work.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
Image: Ted Bundy on trial.