Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 3 – In Fiction

This post is the third in my series of posts about Sociopaths in our Culture.  The first post, concerning the definition and description of sociopathy, can be found here.  The second post, where I look at the cultural adaptation of sociopaths, can be found here.

There are a great number of characters in fiction (including movies, books, and TV) that could easily be classified as having Antisocial Personality Disorder.  By my own way of looking at it, I see three different ways in which characters with APD are used in fiction.

For reference, let’s put the definition and indicators up again: A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or adolescence and continuing into adulthood, and indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability or aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavoior or to honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.

The first is very obvious; a great number of the villains in books are obviously sociopaths, many of them wanting nothing more than to destroy all or part of the world.  One of the better examples is probably Raj Ahten who is the primary antagonist of the first four books in David Farland’s Runelords series.  Ultimately he has a noble goal – he is trying to unite the countries of the world in order to face a bigger threat – but the methods that he uses are brutal as he tries to subjugate society.  (Looking at the list, you could diagnose him with #’s 1, 2, 4, 5, 7.)

The second use of APD in fiction comes from a variety of book with a specific type of main character.  While not the most common, there is a history of books being written about antiheroes, characters that in most other stories would be the primary antagonist.  (For antiheroes I’m using the classical definition as described in the Writing Excuses podcast.)  Looking through my list of reviews, the only true antihero book that I have on there is Perfume by Patrick Suskind.  But I’m going to talk about a different book for this, Waiting Period by Hubert Selby Jr.

Selby is one of my favorite authors, and Waiting Period is one of my favorite books of his.  The basic premise of this book is simple; a man who is depressed decides to kill himself.  He decides that the best way to kill himself is to buy a gun and end it quickly.  Because of the laws he has to wait several days before he can get his gun.  During this time, he starts to think a little differently about his situation in life.  He starts to think that his life isn’t the problem; the problem comes from people in power keeping everyone else down.  This leads to him deciding that he needs to kill the people who have been causing the problems rather than himself.  He is in many ways the prototypical APD case, and is easily diagnosed with symptoms #1, 4, 5, & 7.

The third use of people with APD is not one that many people commonly think about.  In many cases, the primary protagonist in many novels could easily be diagnosed with having APD.  The main reason most people wouldn’t consider them to have this personality disorder is because they’re doing noble things.  But if you look at their patterns of behavior, several heroes of stories show consistent signs of APD behavior.  Two characters that easily fall into this category are Kelsier from Mistborn (#’s 1, 2, 4, 5, & 7) and Kvothe from The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (#’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7 – yes, he shows all of the common symptoms at times).

Not everyone with Antisocial Personality Disorder is a serial killer – in fact many people who could be diagnosed with APD are very successful people.  This series of posts started because of the ways that I saw H. H. Holmes being depicted in media.  I don’t think anyone can argue that what he did was horrible, but the worst thing you could do is simply dismiss someone because of his or her behavior.  Take the time to understand different personalities, and try and figure out why they exist.  Many times people with strange patterns of behavior are the most interesting to look at.  This is true in both fiction and real life.

Realize that any time you’re dealing with people with different personalities or conditions it’s never an issue of “us vs. them.”  We all have numerous aspects to personalities, and there are no clear dividing lines between groups of people, it really comes down to a matter of degree.  It’s also worth considering that there is no condition that is inherently good or bad.  We all have different tools for use, and from there it’s simply a matter of what we decide to do with them.

Hopefully you enjoyed this series of posts (and hopefully I didn’t ramble too much).

The definitions from this series of posts come from my psychology textbooks that I used in college.  My Abnormal Psychology textbook is the Hansell & Demour Abnormal Psychology (2nd edition).  Also of use was my textbook from my Personality class, which is the Larsen & Buss Personality Psychology (4th edition).  Obviously I also used my lecture notes from these classes, for which I thank my professors.  If you are interested in further reading into this topic I would highly suggest looking into both of those books.

Leave a comment


  1. hannahrose42

     /  June 8, 2012

    I’m glad you gave this topic attention — I would never have expected my beloved characters (Kelsier, Kvothe) to be in this thing that I didn’t take the time to understand. I have always been a bit fascinated by sociopathic killers, or “them”, and never really tried to understand the problem. So thank you for clearing things up and opening my eyes… I might have to check out that documentary on H.H. Holmes now, as well!

    • Most of the time we wouldn’t imagine heroes as people who would have this. But if you take Mistborn and look at the story from the Lord Ruler’s POV, Kelsier is causing a revolution and serving as an assassin of members of the noble houses as well as killing countless guards.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the posts.

  1. Sociopaths in our Culture – Part 2 – Cultural Adaptation « Reviews and Ramblings

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