Understanding the Sociopath Character

imageWhen you search for your villain’s personality there’s a tendency to write a stereotypical “DSM IV” sociopath.

Don’t do it.

These people are individuals, each unique and interesting. The generalizations, while central to science and medicine, don’t define individuals.

Some sociopaths have no clue they’ve got a problem. They seem fine.

Did you catch the recent documentary of a well-adjusted, normally functioning research doc doing brain scans on criminal sociopaths? At the same time, he was also doing a personal study on his extended family to see if there was evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

One day he came to work and found a misplaced sociopath’s scan in the pile with his family’s scans. At least, that’s what he thought…

But it was his own scan!

This was the first time he’d seen it. To his horror it showed the typical sociopath’s pattern: a lack of activity around the central structures.

When he told his friends about it they said essentially, “Yeah, everybody knows you’re a sociopath. The way you like to verbally jab at people and whatnot. But you’re harmless.”

Can you imagine? I think I would die. But he took it pretty well.

There are other sociopaths who know they’ve got the condition, know all the technical details, but don’t consider it a problem at all.

I know of a young sociopath who says he’s smart about having the condition and wouldn’t do anything illegal or devious because it wouldn’t benefit him, it would just land him in jail. Acting on dangerous urges would be illogical for a person who truly cares about himself, he told me. It turns out that a logical, smart sociopath can look at the long-term consequences of his actions in a selfish way, not just the short-term “rewards.”

This guy made no bones about his condition. He admitted to his wife that he didn’t care about her or the kids. She stuck with him just the same. Maybe she gave him credit for his honesty, and saw his openness as a sign that he was trying.

He told me that once his wife asked him something similar to this: “If I took pills and killed myself, what would you do?” He told her essentially this, “If you made a mess on the floor, I wouldn’t clean it up. Somebody else would have to take our kids, I wouldn’t keep them. If you survived with brain-damage, I wouldn’t stick around to take care of you.”

Holy smokes! But isn’t it interesting that she stayed with him?

This young man was providing food and shelter for his family. No one can deny that. He was stable in society. Nobody would have known what kind of person he was inside if he hadn’t volunteered the information.

Interestingly, he didn’t relate a crossroads moment in his past where he was seized by the evil choice to care only about himself. He said he was born that way.

Imagine the courage it took to tell his wife and everybody else all this negative stuff about himself.

A writer could create a hero with these characteristics, rather than a villain. Others have.

Imagine the thrill of writing a scene where this young guy experiences his first feelings of caring for another human being! Or imagine writing the disappointment he would feel if he’d tried and tried to love someone but just couldn’t.

A round, interesting villain or possibly “superhero” would emerge.

Some other sociopaths are afraid of becoming evil. They struggle with dark desires, hiding them from others with falsely caring words, or hiding everything from themselves in denial.

The ever-present bell-shaped curve of biologic systems exists for hat size, crying at movies, and every other trait with a genetic or environmental component. The genius of the bell curve is the broad perspective and objectivity it give us.

It helps us create round characters more intelligently by placing most people in the center of any characteristic.

The majority is close to average. A few individuals lie in the curve’s thinning tails. (Few = thin.) The thin tails contain rare people with shocking amounts of whatever characteristic is under consideration. This makes things interesting, but also tends to paint the entire group with the extreme traits of the rarest individuals within it (because so many of us ignorantly see groups in “black and white” terms).

But great writers don’t fall for the simple generalizations of all-or-none thinking. They seem to see nature’s bell-shaped curves that keep characters realistic.

Notice the TV and big screen “good guys” with sociopathic traits: Spock, Data, The Mentalist, Dexter. The writers have avoided stereotypes so well that we don’t considers them sociopaths, for the most part. Do we? Dexter, yes, he’s billed as a sociopath, but even he’s a good guy to everyone I know who watches him. Why is that?

There was a line from The Mentalist where Mr. Jane says to the tall, younger redheaded woman, Van Pelt:

“A little nice with the bitch, a little bitch with the nice.”

Jane was giving Miss Van Pelt some advice on how to interact with people, as if to say, “Don’t be a black and white, two-dimensional character. A little edge makes niceness more meaningful. A touch of kindness makes a person’s harshness more effective.”


I think this brilliant dialogue was, at some level, a gifted writer with a great deal of success under her/his belt offering advice to us on how to draw powerful characters, even those with traits of a sociopath.

I imagine this writer saying to me, “When your characters get angry, keep a touch of gentleness in them, and when they’re trying to be totally supportive, maintain an undercurrent of firmness. This is how effective people of all types behave.”

M. Talmage Moorehead

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