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I'm in the middle of writing a book where the protagonist is a narcissistic psychopath, and while I personally am having a lot of fun with it and hope I'm doing it well enough, I understand this is a difficult feat to do without alienating the reader. So I was hoping to create this question as a repository of ideas people in this stack exchange have on how to write a compelling psychopathic protagonist.

Here are the ideas I myself used:

  • She's utterly vindictive and selfish, but through sheer happenstance, usually ends up screwing over people even worse than her (in her case, mob bosses, slavers, and bourgeoisie).
  • She has a set of principles which, while not ordinary, demonstrate she has standards (for instance, she despises the concept of slavery because she considers forced collaboration to undermine the selfishness of both the slaves and the slavers).
  • She's got relateable struggles exacerbated by her mental illness (in her case, extreme loneliness from regular social faux pas, usually her fault, sometimes not).
  • Her narcissism is sometimes outright humorous in its extent, with her often missing the point in an endearing way.
  • The story has sympathetic side characters that give the reader people to root for even while rooting for her eventual downfall (like her sidekick, a self-esteem-free boy who she's using to feed her ego and assist with his powerful magic).
  • Her arc is the tale of someone going from an exiled noblewoman with nothing to her name, to nutty wildcard, to legitimate and terrifying threat, making her a villain protagonist by the end with sympathetic, heroic antagonists.

However I know there's multiple ways to go about making a narcissistic psychopath protagonist work. As stated, I'd like this question to be an idea repository for others rather than strictly a solution to my problems. So, what are you guys' thoughts?

Edit: By narcissistic psychopath, I mean a person who has reached levels of narcissism that qualify them as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder), traits of which include:

  • Grandiosity
  • Expectations of special treatment
  • Exploitativeness
  • Lack of empathy
  • Fixation on fantasies of power or ideal love
  • Possession of a superiority complex
  • A constant need for approval and admiration
  • Entitlement
  • Intense envy that regularly manifests as vindictiveness
  • Can you list some characters from other popular works who could serve as inspiration for this character (or at least, similar to your definition of Narcissistic Psychopath)? It helps to figure out what you "want" in terms of story. To me it sounds like Walter White from "Breaking Bad". – hszmv Feb 26 at 12:46
  • I'll list the definition of a narcissistic psychopath, but given I'm looking to make this a repository of ideas rather than 'fixing' my character (I'm simply using her as an example I have personal experience developing) I wouldn't see it as necessary to list my inspirations. – Matthew Dave Feb 26 at 12:59
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    Looking at your symptoms, a lot of them would be adequate descriptions of Edna Mode from Incredible for a more heroic variant (high functioning) or Yzma from "Emperor's New Groove" for a villainous version. Naturally much of the humor is going to be sourced from the universe's desire to teach them a lesson they will never learn because learning lessons are for people who aren't perfect like her. – hszmv Feb 26 at 19:01
  • When you say "narcissistic psychopath", do you just mean someone who has NPD, or do you mean someone who has NPD and is a psychopath. Because those means something very different. I've heard it said by others that a good three-dimensional example of someone with NPD in fiction is Bender from Futurama. They aren't outright devoid of empathy they're just...a bad friend. They do care about others it's just going to be always second to themselves. – user2352714 Mar 1 at 2:06
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Give her a foil

Since she is a person who uses others, probably by promising them things she can never give, or manipulating them via their blindspots and weaknesses, create a foil who can do this to her. Someone from her past, a mentor or relative, someone she idolizes and wants to please.

An example is Konstantin in Killing Eve who understands the psychopath Villanelle better than she understands herself, and can manipulate her by pretending to give her the things she wants, often leading her to believe it's her idea.

Give her a stooge

In a comedy act, a stooge is something like a straightman who sets up a joke, but is also the butt of the joke. Often the stooge is someone designed for the audience to dislike because they are too sincere, too proper, too earnest, or too naive. This character is wide-eyed and harmless, representing everything the psychopath despises. But, like the comedic psychopath, this character has plot armor that always allows them to be rescued, or find the silver-lining, or maintain healthy mutual relationships.

The stooge is the antithesis of the psychopath: selfless, honest, happy, and forgiving – to unrealistic levels. They are a frustrating idealogical impossibility in the worldview of the psychopath, and she might waste resources in elaborate schemes designed to give the stooge a bad day.

Make her plans go ridiculously wrong

In addition to accidentally harming villains worse than herself, make her own plans so ridiculous that it's obvious she could never pull them off – obvious to everyone else, but her. Her plans routinely require her to outsmart geniuses, seduce people who have no interest, be a master of disguises and accents, or otherwise possess skills she clearly does not have.

Also make her targets completely out-of-proportion to her ability. She has audacity, but also an inflated sense of self-importance. She is the proverbial 'little dog' that chases cars, an underdog we can root for but who clearly has no idea what accomplishing her goals would actually achieve.

She has agency because her plans do set the story in motion, but they are like a Rube Goldberg machine of unexpected causality that she never anticipated. What she actually creates is mayhem. Her real talent is switching gears and compulsive betrayal – behavior that is self-sabotaging in stable situations but once everything is falling apart she is almost as likely to land in diamonds as mud. As others fall into panic mode they make mistakes, and she is always an opportunist. She may not even realize her original plan was a failure, since she is quick to shift goals.

Make her fall for her own con

A typical comeuppance in the 1930s gold digger genre films is for the con-artist to fall for their own game. A romantic con-artist falls in love with her mark just before she is exposed, or having talked herself into an unqualified position begins performing the job better than the previous employee, or actions intended to sabotage inadvertently make her a hero.

Since she has no moral compass of her own to understand why these things are good or bad, it's typically tied to how other people see her. The self-con is reinforced by the sincere reactions of her intended victims, until she believes she is the good person they see. She wants to keep the con going as long as possible, so her stakes shift from "will she accomplish the bad thing" to "will she be caught". She bypasses several "clean exit" moments, deciding instead to linger in the con and dig a deeper hole. She may tell herself that she is pursuing an even bigger prize, but actually she falling for her own ruse.

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    Funny, I've used variants on all but the 'falling for her own con' suggestion here, and come to think of it, it's absolute gold. I may have to incorporate that into later books of the series, it's certainly fitting of a narcissist to enjoy the mirror until something bad reflects from it. – Matthew Dave Feb 27 at 8:55
  • @MatthewDave "Falling for their own con" is almost a textbook symptom of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A common pattern of symptoms of the disorder is to outright warp or re-interpret facts to fit a certain worldview that inflates their sense of grandiosity, and then having an outright meltdown when faced with facts that they can't explain away ("narcissistic rage"). In fact, this exact series of events is one of the ways psychologists differentiate NPD from similar disorders like sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder). – user2352714 Mar 1 at 2:01
  • @user2352714 Distortion of reality to fit their self-image isn't quite the same as falling for their own con, and yes, my narc character does this regularly, along with narc-raging when things don't go her way. Falling for her own con in this case is partially due to a warped self image, but also requires interaction with others who are briefly taken in by their superficial charm until it wraps back, at least that's how I interpreted wet circuit. – Matthew Dave Mar 1 at 10:35
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This sounds like a type of anti-hero to me. That wiki page has a good history of them, starting with the example I was already thinking of (the Underground Man) and progressing through other works of literature that play upon the protagonist's "ennui, angst, and alienation," which are caused by the perverseness of our society, and no fault of their own.

Last year I greatly enjoyed Notes from the Underground, by Dostoevsky. This short novella, in fact, established the archetypal character known as an "underground man" which was used in many other stories since then (including a novella I'm working on myself).

Things that I think made Underground Man work for me:

  1. He's very self-aware. He is very narcissistic and selfish, but he knows that he's narcissistic and selfish. That caused me as a reader to feel fascinated with him and to listen to his compelling arguments. (I don't know if this is necessary for all underground men archetypes or not though.)
  2. His vivid descriptions of social awkwardness/struggle are palpable.
  3. His level of obsession regarding those things makes it most interesting, especially because I saw how I too could have developed/still develop that way if I wasn't careful.

So the lessons I took away from this were:

  1. An anti-hero, while lacking some of the more common positive traits, needs to have other positive traits (in the case of the underground man he had the traits of extreme honesty and searching for truth).
  2. If the anti-hero struggles in very relatable ways, then that gives us something to relate to (especially, I think, if these struggles are forced onto him the same as they might plausibly be forced onto any of us).

I think if all of the protagonist's struggles were only a result of his peculiar character flaws, then that would give the reader less to relate to.

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Some characters are loved precisely because they're arrogant, narcissistic, sociopathic assholes. They don't alienate the audience by virtue of being charismatic, entertaining, or (even better) both. There's a TVTropes article called Awesome Ego:

This is the type of narcissist who constantly rants and raves about how mind-blowingly awesome they are, and the fans agree with them.

How do you make this kind of characters work?


Justify their massive ego with extraordinary skills.

You can (but don't have to) add some redeeming features, to round them out. This kind of characterization works best in more serious stories. Here's some examples, all taken from TVTropes:

Tony Stark in the MCU:

A brash-but-brilliant engineer who shows off his colossal wealth with luxury, world-class accommodations and specialized expos, is the in-universe poster child for playboys, talks a big game to everyone he meets, and always has a swagger to his stride... also has a two-sided Dark and Troubled Past, suffers from PTSD, carries around an Inferiority Superiority Complex and a guilt complex, cares deeply for his friends and teammates, is a father figure to his protege Spider-Man, would sacrifice himself for the greater good, and is terrified of not doing enough to keep the world safe. He's just very good at hiding it.

Walter White in Breaking Bad:

Possibly the only reason anyone roots for Walter White later on in Breaking Bad. He may Kick the Dog several times an episode at least, but he throws out awesome moments and bombastic speeches just as frequently. The best example of this would be his exchange with (and subsequent dominance over) rival drug dealers from Phoenix at the beginning of "Say My Name".

Dio Brando in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:

Dio Brando is a good contender for the biggest Jerkass in manga history, and it shows... but he's so charismatic, it doesn't really matter.

See this scene for an example of what they mean.


Make them so narcissistic/sociopathic that the reader can laugh at them.

Inflate their ego to the point that it's so over-the-top, that you're more likely to laugh at how absurd their actions are, than be alienated by what they're doing.

Dennis from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia:

The most sociopathic of the characters, Dennis is abrasive, narcissistic, self-absorbed, manipulative and callous. Much of his inflated ego is perpetuated by his Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania where he minored in Psychology.

Everyone in that show is a sociopath, but he's the worst of them. He's the last person to be friends with, but his antics are quite entertaining. See this scene where the main characters go to a therapist, or this scene where he goes berserk because someone slighted the "Golden God's" (that's what he calls/considers himself) car.

Eric Cartman from South Park:

Yes, he is a smarmy, self-serving, thoroughly sociopathic bully who has no qualms about doing literally whatever he wants, damn the consequences. But one side effect is that he's so completely fucked up that he can occasionally be called upon to get everyone else out of catastrophic situations when all else seems lost — and he does so in ways so ruthlessly efficient and imaginative, only he could have ever come up with them. In The Movie, for starters, he saves the entire world from being swallowed by the legions of Hell by electrocuting an undead Saddam Hussein with a combination of an overcharged anti-swearing implant and his own colorful vocabulary.


Make the sociopath be charismatic and entertaining, so that the reader can laugh with them.

This works best with self-aware characters, who know exactly what they're doing, and they're enjoying it, and their anarchic and destructive energy is contagious. Some good examples can be found in the page Heroic Comedic Sociopath.

The Mask in the comics:

His comics incarnation, meanwhile, is a pure-up Villain Protagonist. It also helps that so many of the characters who get picked on by The Mask are Asshole Victims. In fact, in the movie it often seems as if Edge City is swarming with all kinds of pests, weirdos, bullies, and all-around Jerkasses whose only purpose in life is to drive Stanley to impossible levels of madness and inspire him to wreak creatively ghoulish destruction as The Mask.

Kai in Kung Fu Panda 3:

Kai from Kung Fu Panda 3 has one hell of an ego on him, constantly boasting about his accomplishments (and getting annoyed when they aren't recognized), along with having way too much fun in the villain role for his own good. The fact that he does all of this while still being very competent has made him quite endearing to the fandom.

Handsome Jack in the Borderlands games:

Handsome Jack is regarded as one of the most memorable video game antagonists in recent years since the commercial and critical success of Borderlands 2; players love to hate him for his disturbing yet hilariously twisted morals, his bombastic personality, his bizarre sense of humor, his strangely emotional nuances (that don't de-fang his cruelty or megalomania in any way) [...]

See the spoon story for a short example, but really, he has many great lines.

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