Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals

by Kassandra Lamb

By far, the most popular posts on our site are those discussing psychopaths:  What Is a Psychopath?, Are Psychopaths Born or Made?, and Can Psychopaths Be Cured?

Why are we humans so fascinated by these people who are essentially evil incarnate? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I don’t think it means we like that evil. Perhaps we are so intrigued because it is hard to fathom how some people can end up that way.

Today, I’m hanging out over at Jami Gold’s cyber-home, talking about psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and other kinds of villains. What are the differences between these labels? How do the people who merit these labels behave? And what causes these pathological patterns of behavior?

Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals

One of the toughest tasks we authors face is deciding how to portray our bad guys and gals. Will we make them out to be misguided and conflicted souls, or totally evil psychopaths, or somewhere in between? And exactly what is a psychopath anyway?

Legend of Sleepy Mayfair coverThis question came up for me recently as I finished up a Halloween story in my cozy mystery series. I was tempted to go the conflicted soul route and have my antagonist be at least partially redeemed at the end, but some of the things this antagonist was destined to do, it would take a full-blown psychopath to go there. So that’s the direction I had to take.

Sometimes, like in this case, the plot dictates how evil and lacking in remorse the antagonist must be, but other times, most times really, we may want to have at least some positive traits in our bad guys.

So how to do that and still be true to human nature? (As it really is, not how it is portrayed all too often in movies and TV shows.)

What Is a Psychopath Anyway?

First, let me clarify our terminology. Sociopath and psychopath are essentially the same thing. They are two different words, coined at different points in the history of the mental health field, but referring to the same people … and neither is still officially used in the field today.

The official terminology is now antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and members of the mental health field will rarely use the terms sociopath or psychopath in any official capacity.

But saying “a person with antisocial personality disorder” is a bit cumbersome, so mental health professionals, especially in conversations with lay people, may unofficially use the word psychopath.

I will come back to the concept of sociopath in a bit.

So again, what is a psychopath exactly, i.e., someone with ASPD? They are noted for several personality traits, the most troublesome being a lack of remorse and inability to feel empathy for others. They engage in antisocial behaviors, such as aggression, stealing, lying, etc., with no concern for who they are harming. Indeed, they often get off on the sense of power that harming others gives them. They also tend to be thrill-seeking and impulsive.

What is a psychopath? A man who smiles for his mugshot.

This psychopath has just been arrested for multiple murders. He is smiling for the mugshot.

They have a very high threshold for stimulation, a fancy way of saying that it takes a lot to make them feel anything. So normal life, that would make most of us quite happy, feels incredibly boring to them. Thus the thrill-seeking. Also, their high threshold for stimulation keeps them from feeling fear in situations that most of us would find quite scary (like being arrested).

This means they will do some pretty outrageous things, either ignoring or rationalizing away the potential negative consequences for themselves. The really smart ones, however, may meticulously plan out their evil deeds, but this lack of fear can often be their downfall.

Antisocial Personality Disorder is caused by a combination of genetics and a harsh, abusive environment growing up. More on this in a moment.

Other Bad Guys and Gals

Sometimes we will want our antagonists to be basically good people who find themselves in bad situations. Maybe something pointed them down the wrong road—an event where they did something bad accidentally, or in self defense, and are now tortured by guilt about it. Maybe something extremely important to them is at risk and therefore they are willing to violate their moral code in order to protect it.

These bad guys and gals will feel guilt regarding their behavior, but they will push it aside as best they can and/or rationalize it, sometimes via displaced anger … READ MORE

And stay tuned. Next week, I will delve further into how authors develop the villains in their stories.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kass is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    November 27, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    I didn’t see anyway to leave a comment on Jamie’s site? Such great information! Makes me sad to think that even people genetically disposed to psychopathy could’ve been saved if they’d had a loving environment.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 27, 2018 at 3:06 pm

      Glad you found it helpful, Shannon. Yes, it is sad, but since the psychopathic genes run in families, those families are usually pretty dysfunctional, usually riddled with abuse and poor parenting skills. I have seen a couple of exceptions, where a non-psychopath family member sought therapy and was able to parent their kids with psychopathic tendencies in a way that brought out the good in them. But those cases are few and far between.

  • Reply
    8 Do’s and Don’ts When Portraying Psychopaths and Narcissists (Plus a New Release) - Misterio Press
    December 4, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    […] hanging out again over at Jami Gold’s place with a follow-up to last week’s post—Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals—in which I described psychopaths and […]

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