Sympathetic Sociopath

Question: OK, my story is, more-or-less, meant to be an embodiment of every negative thought, feeling, impulse or emotion ever felt by the "outcasts" of adolescent life. I know this is more often than not a very cliched subject, but I plan to make mine stand out for sure. Anyway, it centers on one boy in particular who, though I wouldn't exactly call him insane (for multiple reasons), snaps and systematically exacts punishment on every solitary person who ever hurt him in any way. Far from being a typical "you bullied me, so I'm killing you" type of story, I want this character and the plot to bring to mind certain questions society really seems to ignore. For instance, "How exactly does your age make you better than me?" in regards to the immensely ageist attitude of many modern societies. Or "What possible reason could you have for hurting me when you don't even know me?" in relation to things like bullying. But back to the question, this boy is more a tragic figure than just an evil villain. And he is much more a secretive, sinister, almost evil genius-ish personality who is impossible to catch or find instead of just a teenager who went psycho. I'm wondering how I can portray him as both sympathetic and yet sadistic. I want the reader to understand his emotional and spiritual pain (he is also revealed, later in the story, to suffer self-loathing) and why he does what he does, yet see how much pleasure he feels in doing the things he does. Note: He only targets people who have wronged him; nobody else, under any circumstances. Any help you can give would be awesome!

Answer: While I can't deny that there are many examples of successful stories involving characters like this (for example, Kill Bill or Hit Girl from Kick Ass), the danger is
is that they often come across as shallow. The pain they inflict on others so often seems out of proportion with the injuries they have received. The things others have done to them come across merely as an excuse to allow them to go on a rampage.

There are thin lines between a believable revenge character, a two-dimensional character (like Hit Girl), and a monster of the kind typically featured in horror films such as Halloween or Friday the 13th.

I think the problem is that sociopathic violence is not something most people can empathize with. You might sympathize with someone made insane by ill treatment combined with a sociopathic illness, but most people would not seriously consider a murder spree to be an acceptable way to cope with their problems. (I'm not sure that's the message you want to deliver either. But, like I say, that's Kill Bill.)

One approach is to tell the story from the point of view of someone other than your sociopath. That's how most horror films work. The main character is an potential victim and the impact character is the monster who forces the main character to resort to violence to survive, and thus become a stronger person.

A second approach would be to have a bullied main character who is tempted to go on a murder spree when he meets a sociopath who does that sort of thing, only to change his mind at the climax.

A third possibility would be to have your sociopath and just accept that the readers may sympathize but not empathize with him.

And a fourth possibility would be to have a non-sociopath who the reader can emapthize with who is put into a situation where killing is the only possible solution.

The trouble is that once you make the character sinister, he stops being tragic - rather like The Phantom of the Opera.

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.

search this site the web
search engine by freefind

Celebrating our 2nd year as one of the...

 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook

NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles

"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards

"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero