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How psychopathic should a character be especially if they are one of the "good guys"?

So, due to some vicious trauma in the past, the character has developed some pretty sadistic merciless tendencies that come out in specific situations: they are more than lovely when it comes to family and friends but a bloody psycho when it comes to their "enemies". Is that creditable? Or psychologically correct?

The character is so caring to a fault, most times they are known to be saints, a perfect human being . . . That is until they, as I'd like to call it, "switch". For one second they're putting babies to sleep or baking blueberry pies, the second they're licking fresh human blood of their hands or laughing their heads off while deciding which limb to cut off first.

The change is so sudden and so outrageous that even the one whom they are closest to are taken by surprise every single time.

Should I go with a risky plot like that? The character doesn't kill (though that's because they think death is too easy) so they aren't a "bad guy" and is very, um, motherly when it comes to someone they are fond of. It takes a lot of character planning a whole lot of brainstorming-- I can do that, but as a reader is it readable? Or is too corny?

Other questions I'd like to ask (don't know whether to leave them here or ask new questions):

  1. Should I include graphic description even if I'm a bit of a beginner when it comes to gore?
  2. How much or far should they get away with?
  3. Should I include real psychological illnesses that supports the character's actions or do I leave it as it is?
  4. How scary should that character be if I still want them to be likeable?
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    A lot of these questions as they are written, appear very opinion based. However, I would suggest looking into the US TV show Dexter for some ideas/inspiration regarding this type of character. – bhilgert Apr 4 '17 at 14:29
  • I wouldn't say this is something really risky... its actually an entire genre. Recently I've been into Japanese anime, and characters are very frequently double sided in comedies, selectively choosing characters for different personalities. – Kyle Li Apr 4 '17 at 15:26
  • Read Colin Wilson's Gerard Sorme and The Glass Cage. He did serial killing psychopaths very nicely. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Wilson – Wayfaring Stranger May 5 '17 at 20:02
  • This is, as you described it, more Anime character like (as @KyleLi said) — for example Kyoshiro in Samurai Deeper Kyo. As for the gore part, you can read Brett Easton Ellis novel : American Psycho, a reference in the genre (but it's not a likable character) – Koblenz May 5 '17 at 22:29
  • That's multiple personality disorder with a severe case of Konrad Curze. – Mephistopheles Oct 22 '17 at 20:43
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In my opinion as a reader and writer I would say this. Write the level of gore you are comfortable with yourself but try to avoid long drawn out executions or needless violence unless it is required to be in the plot.

The mental illness should be based on real symptoms of the particular illness but no one person has all the markers and each individual is unique, so don't be afraid to perhaps tie it in to a multiple personality disorder. The "switch" you speak of seems to reference MPD perfectly.

As for how much they can get away with is really up to you as the writer, I wouldn't want to see somebody get away with everything, there should be ups and downs in their success and failures I think it makes them more realistic.

Lastly for how scary they should seem will be a natural progression of the gore and severity of the symptoms of the mental illness in my opinion.

Best of luck.

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There is a kind of brainstorming process that some writers seem to go through when trying to come up with something to write about. It goes something like this. Can I take two apparently incompatible features, assign them to the same character, and see what happens.

And after trying to make this work for a while, they post here asking how to make these two incompatible things work together, because, not surprisingly, it has turned out to be difficult to do.

But this is not where good stories come from. Good stories come from observation. If your story process begins with the observation of a duality in man (and lots of them do) than you can begin to invent a character who displays this duality, and put them in circumstances in which this duality is revealed.

When you approach it from this angle, you are not going to end up asking questions about whether this is psychologically realistic or not, because you began with an observation of a real duality in the real world and if psychology cannot account for it, that is psychology's problem, not yours.

As an artist, you can certainly take artistic license in delineating the duality you have observed. You can exaggerate or simplify, just as long as you don't lose sight of the original duality you observed.

On the other hand, if you began with a brainstorming exercise jamming two opposing characteristics together, then even if someone suggests a way to resolve the contradiction, you are not likely to get a good story out of it because it will still not be driven by an actual observation about the nature of human life.

Fiction does not start with invention, but with observation. Invention is just a tool for highlighting and focusing on the thing you have observed.

  • I really appreciate your answer but my problem is the situation in which my character was put in is not something very "common" or that happens to anybody. So, even though I tried, I wasn't able to have solid foundations or facts to base my character's reason for being the way they are except for what they've been through. My concern was how believable or authentic my character's traits were. I tried to base them on real symptoms but it was not enough. For now, I've been basing my character's "sides" on different people whom I have observed or known but I just can't help but worry about it. – J. Roberts Apr 28 '17 at 15:22
  • Believable, in story terms, is not at all the same thing as explicable. Our lives are full of experiences that we cannot explain. For the most part, we don't seek explanations. Whatever mechanism it is in our brains that decides if what we are seeing or real or an illusion, it is not based on explanation, it is in the quality of the experience itself. In story, therefore, it is not about explaining things, it is about having the reader accept things are real. That comes from the integrity of the telling. Explanation will not bind up what lack of integrity breaks. – Mark Baker Apr 28 '17 at 15:32
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There is no should in artistic expression. It is your story, and it is for you and you only to decide what and how to write. Some readers might be appalled and offended by your choices, but you cannot please everyone.

There is no single all-inclusive recipe for creative writing.

Write a few scenes as you imagine them and give it to read to someone you trust if you want an opinion/critique, this is how it is usually done.

As for being realistic, I would say, yes, it is better to make your character as realistic as possible, especially a psychotic one. You do want your readers to believe you, don't you? Research real mental illnesses and draw from there.

Good luck.

  • Thank you so much for answering. I'm trying not to make it over the top without many cringe moments but I'll have to leave it up to my beta readers. (After I find some though.) – J. Roberts Apr 22 '17 at 18:26
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So some good resources for writing psychopaths (because I'm newly researching this) include: http://www.writerscookbook.com/how-to-write-a-psychopath/ and https://sarahkaymoll.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/how-to-write-a-psychopath/.

Two things that I came across in the research that really impacted how I wrote my psychopathic character is: 1) they don't have to be the killer. In fact, in my story the psychopathic character never kills anyone, he simply orchastrates the devious and awful events that occur in the series. 2) No one has all of the psychopathic markers (I would suggest getting familiar with Robert D. Hare's checklist). Pick the characteristics that make the most sense in the context of your story.

I think this goes for any character with a mental illness in any plot.

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@EFF_FireFly suggested goor resources but I'd like to add a few tidbits of my own, since I have written a psycopathic character.

First of all, being a psycopath doesn't mean you have to enjoy cruelty or have sadistic tendencies. It just means you don't have empathy for others and have difficulty understanding emotions, while at the same time believing oneself to be superior to the rest. I saw a documentary on TV that pointed out that the idea that most psychos are criminals is probably biased since most studies are done with criminals.

Secondly, I have worked under a boss who was most likely a psychopath in everything except (as far as I know) criminal activities. He had a goal and nothing could stand in his way. He didn't have the slightest sign of empathy and he was an expert manipulator. However, when pressed to do so, he could act socially and express emotions (though he couldn't fake feeling them).

Back to your character, let me flesh out (you say 'motherly' so I'm going with female) a possible scenario.

As a baby and a toddler, she would either ignore or just look uninterested when other babies/toddlers cried. While growing, her mother noticed that she wouldn't care about other people's sorrows but thought she was just too young to understand the situations. In order to help her, her mother got into the habit of saying 'imagine that happened to you, how would you feel?'. That way, she learnt to react appropriately not because she felt for the other person but because she knew how she would feel.

There was this cousin she was really close to because it was fun and exciting to be with her. He died in an accident and her reaction was 'that sucks; I'm going to miss going out with her' and starts looking for a 'night-out' replacement.

And then she fell in love (a lot of psychos can feel emotion, even if some can't). Luckily, he ended up realising he should love her too, though she had to work hard at making his girlfriends understand they were with the wrong person. She would do anything for him. Then they decided to adopt. She couldn't really care much about the kid but he was passionate about the idea and she decided she would make him happy and concede that point.

A few months later, she started realising she felt the kid as part of her... turf, for lack of a better word. An attack on the child, was an attack on her. Any such attacker became an enemy to annihilate (not physically, though; just socially).

Of course, as the child grows, they realise they must obey their fostermother because to do otherwise is... unhealthy.

Now imagine there's a gang that becomes interested in the child-become-teenager. There's a life-threatening situation and something clicks inside her. Socially anihilation is off the table; it must be physical. And any death must act as a warning so that no one else will try to threaten her family again.

But all those atrocities are done with the best of intentions: rid the neighbourhood of a gang problem and keep her family safe. What is not to like about this fostermother that showers her family with love while viciously destroying any dangers to it?

Conclusion: she does gory stuff (which you can hint at rather than show) but she does it with the best intentions: protect herself and her loved ones (what's love anyway? isn't it also saying these people are mine and to attack them is to attack me?). Even if the reader disagrees with how she goes about it, if you can protray it in a good-intention light, you can make her a likeable character.

  • I was so into that that i thought I'd definitely read something like that-- I mean it, really. If you're going to go for a story like that you have to tell me ASAP. But, you see, my character has psychopathic tendencies, she wasn't born this way and she isn't--usually-- soulless. She can feel great empathy to people whom she cares about but absolutely nothing to those who want to hurt her loved ones. It's a bit complex but that's how her brain works; no matter if someone was abandoned, abused or even tortured, if he hurts who she cares about, no matter how or why, he's better off dead. – J. Roberts May 5 '17 at 13:56

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