If you were to write a story about a kid in high school who has a lot of psychopath/sociopath tendencies and doesn't feel guilt from that.
How would you make him unlikeable, then likeable and how would you make him change into a good guy ?

  • 1
    Hi, and welcome to Writers SE ! Take the tour to learn more about the site. Did you do some research on psychopathy and sociopathy ? It looks like you don't know the difference between the two and it's always better to research a mental disorder before writing about it. Dec 27, 2017 at 6:20
  • BTW I am told it is unethical to test adolescents on the psychopathy specifier in the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria as they tend to score badly as a cohort. Also CEOs test toward psychopathy because the skills that are rewarded in running a company overlap with a certain disregard for what other people think. Some research is required on OP's part. Also sounds like "What to write." Try rewriting the question
    – paulzag
    Dec 27, 2017 at 12:22
  • I think the question is about how to humanize a "bad guy" character, not about what makes him a whatever-path. Dec 27, 2017 at 14:26
  • 3
    Dexter did a pretty good job of that. The character is written such that sociopathy is both his superpower and his kryptonite. He tries to use it for Good, and he can do things people with feelings cannot. However, he also fundamentally doesn't understand what motivates the other humans, yet he has to act like them for his own survival.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 27, 2017 at 16:11
  • 1
    Kill the human, save the puppydog. Jan 26, 2018 at 22:38

5 Answers 5


Sociopaths feel no pain, and it is very easy for them to hurt others (animals included) just to see the reactions. They also intersperse lies with truth, and spin peoples' heads. They like to break up relationships, and they have no accountability. They are bullies and predators. A good way to make your high school character unlikable would be to have him pick on an ugly girl in school, an outcast, and then, to make him likable, have him wind up becoming infatuated with her, to the point of (as best a socio can) falling in love with her.


People are unlikeable when they harm others (emotionally or physically) for their own gain (financially or emotionally; e.g. they may just enjoy hurting people).

A psychopath/sociopath harms others without compunction or thought, they treat other human beings as objects to be used and discarded, they don't even think about whether their actions cause others to suffer. Or they may find suffering and people screaming in pain funny or entertaining.

If there is a difference between them for the purpose of writing (I am not talking about clinical diagnoses) I would say psychopaths feel no sympathy or guilt for the harm they have done, and may consider acts like torture, rape or murder fun for their own sake. Sociopaths, on the other hand, simply put themselves and their goals relentlessly first, even over the lives of others. It is plausible a sociopath would plant a bomb in a daycare and pity the families that use it. But there is a politician they need to kill and the daycare is the most accessible place where she is bound to appear, sooner or later.

Many psychopaths/sociopaths get past the impulsiveness of their youth, and learn to disguise their personality to appear caring, honorable, trustworthy, etc.

The scales for sociopathy and intelligence are also independent. Sociopaths do not lean either dumb or smart, their IQ is normally distributed as it is in the population. That said, social outcomes are disparate: Average to low IQ sociopaths preferentially end up in prison, while high IQ sociopaths can be more careful and succeed in business, politics, religion, crime, law enforcement and the military. They will tend to seek power and wealth. This makes them privileged citizens, difficult to prosecute or convict, often legally (and socially) immune to laws that apply to the rabble they rule. As you can see in America: The wealthy, celebrities, politicians and top tier corporatists are seldom held criminally liable for anything. Corporations can knowingly make decisions that will kill people, and pay only a fine. Huge benefits of doubt are given to police, that are almost never convicted (or even prosecuted) for acts that are clearly unnecessary murder.

I cannot imagine a plot in which a true psychopath/sociopath becomes a good guy. Such people are (IMO backed up by medical research) literally brain damaged, they are missing connections in their neural makeup that prevents them from ever truly caring about other people.

An alternative plot would be to have a guy raised by a sociopathic parent that teaches the kid to suppress the sympathies they feel and act like a sociopath. The parent (a true sociopath) is grooming the kid for some project as an adult, a "retirement project" that will produce millions of dollars.

But something happens, the parent dies or gets killed, or the kid is smarter than his sociopathic parent and realizes what is going on and runs away. He is unlikeable, his lifestyle is sociopathic, but in time, without the constant reinforcement of his parent, his sympathies emerge. He realizes he is doing harm, and becomes more likable for refraining from obvious opportunities, then perhaps even makes amends. He eventually becomes a good guy that truly understands sociopathic criminals. Perhaps a Robin Hood story (steal from the sociopaths to give to the needy), or he somehow works to bring such criminals to justice.

  • That's not strictly true. Psychopathy/Sociopathy is generally considered to be a lack of empathy and/or conscience. There are "high functioning" psychopaths/sociopaths who don't use or mistreat people in spite of not being able to feel any guilt over doing so. They know on a logical level that in the long term it wouldn't benefit them to act out even if they don't have any emotional inhibitions. There's evidence to suggest a lot of highly successful businessmen are high functioning psychopaths.
    – GordonM
    Dec 27, 2017 at 19:55
  • @GordonM Sociopaths are successful in business because they are ruthless competitors, willing to lie, cheat, steal, slander, blackmail and frame other people for their own advancement. They do use and mistreat people, they are just smart enough to get away with it. Or eventually wealthy enough or powerful enough. Just look at the recent #MeToo wave that has taken down dozens of "highly successful businesmen" and celebrities for using their power to demand and receive sex for decades while quashing complaints with threats and lawsuits. There are your highly successful sociopaths.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 28, 2017 at 12:08
  • +1 for the idea of having a child raised to show psychopathic behaviour. As a child, what your parents tell you is the law. I'd expect that if parents tell the child it is wrong to have sympathy, the child will not only try to suppress its sympathy, but even feel guilty for its natural feeling of sympathy.
    – celtschk
    Dec 29, 2017 at 19:26

First of all I would like to note that a psychopath also has emotions and feelings. So a psychopath can experience empathy and can also have negative feelings such as guilt. To make a psychopath with little feelings of guilt unlikeable, then likeable, then a good person you'd have to take three steps.

I would first depict a high-functioning person who likes to destroy things and who seemingly has no respect for others. Someone who likes keeping animals, but also neglects them to the point that they starve to death. If it is a man I would also include hidden physical aggression to animals and people. Of course this has also been seen in psychopathic women, but they may hide it even better. You could describe situations where the psychopath is manipulating others and is shamelessly lying without regard for the feelings of others. Also depict continuous self-centered behavior and not helping others when they are in pain. Finding pleasure in others' pain: "And while her boyfriend fell to his death the corners of her mouth slightly curled up."

To make the character likeable, you probably don't want the character to kill someone ruthlessly earlier in your text. Although, if you have seen Dexter (2006) he remained likeable as a fictional character even though he took pleasure in killing his victims. The best way to make the character more likeable, I think, would be by using flashbacks or by giving some insight into the past behavior: the struggles he had as a young kid, loving parents that try to hide the psychopathic behavior, and a strong relationships with his siblings. Even though a psychopath shows less empathic responses they can rationally learn the social rules and behavior that works well, making them a likeable person able to maintain friendships and romantic relationships, and also being able to derive pleasure from those relationships.

To turn the character in a good person you would probably have to define somewhere in your text what 'good' is. You would need a philosophical discussion. You could have your character learn what 'good' is and give him rules or better rules principles of life where he abides by. I would certainly include some of the great moral philosophers and writers of the 17th to 20th century. I think it would be best to include a second character to have a dialectal process in forming rules. For instance, you could make your character follow a utilitarian principle making him a cold-blooded philanthropist.

The two most important characteristics of your character to go through this personal development are intelligence (i.e. the ability to change) and motivation (i.e. the reason why the character changes).


Fiction stories routinely make incredibly evil people into seemingly likable heroes. "Birth of a Nation" presented the Ku Klux Klan has heroes fighting to save their nation from tyrants. I once saw a movie, forget the title, that presented Bonnie and Clyde, two gangsters who killed people so they could steal their money, as heroes.

I saw a TV show once, supposedly based on a true story, about a woman who murders her husband, in which it was presented as justifiable because the husband was such an evil person. And when it got to the end, I thought to myself, wait, what did he do that made him so evil? When his neighbor's dog attacked his young child, he threatened to shoot the dog if it happened again. If a vicious dog bit your child, would you smile and say sweetly "bad doggie -- go home". He pressured his wife to wear sexy night gowns to bed. How outrageous, a man wants his wife to be sexy for him. He spoke harshly to his wife when she ran up credit card debts. Etc. But as I was watching the show, the way it was done they just had you saying, yeah, this guy deserves to die.

The trick is to present the story from the villain's point of view. You don't present it as, "he attacked this totally innocent person for no reason". You present as, "wow this person was so mean to him, they deserved what was coming to them". Not, "he killed people for kicks", but dwell on how hard his life is, everyone around him is grinding him down and making his life miserable, and finally he just can't take it any more and lashes out in frustration. Etc.

Update, further thought

Another way to make the character likable is to present him as a victim of a mental illness rather than as an evil person. Have him struggle with it, or at least have others talk about how he "just isn't the same person any more". Instead of, "Yeah, I beat people up for kicks, what's that to you?", make it, "I don't know what came over me yesterday. I attacked this poor woman for no reason. I try to stop myself but then the next day I do it again", etc.


One comment and one answer have both mentioned Dexter, but it doesn't seem to me that either has explained how and why we sympathize with Dexter, despite the fact that he's a serial killer.

The store of Dexter is very long, so there is lots of time to present different facts about Dexter and different aspects of his personality to create a more complex character.

Here are some things that we learn early on about Dexter that help us understand he is "evil":

  • He murders people, and he doesn't let them go quietly, they are conscious, restrained, and in terror when he slowly plunges a knife into them. They feel tremendous pain and terror before they die.
  • As a civilian employee of the Miami police, he undermines their efforts to catch both him and other criminals, from time to time.
  • He lies constantly to cover up his criminal side. The narration of the character talks about wearing mask all the time to impersonate a normal (i.e., not evil) person.
  • His involvement in criminal activities endangers those around him, and lead to the deaths of several people who are primarily good, sympathetic characters.

So that's pretty straightforward. Now let's look at all the ways that we are made to sympathize with Dexter, or at least understand him in a way that helps us want things to work out for him:

  • Having Strong Morality: He is a vigilante who only kills criminals whom he has "proved" (to himself at least) are guilty of their crimes. He particularly targets those who have evaded the legitimate authorities in one way or another. (We appreciate his sense of justice)
  • Showing Universal Positive Emotion: He cares for his sister and works very hard to protect her, and he misses his father who passed away before the events of the show. (We can identify with his love of family)
  • Being An Innocent Victim: At a very young age, he witnessed his mother's brutal murder and repressed the memory. (We can believe that his murdering is not his fault, he must kill and at least he is killing "bad" people)
  • Showing Self Sacrifice: He sometimes risks being caught or killed to avoid endangering the ones he loves. Also he represses his urge to kill for periods of time when he otherwise would have killed in order to help raise his son and care for his wife and stepchildren.
  • Facing An Inner Struggle: Like everyone, Dexter just wants to be happy, and believes that it's never possible for him, but he refuses to give up. He constantly works to follow his code, appease his "dark passenger" as little as possible, and help others around him.

Despite all of that, Dexter never changes into a "good guy" from the point of view of the audience. There are certain things that audiences will never forgive. Causing the death of an innocent will usually be a permanent stain on a character. Sparing the life of the guilty, while still bringing them to justice, might be the opposite, but it really doesn't cancel out.

There are so many examples of "good" characters that we can see the bad side of and "bad" characters that we can see the good side of. Reviewing works that have such characters and really looking for the reasons of why you feel the way you feel about the characters will be your best teacher. Some examples that spring to mind:

  • Anything since the 1980s related to Batman - Not only is there darkness in Batman's character, but we are sometimes made to sympathize with the Joker, and there are other characters who fall somewhere in between good and evil.
  • The movie Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) - It's a cops versus crooks story where pretty much everyone is evil in a way, and yet we are led to care for some characters and despise others.
  • The Usual Suspects - We follow a career criminal trying to go straight for much of the story. Just the fact that he's trying to go straight is enough for us to give him the benefit of the doubt. This movie also features a character who works to gain sympathy from other characters, and we are led to sympathize with him for the exact same reasons! It's almost a lesson in emotional manipulation.

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