Serial Killers and Sociopaths

Despite fads and new genres, serial killers endure as a favorite villain for writers and readers alike, though I lost my taste for such books years ago. For one thing, too many writers use killing as a cheap way of escalating tension, with each murder upping the ante. For another thing, too many writers perpetuate the serial killer myth of the white, middle-class, intelligent, charming male about thirty-five years old.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, debunks this stereotype in a guest post she did for this blog: Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths. As Ramsland points out, “Serial killers are not all alike. They’re not all male. Some have been as young as eight or older than fifty. They’re not all driven by sexual compulsion. They’re not all intelligent, nor even clever – often, they’re just lucky. They’re not all charming. A single killer may choose different weapons or methods of operation, although they will tend to stay with whatever works best. Even with rituals, the basis of a ‘signature,’ they often experiment and change things. They might be profit-driven, in search of thrill or self-gratification, or compelled by some other deep-seated desire, fear or need. Occasionally, serial murder is about revenge or it’s inspired by a delusion. In most cases, the killer does not wish to be stopped or caught. Yet a few do intentionally undermine themselves or stop of their own accord. Some rare killers have even professed remorse or killed themselves.”

Far more fascinating to me are the sociopaths who don’t kill. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand mindpsychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. (Some professionals use “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangably as I am doing and some argue there is a difference, but oddly, no one seems to agree on what those differences are.)

So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Probably many politicians and scientists. Possibly even you.

(In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Peter Jensen says: “I have a theory, entirely unproven, that a lot of psychopaths gravitate to the sciences, biology especially, where they can hide behind that famed scientific detachment. They can also torture animals in the name of science, and no one calls them insane.”)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They can be charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. (Sounds like a politician, doesn’t it?) Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, no need to conform to societal standards, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

In a relationship, such manipulation might be intolerable, but in fiction, it makes for a interesting character, even if the character isn’t a killer.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.