Masking the Psychopath


When I decided to write Nikolai as a psychopath, I wanted to do justice to the neurotype, making it as realistic as possible. As an autistic, I know how much it sucks to see misrepresentation in media. Thanks to common misconceptions, disclosing one’s condition is liable to be met with disbelief, pity, discrimination, or infantizing remarks about our ability to function in public. Psychopaths, on the other hand, can be met with fear and hostility if their condition is made public. They often hide their identities, even online. In interviews, I’ve seen them use pseudonyms and have their faces blurred.

Both psychopaths and autistics utilize masks. Neurotype influences our innate social cues (or lack thereof). Autistic behaviors are often contrary to what is expected and we tend to make social gaffs. Our communication style is different, as are our emotions. So we learn to mask who we really are and how we really feel. Female autistics are generally better at masking. Prolonged masking can lead to autistic burnout.

But while autistics have the freedom to be themselves, at least online and with close friends, psychopaths often don’t. Their behavior baseline is so far removed from what is expected in polite company that they usually retain at least a mild mask, even online and around loved ones.

I’ve already written about the struggle of writing a character with minimal emotions, but likability of Nikolai was also a serious issue in earlier drafts. I had to tone him down a lot. While people love anti-heroes and villains, there are certain criteria that seem to be required for likability:

  1. Charisma
  2. Competency
  3. Tragic backstory

Nikolai is charismatic, but only to other characters and only when he wants something. If he were a secondary character viewed through the eyes of a traditional protagonist, he wouldn’t have the same issues with likeability (you’ll get to experience this later, when I tell Dawn’s story). But he’s not a secondary character and I’m writing in third person deep POV. The readers get to see how the sausage is made, so to speak. While Nikolai doesn’t always act on his thoughts, they can be quite manipulative, dark, and self-serving. Which results in this:

nikolai comment

This was after toning him down. The above remark wasn’t even in reference to one of his worse thoughts, but it came after him outwardly being “nice,” so it was jarring in contrast. This has been a recurring theme.

There’s a screenwriting technique known as Save the Cat, where the hero does something good early on to make the audience root for them (in a cool twist, the American version of House of Cards subverts this trope by having the protagonist kill a dog). I wrote a Save the Cat scene for Nikolai, hoping it would make him a bit more likable. He saves a girl from being harassed by drunks. Good, right?

Well, not exactly. Because the reader is in his head, they can see his motivation, which is less about saving the girl and more about letting off steam by attacking the drunks. He does have a certain protectiveness about the residents of Haven, but that’s because it’s a small town and he has daily interactions with these people. In a sense, they “belong” to him and he’s only taking care of his possessions. So while the scene gives Nikolai a nice opportunity to reflect on his own motivations, those motivations are still self-serving.

Psychopaths are born, unlike sociopaths, which are made, usually the result of childhood trauma. This was a problem initially, because it meant Nikolai had no tragic backstory. Or rather, that his backstory was not a reason for behavior. I planned to have him lie repeatedly (and conflictingly) about his past, keeping readers in the dark until book seven or so. I wanted there to be a lesson in it, that some people are just like this and there’s no “wound” or whatever driving them.

Unfortunately, I had to change my plans. Readers were confused as to why a person would be this way and as a result they couldn’t connect with him or root for him. I started throwing in lots of hints pertaining to his past and suddenly readers were a lot more invested. The implication of past trauma, even if it has nothing to do with his neurology, was enough to change their perception.

What does all this have to do with masking?

Well yesterday I had an epiphany after I wrote a scene in which Nikolai takes off his mask. Psychopaths mask themselves to be more palpable to people. It’s a necessary part of their survival. Without intentionally doing so, I have been effectively masking my character to make him more palpable to readers. Talk about meta.

In some ways it’s good, because it’s given Nikolai more depth, but on the other hand I can’t go as dark/sardonic as I want to without offending reader sensibilities. I may be able to ramp that up a bit in book two, when his competency increases.

Until then, mask it is.

© 2019 Val Neil. All rights reserved. “Masks” photo by Martin Mutch.


1 thought on “Masking the Psychopath

  1. I appreciate that you have put so much effort into depicting psychopathy in a realistic way. I don’t think I am a psychopath or sociopath, although I have a very similar experience. I’ve never been diagnosed with anything but I just call it emotional analgesia, I can’t feel emotional pain and the emotions I do have are mild and fleeting. But I’m never bored or impulsive. It’s rare for me to find characters I relate with.
    It’s always interesting to me when I hear writers struggling with a character who doesn’t feel emotions. I personally don’t think feelings are essential to create drama or even empathy. I mostly write about robots and other non-human characters for this reason.

    Liked by 1 person

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