Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sociopaths in fiction

Sociopaths portrayed in fiction = mixed bag. Some would-be authors/filmakers have asked me which fictional sociopaths I consider accurate. I, of course, love Dexter, but I don't think I have mentioned before that a favorite sociopath author of mine is Patricia Highsmith. I was enjoying this review in the New York Times of a new biography of Highsmith. I even enjoyed the headline, "Hiding in plain sight." I have a theory that only real sociopaths are able to write from the sociopath point of view in a way that really rings true (to other sociopaths at least), and i have long suspected Ms. Highsmith to be a member of the tribe. The new biography seems to point in that direction.

To truly appreciate good sociopath portrayals, though, I feel like you need to experience bad sociopath portrayals. A reader flagged for me this blog entry, featuring a short story written from the perspective of a murderous sociopath out to teach women a lesson in manners. A warning sign of a bad sociopath portrayal is the author's need to justify the accuracy of his character by referencing the consulting of an expert. I understand the urge. From what I know of popular culture, critics are always questioning the "motivations" of a fictional character. But the mind of a sociopath works so differently than an empath's. There is almost an unspeakable beauty to it, like a work of art. Either the protrayal rings true or it doesn't. It's almost impossible to fake. If you find yourself faking it, though, do like this author did and name drop:
I wouldn’t want to be a psychopath, but I thought it would be a good mental exercise to write a short story from a psychopath’s perspective. After doing the appropriate research, and getting a helping hand from Dr. Robert Hare, the world’s leading expert on psychopathic behavior and mental processes, I composed a bit of romantic psychopathic fiction entitled “Giving Shelter.”
To hear these authors/filmakers/actors talk, you'd think that all Dr. Hare does is consult. He's a smart guy, but he readily acknowledges that many elements of psychopathy remain a mystery even to him. I appreciate the attempts to positively portray sociopathy, but I feel that the accounts that ring most true to life are the accounts that come from the cold black hearts of people like Ms. Highsmith and whoever it is who writes Dexter's internal monologue. It's a blessing and a curse.


  1. Wow. The difference between Highsmith’s Ripley and the cat in the short story is striking. I agree with your interpretation ME. The tone of the short story doesn’t sound organic and natural the way Ripley does. The psychopath sounds more like a caricature than a living, breathing person. Then again, I’m no psychopath, so what do I know?

  2. Highsmith is indeed great. I had some of my first intimations that I was more than "cynical" when reading 'The Talented Mr. Ripley'.

    I believe there are also some astute observers of sociopaths from 'outside':

    Flannery O'Conner -- sociopaths appear in several significant stories, primarily as means of revealing the moral failings of 'normal' people.

    In James Cain's 'Double Indemnity' closes with an insightful treatment of the female pscyhopath's motivations/psychology.

    Iago of Shakespeare's Othello is most compelling and brilliantly realized sociopath villain. The play demonstrates more insight than any of the popular studies of psychopaths: "I am not what I am". ... couldn't have said it better myself.

  3. I'm not that keen on Dexter -- the whole 'born in blood' etiology is cheap and sensational. Falling back on a simple causal relationship between his mother's grisly murder and his own hobby seems too easy.

    Highsmith's characters are great precisely because their pathologies can not be easily mapped -- this conveys some of the uncertainty and ambivalence of "real life".

  4. I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which the show is based on and while the character is a decent imitation, I have to agree with Harry about the origins of his pathology being too easy.

    I admit, the idea of him having his own code of "morals" in terms of who he kills does seem realistic considering many on this blog have their own sets of personal codes or morals that they live by or at least apply from time to time.

  5. i think some writers are just good. robert heinlein for example, when writing from a womans perspective it gives me goosebumps. constantly asking myself, "how does he know that?" he was so intune to the subtle differences between men and women. also, harlen ellison probably gives sociopaths the "willies". lol, although i doubt he is one.
    both, bring storytelling to a higher level. both, are masters of their craft. (in my opinion.)

  6. Though I watch Dexter, I do not love the character especially as a sociopath. I am not sure where it is going with everything. As it stands now it seems that his father is playing the part of his superego rather than a conscience, at least I hope so. This season brought more rationality to his thoughts which I did appreciate.

    I think you are correct on how people write when it regards to sociopaths. I have found few that have been able to write it without rationalizing the "why" for the reader. I think this makes the story bland for me.

    The world cannot just accept that we just are. Some without reason, without cause.

  7. As the author of the short story in question, I found Jean's comment most interesting. When the story was written in 2000, it was rejected because the editor could not accept that there was no "why." He wanted some "reason" why the character was the way he was. Hey, he just IS.
    Different authors have different styles and techniques, and various readers (be they sociopaths or not) have different responses to this particular story. One wrote: "the best representation of psychopathic personality i have ever seen."
    On matters of opinion-- favorable or unfavorable - I have no objection. On matters of this author's intentions, however, I am the final authority. It was stated: "If you find yourself faking it, though, do like this author did and name drop."
    I can certainly see how my minimal introduction to the story may give that impression.Had I been writing it specifically for the credential demanding "birthers" of this forum, I would of course include my complete psychiatric history, neurological medical records, and the diverse diagnoses of my mental condition over a period of forty years.
    I certainly wish you enjoyed the story more than you did. I do feel that comparing they style in which I wrote the story to the style of another author dealing with psychopathy is more indicative of the condition than literary acumen.

    Aside from this short story, I have several full length non-fiction books on the topic of psychopathy and related conditions. Among them are MURDER IN THE FAMILY, HEAD SHOT, BODY COUNT, MOM SAID KILL, BROKEN DOLL and the forthcoming FATAL BEAUTY. Enjoy.

  8. ^Ok, now that’s awesome. This is why the internet is wonderful sometimes. I would never have imagined that I would be called a birther. LMAO! Simply awesome.

  9. Daniel
    I am delighted you enjoyed being called a "birther" -- I wondered if someone would get it and have a laugh. I'm pleased you found it awesome.

    Best regards,


  10. I really want to write a novel from the point of view of a female socio because they are often overlooked because we are so good at hiding.

  11. Im trying to find old episodes of Brookside with Georgia Simpson in them, but defunct British soaps don't get repeated or put on YouTube. The character was supposedly a realistic secondary psychopath and the storyline dwelt on her relationships and her emotional states including her temporary remission.


Comments on posts over 14 days are SPAM filtered and may not show up right away or at all.

Join Amazon Prime - Watch Over 40,000 Movies


Comments are unmoderated. Blog owner is not responsible for third party content. By leaving comments on the blog, commenters give license to the blog owner to reprint attributed comments in any form.