Storytelling

The psychopathic character

The psychopathic character is relentless, always in pursuit, ruthlessly able to manipulate and deceive. When the charm fails he or she is willing to use intimidation and violence. These characters are callous and unable to feel empathy; they use the force of their will to enforce a selfish world view on others. They’re willing to unleash pain and destruction without remorse.

It’s common for villains, ‘baddies’ and antagonists in fiction to display psychopathic traits. These behaviours make them menacing and difficult to defeat. The classic ‘madman’ psychopath such as Max Cady in Cape Fear and Carter Hayes (AKA James Danforth) in Pacific Heights manipulates an innocent family into taking them into their confidence, abusing their generosity and kindness and turning their humanity into a vulnerability that can be exploited. Once they are on the inside they become the ‘enemy within’. They manipulate people’s relationships to turn one person against another until they are unmasked for what they are.

In storytelling the only thing worse than a monster lurking somewhere in the neighbourhood is having one in your home. In The Girl on the Train Rachael Watson’s life is collapsing all around her and, to make things more extreme, she’s an alcoholic. Her downfall can’t go much further until she realises that the dysfunction in her life has been deliberately manufactured by her psychotic partner (now her ex). He’s used her drunken stupors to control and manipulate her sense of reality. His world view is that Rachael is a problematic failure and by wilfully destroying her life he can extend his world view of Rachael onto her and others.

Psychopathic characters don’t need reasons to do terrible things. They abuse other characters based on spurious justifications to suit their world view. They believe they have a right to act in the way they do. Their sheer force of will operates without an ethical dimension. In this respect, they resemble a traditional monster because of their coldness and resilience. Nothing can stop them except a protagonist who is willing to challenge them head on.

The ‘psycho’ character is often attracted to positions of power which they can use to perpetuate their world view. He or she can appear anywhere, in any class, any ethnicity, and any walk of life. The psychotic character has numerous permutations; some predominantly conniving and manipulative (a scheming politician), others are overtly violent (a thug or torturer). The fullest expression of the psychopathic character is the classic monster (the extra-terrestrial beast in Alien) and the literally heartless machine (the relentless Terminator and Hector in Saturn 3). Other permutations of the type focus on characters who are driven by a deranged psychological obsession: the rejected lover, the hatemonger, the mad scientist, and the bloodthirsty killer—all have warped obsessions. The ‘bunny boiler’ in Fatal Attraction becomes obsessed with a man she casually sleeps with. The crazy scientist in The Black Hole is willing to destroy everything and everyone around him to pursue a plan that’s doomed to fail. There are many fictional ‘psychos’: from power obsessed political leaders, and egotistical business executives to sadistic military commanders, violent criminals, and cult leaders. They’re often characterised as self-important, vain, egotistical and suffering from megalomania. Norman Bates in Psycho is the classic deranged psychopath. Tony Montana in Scarface and the numerous James Bond villains are psychopathic criminal overlords. These characters are willing to wreak havoc and destruction for their own self-aggrandisement and lust for power.

Characters with psychopathic traits are not all baddies and monsters—they can, strangely enough, be heroes. James Bond is a psychopath: he murders people and cracks infantile jokes about them afterwards. He’s a character who must win at any cost and is ready to use extreme violence to get his way. Why does the audience tolerate this behaviour? Because in the classic psychopathic mode he’s able to win people over with his charm and charisma. And his psychopathic behaviour is aligned with the national interest (and the audience’s desire to overcome an even more psychopathic villain). Bond is the monster that’s unleashed to fight another monster.

The psychopath lacks ‘common humanity’, so it’s unsurprising when non-human lifeforms: beast-like monsters, alien creatures, paranormal beings, and robots possess psychopathic traits. The alien in Predator is technically advanced but has no empathy for its human prey. The creature in Alien also lacks empathy—it’s ‘pure monster’.

Psychopaths can be cultured, intelligent and appear rational—and yet behave monstrously. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is smart and educated but determined to impose his world view of insane bloodlust on others—murdering and then eating his victims. A psychopathic character doesn’t even have to be technically ‘alive’. Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a computer based AI entity (with a human voice) who is willing to coldly sacrifice the entire crew of the spaceship to ensure the mission is successful. He epitomises pure logic taken to the point of absurd rationalism, and enforced without emotion.

The key trait of the psychopathic character is a need to impose his or her will on others whether it’s a form of twisted logic (Annie Wilkes in Misery believes she is taking care of her victim; Frank Underwood in House of Cards is just doing what is necessary to succeed; Humbert Humbert in Lolita believes he’s innocently in love), megalomania (Goldfinger and Scarramanga in James Bond believe they should be in control of the world; Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon believes he should be in control of the universe) or a world view that endorses acts of individual violence  (Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, and Alex in A Clockwork Orange).

The ‘human monster’ is terrifying because he or she can hide in plain sight. And whereas non-humans may be beastly (a monster) or unthinkingly mechanical (a robot) an audience expects at least a modicum of humanity from other people. Whatever the type, or permutation, the psychotic character (even before modern psychology existed) is at the epicentre of storytelling. His or her extreme force of will and deranged obsessiveness makes them dramatic and formidable antagonists.