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Psychopaths in Fiction

by Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

Colloquially, people use the term psychopath (pronounced sigh-COP-ah-thee) to indicate that someone is “crazy,” but this would be a gross overstatement. I’ve got family members who are crazy, but are not remotely psychopaths. In the psychological field, the term is mainly used in conjunction with or as the equivalent to Antisocial Personality Disorder, but this is shortsighted and incorrect.

The term psychopath isn’t located in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the canon of therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Psychopathy is more like a combination of characteristics from several disorders, not just one.

Dr. Robert Hare, the brain behind the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), wants to disassociate psychopathy from the DSM’s catchall diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder (what your average villain in a suspense novel might be diagnosed with).

“It’s like having pneumonia versus having a cold,” Hare said. “They share some common symptoms, but one is much more virulent.”1

Hare’s checklist measures 20 traits, each of which are scored on a scale of 0 to 2, to determine a research-based diagnosis of psychopathy. Information is gathered from the person’s case history and a semi-structured interview by a clinician with an advanced degree.

characterstereotypes-largeBut for some fun, grab a pencil and paper and see how your psychopath character makes out on the test2 below. Score him or her a “0” if the trait doesn’t apply at all, “1” if it somewhat applies, and “2” if it fully applies.

Factor 1: “Aggressive Narcissism”

1. Glibness and superficial charm
– smooth-talking, engaging and slick.

2. Grandiose self-worth
– greatly inflated idea of one’s abilities and self-esteem, arrogance and a sense of superiority.

3. Pathological lying
– shrewd, crafty, sly and clever when moderate; deceptive, deceitful, underhanded and unscrupulous when high.

4. Cunning/manipulative
– uses deceit and deception to cheat others for personal gain.

5. Lack of remorse or guilt
– no feelings or concern for losses, pain and suffering of others, coldhearted and unempathic.

6. Shallow affect / emotional poverty
– limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness.

7. Callous/lack of empathy
– a lack of feelings toward others; cold, contemptuous and inconsiderate.

8. Fails to accept responsibility for own actions
– denial of responsibility and an attempt to manipulate others through this.

9. Promiscuity
– brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs and an indiscriminate choice of sexual partners.

Factor 2: “Socially Deviant Lifestyle”

10. Needs stimulation/prone to boredom
– an excessive need for new, exciting stimulation and risk-taking.

11. Parasitic lifestyle
– Intentional, manipulative, selfish and exploitative financial dependence on others.

12. Poor behavioral controls
– expressions of negative feelings, verbal abuse and inappropriate expressions of anger.

13. No realistic long-term goals
– inability or constant failure to develop and accomplish long-term plans.

14. Impulsiveness
– behaviors lacking reflection or planning and done without considering consequences.

15. Irresponsible
– repeated failure to fulfill or honor commitments and obligations.

16. Juvenile delinquency
– criminal behavioral problems between the ages of 13-18.

17. Early behavior problems
– a variety of dysfunctional and unacceptable behaviors before age thirteen.

18. Revocation of Conditional Release
– Violating probation or other conditional release because of technicalities.

Traits Not Correlated with Either Factor

19. Many short-term marital relationships
– lack of commitment to a long-term relationship.

20. Criminal versatility
– diversity of criminal offenses, whether or not the individual has been arrested or convicted.

A score of 30 would be needed for the research diagnosis of psychopathy. A noncriminal (aka normal person) usually scores around 5 while incarcerated offenders will average out around 22. A “true 40” would be an off-the-charts psychopath like Ted Bundy.

If you want to be psychologically on par the next time you call a character (or someone you know) a psychopath, bookmark this blog post!


Jeannie CampbellJEANNIE CAMPBELL is a Contributing Writer for the ACFW Journal and Christian Fiction Online Magazine, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, and owner/operator of The Character Therapist website, where she diagnoses make-believe people. She is also a freelance writer, author, editor, and book reviewer and has been featured in several e-zines, newspapers, and blogs. Two of her manuscripts have finaled in the ACFW Genesis contest.

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4 Responses to Psychopaths in Fiction

  1. Lex Keating says:

    Holy Fudd! I have a YA novel with a teenager who scores an 18. Give her time, she’s young… But I also have a non-incarcerated real-life person who scores a 26, which scares me in no small way.

    Great post, by the way. It’s good to see how this differs from an antisocial disorder. What disorders does this combine?

  2. Tedra says:

    This is a really great post. And yes, it is being bookmarked.

  3. Jeannie, EXCELLENT stuff for mystery writers, in particular. Mr. Ripley was one of the scariest psychopaths I’ve run across in fiction and I’d like to craft my own special one someday…

  4. Interesting, Jeannie. I have a character in one of mine that fits perfectly all of the first (narcisistic) and most of the rest. They didn’t label him, though, since he lived in 1st century Rome. Other than someone who needs to disappear…