A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, August 9, 2019

Psychos on Parade

Some while ago, TOF ran across an article somewhere on the characterization of psychopaths. He thought it might prove interesting for Faithful Reader. If you decide one of your characters should be a psychopath, these are supposedly markers you can use to characterize them.

1. They speak in the past tense.
Psychopaths use more past-tense verbs than other people. When talking about an event happening right now, most of us would say, "I think this is a good idea." A psychopath might be more likely to say, "I thought that was a good idea." Researchers suspect this is because they are detached from their behavior and their environment.

2. Their body language is convincing. 

Psychopaths lie to make themselves look good. But their nonverbal behavior is often so convincing--and distracting--that people don't recognize they're being deceitful. In the police interview with murderer and rapist Paul Bernadino, FBI agents noticed he used powerful hand gestures to distract from his spoken lies.

3. Their language lacks emotional dimension.

For psychopaths, saying, "I love you," doesn't stir up any more emotion than saying, "Please pass the milk." They can parrot back what they've heard other people say but their facial expressions don't match their words. Their ability to verbalize feelings is most likely a learned behavior, as opposed to a genuine emotional experience.

4. They sound charming.

Researchers have found that psychopaths talk more and use more emotional words in an attempt to gain attention and admiration. Psychopaths are really good at saying just the right thing at the right time. They know how to play on other people's emotions and they're master manipulators.

5. They speak slowly and quietly.

Studies show psychopaths usually speak in a controlled manner. They don't emphasize emotional words like other people do. Their tone remains fairly neutral throughout the conversation. Researchers suspect they craft a calm demeanor intentionally because it helps them gain more control in their personal interactions.

6. They talk about life in terms of cause and effect.
Psychopaths--especially those who commit crimes--talk about their behavior in terms of cause and effect. For example, one might say, "I had to teach him a lesson." Rather than show remorse, a psychopath is likely to justify his actions.

7. They focus their attention on their basic needs.
Rather than talk about spiritual or emotional needs or the needs of others, psychopaths are more likely to talk about their own basic needs, like food and shelter. A psychopath who confesses to a murder, for example, is more likely to spend the bulk of his time talking about what he ate for lunch and what he hoped to gain financially, rather than how his behavior affected other people.

8. They say, "um" more often.
Psychopaths are more likely to use filler words and sounds, like "uh" and "um." While many people use such sounds to avoid an awkward silence, researchers suspect psychopaths use them in an effort to appear sane.

9. They're great storytellers.
Whether a psychopath claims she rescued kittens from a burning building or says she was the only one at her last job who was willing to stand up to management, psychopaths tell rich stories about themselves. While some stories are likely to paint them as victims, the bulk of their stories are likely to portray them as heroes. All of their stories stem from their desire to gain trust and manipulate their listeners.


  1. Interesting; the points don't seem to hang together very well, but life is complicated that way.

    1. Well yeah, your standard for "hang together well" comes from sane people. Psychopaths are fundamentally unhinged—much more so than psychotics, who have been described as having "normal reactions to abnormal stimuli". If a psychotic thinks he's being eaten from the inside by bugs from Mars, he'll react exactly the way anyone else would if that were the case. Psychopaths, on the other hand, have "abnormal reactions to normal stimuli", like how they see others' sympathy as an opportunity for exploitation.

    2. The different symptoms self-contradict-- they're good at mimicking bodylanguage, but not facial; they're good at talking, but bad at talking in these various ways.

      I would guess it depends largely on where each point came from, and likely makes more sense with a ton of context.

    3. The fact they contradict is why there seems to be something "off" about them. They basically have to consciously mimic normal human behavior, and things like "bad at facial mimicry" (reading facial expressions is a key part of normal humans' empathy, hence why they're bad at it) and "bad at certain kinds of talking" are the gaps that show through in their mimicry.

      Incidentally "bad at reading facial expressions" is also part of why people sometimes conflate autism with psychopathy. Autistic people have trouble reading facial expressions, but unlike psychopaths they still care about other people's feelings—they just can't read them.

    4. No, part of why I say it doesn't fit well is that I know a lot of Spectrum folks and there isn't an overlap.

      Honestly, folks trigger on Spectrum folk instead of Psycho folks.

      That said, Psycho but harmless via philosophy folks seem to hit the same route as those high functioning folks-- who pretty much also do the Philosophy route.

      That would argue against a high body-language ability, unless there was also something that made non-threat psychotics follow High Functioning lines.

      Unless part of the "off" is the for lack of a better word 'lie' attempt where folks know what they mean, know what folks need to hear, but aren't really CONVICTED about it-- kind of like the way that folks will get a 'tell' from high functioning autistics that they're lying when really they can just understand a way to argue against a stance, AKA, "it's complicated."

    5. Well I did say conflate autism with psychopathy, because there isn't really an overlap; there's just a superficially similar "lack of empathy". But autistic people can't "see" how you're feeling, with psychopaths it's more like they won't "look", because they fundamentally can't imagine how it could be relevant except to manipulating you. Autistics can't tell; psychopaths don't care.

      And yes, a huge part of why psychopaths seem off is they're trying to fake their way to things that come naturally to others, in order to manipulate people.

    6. I'm now nervous some of these apply to me.

      Except maybe the last 2. Oh no... am I so psychopathic I've actually taught myself to look extra sane???

    7. Sorry, Nate, you're probably just On The Spectrum.

      Socially colorblind, or maybe very-hard-of-hearing to deaf.

      *raises hand*

    8. I would add 10: They probably think, and certainly blog-post a lot about "psychos".

  2. Awesome post.Thanks for sharing.This is so nice.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Off topic, Mike, I just thought you would get a kick out of knowing that you got featured as the example quote of a TVTropes page.

    1. One of John Wright's books is quoted in a GURPS sci-fi manual I have somewhere (GURPS Space, maybe?).

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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