In case you’re thinking it this isn’t actually my personal origin story. Insert Bane quote here about you merely adopting psychopathic tendencies while I was born with them. However I do have to take a few steps back to briefly mention that when I finally published my first book, The Sorrow, two years ago it was intended to be a deconstruction of a hero. I wanted to take a sort of clichéd premise and write something interesting with it.
While I’m happy with the result despite an average-ish opinion of it from me, numerous shortcomings and things I would absolutely do differently given a second chance (and that’s the beauty of writing), I always felt that my goal with my next book would be to better capture my own voice and identity as a writer, and ultimately differentiate myself.
That’s part of what attracted me to the idea of reversing core themes in my first book to create something darkly written – excuse the pun – and closer to the kind of thing people have expected of me over the years.
What do I mean by reversing core themes? Well my second book, The Black Glass Killer, is about the deconstruction of a villain. Several of them. There are no heroes in this book, and everything in it was crafted from scratch by me with little to no inspiration taken from other sources, films or games. Of course there are thematic inspirations, dialogue ideas and so forth, but the story and characters were crafted almost entirely by me.
That brings me to the intention of this article. I wanted to talk about crafting a psychopathic character in my upcoming book and the creative process I took to doing that. If anything it may prove useful to writers who struggle to build character personalities and traits. I’m just a beginner on my second book, but as we know in life there’s always something you can learn whether it’s from someone ten steps ahead of you or one step behind you.
I mean we all struggle with something creatively. I often have a tough time coming up with names for my characters – even the side characters. That’s a difficult part of the creative process for me. But that’s my problem and I’ve got the pills to fix it! Uhm, I’m not sure where that came from…
My interest in psychopaths first arose in a rather unexpected place. I studied psychology in my first year at varsity. A kind of brief introduction to the field. It remains the best thing I ever studied, and infinitely more interesting than the tripe I regularly learn in my Bcom degree. In that first year of psychology there were brief sections on psychopaths, multiple personality disorders and antisocial personality disorders. My god it was fascinating.
This lit up a kind of electrical spark in my brain and I became determined to study these disorders and colourful personalities further in my own time. Their character traits absorbed me. How their minds worked intrigued me. I started researching online and investigating the psychology behind these human beings. Can we identify them with ease?
Note: There are frequent misconceptions about psychopaths and sociopaths. It’s easy to get them mixed up. You can visit this website if you want a basic set of differences and similarities between the two, but for now keep in mind that both stem from ‘antisocial personality disorder’ and that psychology researchers believe that psychopaths are usually born while sociopaths are usually made by their environment.
Once I wrote down the title ‘The Black Glass Killer’ over a year ago and knew that it would be a villain-centric story I began researching the most dangerous killers who ever lived on this earth. I wasn’t just interested in their methods or their body count, but in their psychological profiles. Ted Bundy, Dr Harold Fredrick Shipman (‘Dr Death’ ), Luis Garavito (‘The Beast’), Andrei Chikatilo (‘The Rostov Ripper’), Pedro López (‘The Monster of the Andes’), Alexander Pichushkin (‘The Chessboard Killer’) and many others.
In my research I came across the following quote by The Chessboard Killer Alexander where he explained why he killed others:
“In all cases I killed for only one reason. I killed in order to live, because when you kill, you want to live. For me, life without murder is like life without food for you. I felt like the father of all these people, since it was I who opened the door for them to another world.”
He was found to be sane by experts at the Serbsky Institute, Russia’s main psychiatric clinic. However he was suffering from antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder so he clearly wasn’t normal.
That’s when I started to think. Where does it start to show? Obviously all psychopaths couldn’t be violent killers. Even the killers themselves couldn’t have started out that way. If I wanted to build an interesting character he had to be more than the bodies he left behind.
That’s when I came across the book The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton, which sought to understand psychopaths in our everyday life. Turns out my thoughts were on the right track because many people out there may be psychopaths or have enough traits to be borderline and they may seem perfectly fine. In other words you’d never detect anything was up.
Psychopaths have the ability to blend in like chameleons.
I can’t go over everything in the book of course but essentially one of the fundamental points that stuck with me is that if all psychopaths were violent murderers, then why are so many of their key personality traits shared by world leaders, politicians, CEOs of major businesses and even doctors?
The book makes the point that their total lack of empathy, coldly rational minds, calculated risk-taking behaviour and absence of fear can actually make them wildly successful in dangerous or intensively stressful occupations like bomb disposal, surgery or politics.
The book makes the point that despite their lack of empathy (their brains don’t light up emotionally the way a normal person does – they remain grey) they have an exceedingly high level of emotional intelligence. This means they understand people very well and can act out emotions perfectly without actually feeling them, enabling them to be master manipulators and to flourish socially. It’s wonderfully creepy when you consider the implications.
However of course not all psychopaths are the same. They are people after all. But commonalities exist. Two of those would be a high emphasis on ego and aggressive behaviour and how these can often be their downfall when let out of control. Very intriguing elements I built into my book.
Equipped with this greater understanding of psychopaths I began to get frustrated with the portrayals of sociopaths on TV. Characters like Damon from The Vampire Diaries for instance. Make no mistake I still thoroughly enjoyed them, but they always were redeemable or likeable with hearts of gold or compassion buried beneath their colourful personalities. I wanted to look at the darker sides of these characters.
That drew me towards two of the biggest thematic influences on my book, which would be the brilliant TV series Hannibal and one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last decade, Nightcrawler. You all should know of Hannibal so I won’t talk much about it. But Nightcrawler was a total surprise to me and blew me away. Jake Gyllenhaal puts on his best ever performance as a sociopath trying to make his way to success as a freelance cameraman who films crimes and sells the footage to TV news stations.
Without giving away anything because you absolutely should watch the movie, I’ll just say that it’s one of the most authentic and amazing portrayals of a sociopath I’ve seen in film. It’s mind-boggling yet the protagonist of the film is undoubtedly a human being. That’s exactly what I wanted to capture in the early stages of my book before the plot expands.
I wanted to build a character who captured that lack of empathy, that irrational and explosive anger, that pride and ego and colour it by making him a sadist too. There are other psychos in the book too and I built them differently, but I’m talking about the main character in particular here. I wanted to really, unmistakably show this character to be a villain, and someone who can just as easily make you laugh unintentionally one moment and creep you the hell out in the next.
At the same time though I wanted to write someone who is unmistakably human and flawed, so that he could be unnerving as a character in the sense that you can believe him to be real. I posted an example of this yesterday in my last teaser for the book.
In short I’m trying to write a story where despite the reader having no hero to cling onto and root for, they can’t stop turning the pages to see these characters collide. Whether it turns out well or compelling to you is the question, but I certainly hope this post has given you some understanding of the roots of The Black Glass Killer and where it came from.