My triller has an Antagonist who is classified as a sociopath and narcissist. He becomes infatuated with my MC who is an Ex-Army sergeant making a living in close protection services. He sees that they have both been treated unfairly by the "system" (he hacks her personal and medical record when he becomes infatuated with her and this hacking will escalate as his attacks get worse) But I'm struggling to find the event that triggered his sociopathy and what could motivate him to do what he does (and I don't want to go the obvious route of child abuse/neglect)

He will attempt to seduce and bring my MC under his control, but she's too strong-willed and sees through it. From there he will turn to gaslighting to undermine her authority at work, to ruin her professionally, etc. before pretending to swoop in and save the day.

Any suggestions?

  • I read your question and was about to answer only to see Totumus has the same idea. This is known as entitlement and is often linked to narcissism, sometimes driven by a deep-rooted but hidden feeling of inadequacy. It leads to emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse of a love interest they feel they have a right to in every respect, very much like what you are describing. So, I would research entitlement, emotional abuse, control etc. and it should help define this antagonist and give you ideas for what creates and drives these emotions. – GGx May 16 at 10:54
  • Why Does He Do That? is a very good book by Lundy Bancroft. If you decide to go down this route, it discusses a lot of what drives (mostly men) to behave in this way and the various methods by which they betray their sense of entitlement and exert control over their love interests. – GGx May 16 at 10:56

You don't have to explain much in sociopathy.

Read Understanding the Sociopath: Cause, Motivation, Relationship, in "Psychology Today." An excerpt:

In the media, I'm often asked what causes sociopathy. "Are they born this way?" is one of the most frequently asked questions. The truth is that we don't know. Stout (2005) sums up the research well, explaining that as much as 50% percent of the cause of sociopathy can be attributed to heritability, while the remaining percentage is a confusing and not-yet-understood mixture of environmental factors. (Notably, a history of childhood abuse among sociopaths is not always present.) Similarly, Ferguson (2010) conducted a meta-analysis and found that 56% of the variance in Antisocial Personality Disorder, the formal disorder of sociopathy, can be explained through genetic influences.

Emphasis mine. Basically, sociopaths can be born with the capacity to be sociopathic, and that can be triggered by childhood trauma, but does not have to be. They can just make selfish decisions throughout life and be sociopathic because they were born with a diminished capacity to feel love, friendship, etc.

Now there are dissenting opinions on this point; some say only psychopaths are born that way and sociopathy is a result of culture. If you find them (like this one from the same magazine) I would point out that the excerpt I quoted has an actual scientific study behind it, and the articles claiming otherwise have no science, they are psychologists giving an opinion of how to define "psychopath" v. "sociopath", while ignoring the evidence of heritability in sociopaths.)

Sociopaths see other people as objects to be used. They don't really become "infatuated," but they may become obsessed with owning somebody. The difference is, a sociopath uses them like most of us would use any tool, without regard for whether the tool is tired, hurt, sad, or afraid. They use the women they own for sexual gratification, pride of ownership and proof of their own virility and attractiveness (she's a super model!), even their children are objects groomed to prove their own superiority.

The proper motivation of your narcissistic sociopath is not "infatuation" with another but love of themselves and their own desires for power, sex, money, and an obsession with other people's admiration. If they give gifts, it is to force admiration. Their desire to own the MC, have her obey their commands and satisfy their desires.

It sounds like you are trying to create "sympathy" in your sociopath for your MC's upbringing, and this is a mistake in writing. It is common, even in published writing for print and screen, but not how sociopathy works IRL.

For anybody writing a sociopath, their motivations are about themselves, which can be anything from private sexual gratification to public admiration, power to compel others to do what they don't want or hate doing, the power of breaking up romances or marriages, etc. Life is a game and they are winning it.

To make your MC an attractive acquisition, think of her as a possession he can point at: You can make her beautiful, of course. But you can also make her skilled, so he can be proud to own her (like owning a champion dog). Or unusual in some other respect; a battlefield hero (yes women can be that), a genius, a person of fame due to some other circumstance.

For some reason she attracts his attention and he want to own her. That's all you really need, if you show all his other relationships are just as manipulative and self-serving.

  • You nailed it - I was feeling a need to find a reason why my readers may find sympathy for the antagonist (or at least a way to justify his actions) but you also make a valid point that it's not necessary. I want to stay true to the IRL cause and effect of sociopathy and have scoured most of the articles on Psychology Today and I'm certain I got most of those without actual research behind them. To take that need for sympathy away will certainly give me more freedom to create a villain who is just sick without needing justification. – Karma May 16 at 11:36
  • If you like an answer, vote it up! (any answers). It doesn't cost you anything. – Amadeus May 16 at 12:58
  • @Amadeus Although you say creating sympathy in a sociopath is not how it works in real life, as I understand it a sociopath is not a single switch, there's a sliding scale. A narcissist can very much require some sort of "sympathy", in the sense of a "criteria" they set. "I only want someone like me", for example. So a sociopath could require such a "sympathy", as it were. Granted I am no expert, but hard-and-fast-rules in psychology generally don't exist. Overall, I agree with your point though. – Erdrik Ironrose May 16 at 13:10
  • @ErdrikIronrose Narcissism is separate from sociopathy, a narcissist could still love somebody else. The defining feature of the character she wants is anti-social-personality-disorder, a lack of empathy, sympathy, or care for others, whether they know them or not. She doesn't even have to declare they are "sociopathic" or "psychopathic", just show their disregard for the emotions of their victims. – Amadeus May 16 at 13:31
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    @Karma He can be mentally sick without justification, but you still want to keep his actions consistent and justified by the nature of this illness. Don't just make him "crazy", he still wants something for a reason, e.g. to possess and control this famously rebellious or courageous woman, to subjugate her, to prove he is the best and even she cannot resist him; and he will prove that. – Amadeus May 16 at 13:36

The antagonist clearly has some deep rooted connection with your MC. If he goes as far as hacking, stalking and trying to seduce your MC. He probably has been fantasizing about her or someone very similar to her for a very long long time. People don't go sociopath overnight after all.

I guess he got everything he wanted when he was young too. Getting all narcistic about it since he clearly deserved everything he got. People should be happy to give him whatever he wants.

Wait what? Your MC denied him? Doesn't she know who he is?

I guess he will have to look more closely at whatever the MC is up to? What is going on with her on social media anyway? An injury made her decide to stop with the army? What a nice going away party she had. Who are those friends she has anyway? Can't be better then me, right?

I better help MC with her life a bit. Couldn't hurt to give her a hand.

Right...?


I might have turned the thing I wanted to write about in something like a backstory, but you can get the idea, right? ;)

  • I think I was blinding myself with the "sociopath" label and didn't explore his narcissistic side as enough cause for motivation. @Amadeus also pointed out that I don't need justification. I will be looking into his need for gratification and what possession of my MC would mean to him. Thanks for steering me into a different direction - this will most definitely assist in getting outside of the box I was stuck in. – Karma May 16 at 11:42

Amadeus has a great answer about narcissistic sociopaths. I do think it might be valuable to consider an answer wrapped around a question though:

What kind of story do you intend to write?

It seems that you are going for a contemporary genre fiction type story where it is a really good idea to give the antagonist some motivations and try to highlight them, and if possible, even make the antagonist sympathetic in some way. This is a good idea for most stories. The more complex your antagonist, the more powerful they are going to drive your plot. Having a little realism in going beyond a two dimensional cartoon bad guy adds a lot to a story, and is admirable, so thinking about antagonist motivation is a great way to get going.

Unfortunately, you seem to want to do this with a narcissistic sociopath.

That's where I might suggest a change of course. Unfortunately, I have a tremendous amount of personal experience dealing with a narcissistic sociopath in my own family. I also have experience writing a book with this person as the antagonist.

I feel strongly that it is a good idea to get into the head of your antagonist and try to find at least something relatable about them for the reader. This is usually a good idea in any story, and certainly in a traditional contemporary genre thriller. Unfortunately, I realized that the more I got into the head of my sociopath character, the more it slowed down the story and made it boring.

Why? Because sociopaths have incredibly shallow reasons for what they do. They literally do not consider other people to be "human". To them, other people are tools, pets, toys, and sometimes obstacles. They give no more deep thought about what they do than you would about stomping on a bug. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about how the bug might feel? No. Do you have flashbacks about that bug you stepped on last week? No. It. Is. A. Bug. So, the problem is; there is really no way to make a real narcissistic sociopath both realistic and have ANY likeable traits. They went way over the line into fantasy with shows like "Dexter" to make the character someone viewers can root for. He is more like an Aspys case with an inexplicable compulsion to kill than anything else.

So: if you really want to write a good contemporary genre thriller, you may not want an actual narcissistic sociopath as an antagonist. Maybe a fanatic, someone who is a true believer in crazy ideas that can make sense (to them), an abuse victim who has externalized their trauma, or something else. Or, I might suggest that if you do want to go with a narcissistic sociopath, don't bother too much with getting into their head. The best way to portray them (which could give your reader real chills) is externally, with no window into their minds (since their thought process is so incredibly simple, direct, and transparent in context), but a very accurate depiction of their actions. To do this well, it might be a good idea to do some research about them, including stories from people who have had the misfortune to be sucked into their webs. There are support group forums, books, etc. If you can accurately follow the lies, vindictive behavior, selective memory, and pure, cold hatred a narcissistic sociopath will exhibit over the course of any typical chain of events, you probably don't need to get into their head at all, and they may even be more chilling this way.

Normally, I would always advise a writer to try to provide reasons for an antagonist. Not in the case of a real sociopath. You are almost no longer dealing with a "man versus man" plot: it's more like "man versus nature". Your antagonist is basically "Jaws the shark". We honestly don't need to know anything about what is going on in his mind. The more mystery you can keep around his incredibly simple thought process, the better off you probably are.

EDIT I have been told by a big time fan of crime thriller novels that getting insight into the thought process of a psychopath can be a useful tool for the reader by reminding them just how different their thought process is, and is appreciated by most readers of the genre. I get that, and it is a valid point. I think it is very easy for a writer to make mistakes here if they haven't done proper research, and for people with actual experience with people with antisocial personality disorder, it will be a potential breaker of suspension of disbelief if they get it wrong. As with many things, there is certainly no one right way to do things.

  • After some disturbing water cooler chats with a colleague yesterday it became clear that the sociopath tendencies of my Antagonist is not serving my story. You make an excellent point in stating that as a sociopath, you're dealing with someone who has lost touch with the characteristics that make him human (your Jaws comment hit it home) I will take the weekend to hash out some alternatives, including turning this into a story of obsession (which can make you do things that would not at all make sense to someone else) Thanks again for steering me into a new and possibly better direction. – Karma May 18 at 5:16

"... the event that triggered his sociopathy and what could motivate him to do what he does ..."

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you have sociopaths in your life? (if so talk to them)
  2. Do you have sociopathic tendencies? (if so have a word with yourself)
  3. Do you have an interest in sociopaths? (if not why are you writing about one?)
  4. Do you see the benefits of being a sociopath? (if so use this to inform your writing)
  5. Do you wish for all sociopaths to die? (if so see question two)
  6. Does every effect need to have a cause in this lifetime? (if not don't worry too much about motivation - concentrate on colouring in your story as it is - and don't be afraid to stray outside the lines every now and again).

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