How Not to Write Like a Psychopath


So, I was reading the book WITHOUT CONSCIENCE while I was traveling to the London Book Fair last month because, as many of you may know, I have a strange fascination for psychopathy.  (Not for the reasons you might think — wait, what do you think?  The mind boggles.)  But because the closest evidence I can find for the existence of the soul is that some people are so clearly born without one. 

What on earth does any of this have to do with writing, you may ask.  Well, strangely, I found myself flagging a couple of sections for this very blog: “How Not to Write Like a Psychopath.”  One section in particular that caught my attention was when the author, Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. was quoting a psychopath asked to describe fear: “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue-tied. One barfed over the money.  She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why.”  It continues.  The long and short of it was that he described what happened, but he couldn’t understand or describe the associated feelings.  Dr. Hare goes on to note that “psychopaths lack the physiological responses normally associated with fear.”  I find this so often in fiction—a writer will remember to say that the heroine is running from a killer, for example, but neglects to show us that her heart is pounding, that she can’t seem to take a breath deep enough to fill her lungs and they’re working like a bellows, that she’s sweating like a fiend who’s gotten too close to the fires of hell….  Likewise, if people who are attracted to each other are thrown together , breath might quicken or that same breath might be held.  Whenever you write, you should be doing it from a point of view.  We should be in the head of one of the participants in the scene, who should have an emotional, visceral, physiological reaction to what’s happening and not just describe the scene as would an observer.  Too often I see narrative that reads more like a summary or synopsis than a scene actually unfurling.

Dr. Hare also mentions  what he calls “hollow words”.  The psychopath will understand the definition of words, but not their emotional value.  This is something I see as well, standard word choices and short cuts taken in place of actually setting a scene in such a way that the reader is drawn into it.  Dr. Hare says, “A word such as PAPER has dictionary meaning, whereas a word such as DEATH has a dictionary meaning plus emotional meaning and unpleasant connotations.  Emotional words have more “punch” than do other words.”  Now, obviously, PAPER and DEATH aren’t interchangeable, but you get the point.  In a scene where your hero is about to step in front of a bus, for example, you could have your heroine “reach out to grasp Jason’s arm and steer him back to the curb” or “launch herself at her oblivious brother and grab him out of the way of the onrushing bus.”  One obviously has a lot more emotional impact than the other, though what’s actually going on hasn’t really changed.

To sum up the first point. A body is not just a brain.  A person does not just process, he or she experiences, and if he or she is not a psychopath, this involves physiological and autonomic reactions that should not be forgotten in developing your scene.  For the second: don’t use shorthand, but choose words and modes of expression for maximum impact and to allow the reader to feel the tension or sensuality or terror of the scene. Yes, this is a longwinded way of saying “show, don’t tell,” but hopefully more helpful in its specificity.


10 comments to How Not to Write Like a Psychopath

  • Razziecat

    Fascinating. I see what you’re saying. I do try to include my characters’ physical reactions to horror, fear, rage, etc., but I can see places in my WIP where this needs work. I like to use subtle gestures to depict emotion, especially when the character is trying to hide his/her real feelings; but sometimes you do have to be more obvious. We know that emotions can affect people physically–stress can cause pain and illness, can affect your ability to work, think, sleep, and more. I always thought a psychopath was a person who puts his/her feelings and needs above those of everyone else, but maybe the problem is they don’t actually feel much at all. 🙁

  • I’ll read this again in the morn, but I may want to send you my latest work now. And it’s not even done yet. 😉

  • I had never head psychopaths described like this. I love it. (taking notes) 🙂

  • Thanks, Lucienne. And now I have another book to add to my list! 🙂

  • What Razzie said. This is something I’ve been trying to get better at, too. I’ve been calling it “fog”. I know how the character feels, and why, but I’m not translating that to the page descriptively. I like this concept! When you put it that way, it really brings the lesson home. 🙂

  • MykaReede

    Great post. Thanks. First, I’m copying your explanation for a WIP that I’m beta-reading. Something was off and saying it needed more emotion wasn’t fair – it needs more physical clues of the emotion. Also, thinking about my next villain (they’re always such fun) and how to portray a rational but hollow person. Your post helps explain what makes the combo believable. Now to make it believable to a reader. Sounds like you recommend the book for insight?

  • Thanks, all. Laura, I’m glad this was helpful! If anyone’s interested in reading more about psychopaths/sociopaths, the other book I’d recommend is THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR. Chilling, but very, very enlightening and intriguing.

  • Razziecat, you’re right that a psychopath puts his or her needs above those of everyone else, but it’s because they lack the emotional connection to find any reason why they shouldn’t. They might logically decide not to do something because of consequences to themselves, but not because it would cause harm to someone they “care” about. I can’t find my copy of THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR by Martha Stout, Ph.D. at the moment, but her discussion of id, ego and superego as they relate to sociopaths is especially intriguing.

  • I love getting in the mind of someone I don’t understand. What makes people behave the way they do or say the things they say. I love to categorize people both that I know or will see often enough to make proper assumptions about their character. I can tell when someone is just a pathological liar or insecure because of those around them, blah blah blah and study their behaviors, how often they lie, what situations makes them embarrassed, how shy people really act when in a confrontation. I’m sure lots of people have that six sense to read people but as a writer-and my curious nature, if they are not the same-makes me want to talk to those people, see what makes them tick. I won’t tell them that I’m reading them but just put those clues together to use as a character reference. Seeing how someone will act when a best friend betrays you, or losing a parent, being embarrassed in front of a boy, real reactions are irreplaceable and to have something to draw from is amazing…..

  • […] In case you missed it, I waxed psychological over at Magical Words earlier this week with a post on “How Not to Write Like a Psychopath”.  […]