Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wordcraft – A character type for our age: the psychopath

At first I wondered whether it’s because I’m a writer perpetually in search of characters that the most recent type to catch my fancy seems to pop up everywhere? It’s the psychopath, a personality no longer limited to drooling serial sex murderer incarnations. In this age, psychopaths, who comprise a surprisingly high percentage of corporate employees, have come to seem so nearly normal that they even have their own media spokesperson.

I refer, of course, to the handsome actor in a brawn suit who stars in a series of commercials for organic hot dogs. I can’t even remember the brand of hot dogs, but whenever the actor appears, assuring the conscientious mom-type opposite him that his hot dogs are safe for her kids to eat, my attention is glued to the screen.

Is he all natural? mom-type asks. He is, he assures her, flexing his obviously plastic pecs, his mesmerizing, unblinking eyes fixed on hers.

But isn’t he chock full of growth hormones, mom-type persists. After all, isn’t that a needle stuck in his, uh, haunch? Without even a glance at the supposed needle (mercifully not visible to the television audience), he wills mom-type to gaze deeply into his soulfully soulless eyes. “That’s not mine,” he says.

All the while, I’m mentally checking off the points on the PCL-R (psychopath checklist, revised) as formulated by Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare. (Glibness and superficial charm, cunning and manipulation, pathological lying, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, etc. Numbers 1, 4, 5 and 15 on the PCL-R. Yes, yes, yes!)

But tempting though it is to run through the list, with weighted responses for each its 20 categories, in an attempt to diagnose public figures, acquaintances, even ourselves (which Dr. Hare strongly advises against), this blog is about literature, not criminal psychology.

Even if we’re not willing to give our characters full points on every item of the PCL-R (criminal versatility or failure to meet conditions of probation, for instance) dribbling in even a few can sharpen the focus either of a story’s antagonist, or more surprisingly, its main character.

On that last point, I’ll give a public thank you to mystery writer Mark Pryor, who I met at this year’s Writers’ League of Texas conference in Austin, Texas. By day, Pryor, an English ex-pat, is an assistant district attorney. His alternate job, however, is writing, both the Hugo Marston series and the stand alone Hollow Man whose scarily charming main character is also an English ex-patriate assistant district attorney in Texas.

Pryor denies any other points of resemblance between himself and his character, a psychopath who describes in detail how hard he tries to repress his nature and fit in with what he terms the “empath” world. Not because he likes those empaths, but because it’s easier to con them if they think you’re one of them.

Even while I admired the character, I wondered how a psychopath could possibly fit into any literature except that of crime and suspense. Surely a more literary genre wouldn’t have a place for psychopaths. Then I found Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Jasper Wick, Sittenfeld’s glib, lying, manipulative, parasitic, sexually-promiscuous, impulsive and irresponsible (items 1, 4, 5, 9, 11, 14 and 15 on the PCL-R) villain.

Wick in many ways resembles his original Austenian alter-ego, George Wickham, who briefly fascinated Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Now I’m keeping an eye open for psychopaths in and out of literature, and merrily ramping up the psychopathology quotient of the villain in my own work in progress. If psychopaths were good enough for Jane Austen, how can the rest of us resist them?

(For more about psychopaths, see Dr. Hare’s book, Without Conscience, and Pryor’s Hollow Man, both of which I reviewed on Goodreads and Amazon. Although Dr. Hare’s full PCL-R is only available to medical personnel, I found his 20 criteria by Googling “PCL-R images” and saved it to the Pinterest board for my novel in progress, The Ugly Man.) 

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