Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

* * * * *

When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

10 thoughts on “Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

  1. Some of the most interesting talks at writers’ conferences seem to be those centered on psychopaths and sociopaths as characters, just as you’ve so brilliantly done here. Creating a character like this who otherwise blends seamlessly into the world can be tricky. I recently watched a British series on Netflix called “The Fall.” So good. The serial killer leads what seems like a normal life with a family and all. Makes for a very creepy guy.

    1. With the interest in psychological novels still so high, psychopaths and sociopaths will have a home in fiction for some time to come, I think. And you’re right, their ability to blend in is what makes the fictional ones so compelling. In real life… not so much! I watched ‘The Fall’ too – I thought Jamie Dornan made a fabulously creepy sociopath, although I didn’t much like the beard! There’s another series on the way, apparently.

  2. Sociopaths are make great antagonists but can be tricky to write well. The difficulty is how to prevent them from becoming a two-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain. The skill is providing them with a reason or context for their actions.
    My favourite sociopaths are protagonists, rather than antagonists. Sherlock Holmes is a great example. He’s a detective because of the thrill of the case, rather than having any compassion for the victim. It’s an intellectual challenge and he shows complete contempt for those who can’t operate on the same plane as him.

    1. You’re right of course. It’s important to get the balance and not make them caricature villains. But then, that’s the whole point of the sociopath antagonist – that they don’t look like villains to the rest of the world.

      I totally agree re Sherlock Holmes. It’s a bit like black-hat and white-hat hackers, isn’t it? One could use those sociopathic attributes for good, whilst doing less damage. I’m sure there are those who do that in real life too. But there’s always the potential for chaos…

    1. It wasn’t that easy, as I guess you probably understand. But fodder indeed – I guess that’s why I like writing those psychological stories.

    1. I appreciate what you say very much, Allie.

      It was several years ago and I know I’m not alone in having emerged bruised (though not physically) from the encounter. But it’s interesting now, to be able to use the experience in my writing. I won’t stay too long with it though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s