Sociopath Characters

One of the biggest challenges for newer writers is to develop characters that would do all the things the writer would never do. It may be as simple as mountain climbing or sky diving. And it may be as heinous as rape, murder and pillaging.

How do you write about a character who commits acts you struggle to even imagine?

When it comes to sky diving or mountain climbing, you can interview people who’ve done those things. Or you can learn to do them yourself! What a rush, I would guess.

But when it comes to writing about characters who harm others, what is required is the ability to turn off your humanity, your reason, your moral code, and imagine the character doing things the way a predator would.

We go through phases or stages of innocence, wherein we gradually release long-held beliefs about what people are capable of doing. You hear about a Cosby or a Weinstein or a Trump allegedly touching people inappropriately, and you may still allow yourself to file these supposed events under Social Anomalies. You still believe most people would never compromise another person’s integrity like that. Maybe a Rose surprises you, but that man looks creepy, so the accusation fails to move your needle, so to speak. We prop up most celebrities in ways that can, at times, lead to excessive temptation. Some people fail to resist those temptations, and corruption occurs. Nothing new here.

Then you read about a Franken, a Takei and a Lasseter–things they are accused of doing–and you start to wonder if there really are people who would never harm another person simply for their pleasure. You start to re-classify what it means to be a decent human being. So maybe an ill-advised grope for an attempt at humor gets a lower bad guy score than, say, firing a subordinate who refuses to engage with her boss in sexual acts. Where does forcing a kiss on someone land you? How do you classify a lusty comment about someone’s figure? Where do you draw the lines?

For sociopaths, there may not be lines drawn anywhere. The rules do not apply to them. In many cases, they may not even consider rules of personal comport to exist.

So when you must write about a character who commits treachery or acts that personally or financially violate others, close your eyes and start to see the world through their eyes. To your serial killer or terrorist or rapist or spouse abuser or villainous boss character, imagine that they have an agenda–perhaps relating to money, influence or pleasure–and no code of conduct gets in the way of them pursuing their goals. See things like law, order and social norms as processes designed for lesser creatures. Institutions like businesses or government agencies are designed to keep dogs and sheep in line, to define their boundaries. Not yours. You have no boundaries.

Your fictional character is what I mean, of course. Not you. You would never grope someone or force a kiss on them, or try to copulate with them while they sleep, or drug them into stupor to take advantage, or lie to Congress, or make powerful deals behind closed doors with foreign powers that threaten your country, or hide your fortune from the IRS, or publicly say the words many people want to hear, and then act against those same people in private. You would never murder someone, or hire an assassin.

You’re a good person. We’re just talking about fiction here.

Right?

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