1. Some_Bloke
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    Some_Bloke Active Member

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    Any tips for writing a psychopathic character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Some_Bloke, Oct 14, 2014.

    My novel, which consists of several different stories that are all connected (think Cloud Atlas in space and with less of a time difference between the stories) has one story in which the antagonist is an eight year old girl who archaeologists find in Cryostasis on a destroyed Earth among death row inmates and bring back to the Mars colony.

    I want to create a character who is extremely manipulative and hides a lot of secrets quite well, using her age and to her advantage at every possible opportunity to enforce the false image of an innocent child (when of course she's really a psychopath with a dark past).
     
  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I didn't realise it when I was writing, but one of my own characters is actually a psychopath. I ran across a list of 'symptoms,' and he has nearly every one of the classic ones! It was a bit of a shock to me, who wrote him. Here's one list I discovered later on. You might find it useful when building your character. And just google 'symptoms of psychopathy' and you'll find lots more.


    Hervey Cleckley’s List of Psychopathy Symptoms:

    1. Considerable superficial charm and average or above average intelligence.

    2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.

    3. Absence of anxiety or other “neurotic” symptoms. Considerable poise, calmness and verbal facility.

    4. Unreliability, disregard for obligations, no sense of responsibility, in matters of little and great import.

    5. Untruthfulness and insincerity.

    6. Antisocial behavior which is inadequately motivated and poorly planned, seeming to stem from an inexplicable impulsiveness.

    7. Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior.

    8. Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience.

    9. Pathological egocentricity. Total self-centeredness and an incapacity for real love and attachment.

    10. General poverty of deep and lasting emotions.

    11. Lack of any true insight; inability to see oneself as others do.

    12. Ingratitude for any special considerations, kindness and trust.

    13. Fantastic and objectionable behavior, after drinking and sometimes even when not drinking. Vulgarity, rudeness, quick mood shifts, pranks for facile entertainment.

    14. No history of genuine suicide attempts.

    15. An impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated sex life.

    16. Failure to have a life plan and to live in any ordered way (unless it is for destructive purposes or a sham).

    Robert Hare’s Checklist of Psychopathy Symptoms:

    1. GLIB AND SUPERFICIAL CHARM — the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. He can also be a great listener, to simulate empathy while zeroing in on his targets’ dreams and vulnerabilities, to be able to manipulate them better.

    2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH — a grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.

    3. NEED FOR STIMULATION or PRONENESS TO BOREDOM — an excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.

    4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING — can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative and dishonest.

    5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS: the use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims.

    6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT: a lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims.

    7. SHALLOW AFFECT: emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness and superficial warmth.

    8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY: a lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.

    9. PARASITIC LIFESTYLE: an intentional, manipulative, selfis, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline and the inability to carry through one’s responsibilities.

    10. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS: expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.

    11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR: a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of numerous, multiple relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity (rape) or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits and conquests.

    12. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS: a variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use and running away from home.

    13. LACK OF REALISTIC, LONG-TERM GOALS: an inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.

    14. IMPULSIVITY: the occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations and momentary urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic and reckless.

    15. IRRESPONSIBILITY: repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.

    16. FAILURE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR OWN ACTIONS: a failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.

    17. MANY SHORT-TERM RELATIONSHIPS: a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including in marital and familial bonds.

    18. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY: behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.

    19. REVOCATION OF CONDITION RELEASE: a revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation or failing to appear.

    20. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY: a diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes or wrongdoings.
     
  3. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Since @jannert has already covered the clinical descriptions pretty well, allow me to add my less-scientific interpretations of the same literature:

    Human beings require food, water, oxygen. Psychopaths require manipulation, domination, control. They don't care whether they live or die as long as they feel that they are deciding the how and when.

    Psychopaths feel the same emotions for human beings that we feel for rocks and lawn gnomes. They go through life seeing themselves as the protagonists of a video game, and we are just NPCs.
     
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  4. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Psychopaths are often depicted as these creepy slimy beings with creepy smiles (I'm looking at you Hopkins). But that's not how it is at all. They're smooth people, which is why you've probably walked by more psychopaths than you might just think. A good chunk of people on this forum are probably psychopaths, statistically speaking of course. It could be anyone.

    Watch the original Manhunter from 1986. Mediocre and boring movie, based on the original Red Dragon book. Anyway, they were spot on about one thing: their depiction of a psychopath. Brian Cox plays the role of Hannibal Lecktor, and he absolutely nails it. He doesn't have this creepy vibe at all, and on the outside - even with the hindsight of him being a killer - he seems like a completely normal person. So try to aim for that, a character who seems like a normal person on the outside. All interaction with other characters should be written as if she was a lovely, warm person.

    Now it's your job as a writer and convey that to a child. Oh and by the way, try not to be too hung up on the clinical definitions. A child will (hopefully) not fit the criteria of sexual promiscuity, many short-term marriages, and so on. Just get the key traits in there, and braid it all together through her action.
     
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  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Some psychopaths can be quite charismatic, especially if we aren't intimate with them. They often go out of their way to be just that—the centre of attention, the one whom others follow. We are in danger if we fall for their manipulative tricks and/or make excuses for their often antisocial behaviour. By antisocial, I mean behaviour that does not advance the common good in any way. I'm not using 'antisocial' to mean they refuse contact with people. On the contrary, most psychopaths seek it out.

    Charisma is a trait writers can certainly play with. Little markers are a psychopath's lack of empathy for others, when it's not something they are pretending to have. Also a hint of coldness at certain events, when in normal people you would expect warmth.

    Some of their charisma comes from their basic lack of fear, which is also a marker. An 'adventurous' person who seeks out wild risks and thrills can often be a psychopath—although these traits are often seen as desirable or attractive by other people. Remember Steerforth, the standout character in Dickens's David Copperfield? A classic (literally) case of psychopathy.

    I've thought about Steerforth a lot. So many of Dickens's characters are 'stock' characters, who are almost cartoonish. They exist mainly to serve the plot, and Dickens decorates them with characteristics and attributes. Steerforth just leaped off the page for me as somebody real. Somebody whom Dickens might actually have known. There is certainly a love for this character that comes through in the story which seems genuine.

    David Copperfield loves his friend deeply but finds his behaviour disturbing and unsettling as well, especially after they both become adults. Of course I don't imagine Dickens studied psychopaths, but Steerforth is certainly one of the most intriguing characters in literature, at least for me. It's only recently that I've identified him as a psychopath, now that I've learned how the ones who are not criminals can affect people by simply being 'users,' or manipulators who possess great charisma. The way Steerforth treated his classmates (lighthearted contempt), his schoolmaster (with cruel contempt) manipulated Davy into sharing all his goods, spoke about his mother, treated Rosa Dartle, the woman who lived with his mother, and ultimately ruined Little Emily are all right down the centre of the psychopath mold. Even his death was dramatic and self-absorbed.
     
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
  6. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Great answers on psychopathy so far, don't have much to add. I recommend the book 'Without Conscience" by Robert Hare, also his "Snakes in Suits" for the corporate psychopath type.

    Having said that, eight year olds can't be diagnosed with psychopathy, but they can exhibit symptoms which strongly predispose them to become psychopaths as adults. A child of this kind would typically have the following: strong narcissism, sense of entitlement, grandiose views of self, sadistic and violent tendencies (including torturing and killing animals or smaller children), attachment problems, sadistic and inconsistent parenting, abuse.

    So, while you have artistic licence and it is a fantasy/sci fi, you'd need to either accommodate the fact her personality isn't fully formed yet, or explain how an eight year old has the personality of an adult (like Aliyah in Dune, for example).
     
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    During my research on the topic, I discovered that psychopaths are very difficult—if not impossible—to treat or improve their condition. There are certain physical markers which indicate it's actually connected to some physical cause, which could explain why psychotherapy has little effect on them. (One of the interesting physical markers is that many psychopaths can't identify smells. They smell something, but don't know what it is.)

    Apparently the only effective way to treat psychopathic behaviour is to relate it to the individual's self-interest. Make them believe that doing 'something bad' will have an extremely negative impact on what befalls them afterwards. Appeals to their better nature don't work. However, they aren't all criminals. Some of them have already reached the conclusion that they'll get along better if they stick to the letter of the law.

    This begs the question then ...are psychopaths responsible for their condition? It appears they may not be. So what to do with them? How should we feel about them? Pity? Perhaps. Imagine being somebody who is incapable of feeling love, has no concern or empathy for others. They must be incredibly isolated. I wonder how that feels to them. Do they get lonely? Do they 'wish' they could feel these emotions like other people do? Strange....
     
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
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  8. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    It's a shame I can't introduce you to my cousin Brad. He's all you'd need by way of example.
     
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  9. Some_Bloke
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    Some_Bloke Active Member

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    After looking at all of the signs I'm starting to suspect that my teenage sister might be a psychopath too.
     
  10. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Don't get into that mindset. Stop while you're at it. Be really careful with classifying people as psychopaths.
     
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  11. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Why? If the shoe fits ...
     
  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Here is an interesting link to an article discussing the differences and similarities between sociopaths and psychopaths. While their behaviors are sometimes similar, the causes are different.
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/how-tell-sociopath-psychopath

    As this is a writer's thread, the difference between these two conditions might be of interest in building characters. If you believe your character behaves the way he or she does because of upbringing or past trauma, then maybe write them as sociopaths. If their upbringing isn't really a factor, then perhaps write them as a psychopath.
     
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  13. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's easy to say that the shoe fits if she hasn't tried it on. She could just be an asshole, she could be a narcissist or have a third problem. Maybe Some_Bloke is biased towards her sister, so he tries to manipulate certain traits to fit the criteria. There's a whole sea of possibilities. Really, there is a reason why psychologists and psychiatrists spend years in school to learn this stuff.
     
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  14. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Exactly, and @jannert quoted one of those people in his first post and those symptoms were essentially confirmed by @jazzabel, a working psychiatrist herself.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @stevesh : I think what @Aaron Smith meant was, lists of symptoms and signs is all well and good, but it takes a trained mental health professional to diagnose a psychopath. I have to agree with that, because if nothing else, family will have a very subjective opinion, and even in our own families, we don't treat our own due to bias. And then there's a differential diagnosis that means, it could be any number of things, every diagnosis had alternatives that need to be excluded.
     
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  16. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    To me loneliness comes from lacking a connection that you need. I don't think psychopaths need attachment, and of course they are not capable of it on anything than a superficial level, so do you think they get lonely?

    Yes the traits are correct. You don't need a psychiatrist to confirm that. There are plenty of reliable sources on the internet that will say the same. Whether or not they fit on people can however be hard to tell as a layman, and classifying someone as a psychopath is much more than just linking them with a couple of traits.
     
  17. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah. Some people are impulsive by nature, so they do something stupid like stab a man in a drunken stupor. The person then lies to the police about it. I don't want to educate the psychiatrist, so take my statement as a question, but ... what you need to look at is this the motivation and the aftermath. Why did the person do it, and how did the person process it later on? Alright, the person did it because he didn't like the guy, and his innate impulsivity and intoxication helped him do it as well. How did he feel after sobering up? Absolutely terrible. Even more terrible after he learned that the guy could have survived he had just called an ambulance instead of waiting for someone else to do it.

    Two sisters were battling who should inherit the fortune their newly deceased grandfather had passed on to them. Sister 1 really doesn't like Sister 2, because during their childhood she smoked weed in her room, stole money from her, and since their parents died, they never really got the chance to get on good terms with each other. Sister 1 talks to the lawyer, and manipulates him with sex and money, saying that if he alters the legal documents in her favor, she will fuck him and give him some of the fortune. Now, this is manipulative and narcissistic behavior, but the real psychopath in this game is the lawyer who fucked her and altered the legal documents so Sister 2 would get half the money, and the other half would get lost in the system so he could pick them up. I know this isn't how it works, but it's just an example. Sister 1 is really just hungry for revenge, and she's willing to manipulate another person to do that. That doesn't make her a psychopathic, just manipulative.

    My point is, people can have a few of these psychopathic traits that overshadows the rest of their personality.
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, I don't know, but it would be interesting to think about. Not lonely in the same sense that non-psychopaths experience it (missing somebody) but simply in the sense that they might know they have no counterparts and that nobody really understands them. I wonder if this ever makes them feel odd? Or vulnerable? In other words if they can't count on themselves, they can't count on anybody? Do they sometimes wish they had somebody like themselves around? That maybe two people with the same outlook and goals could accomplish things more easily? Or if they needed help ...they broke their leg and needed to get to a doctor, but they have no friends and nobody is likely to appear to give them the help they need. Would they feel 'lonely' in any way, in that sort of situation?

    It was just something that occurred to me.
     
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I see what you're getting at here. And of course you're right. There will not only be 'degrees' of pyschopathy, but some of these traits are shared by other types of people as well, but are motivated differently.

    People classified as sociopaths, for example, share some of these traits, but their traits are connected to neglect or bad upbringing or some kind of trauma. In other words, they would probably have turned out differently if their upbringing had been different—if they had been given a proper 'chance' in life. However, a pure psychopath is somebody whose upbringing doesn't really come into it. Nor are they motivated by things like 'revenge.'

    I was reading some stuff about a couple of famous psychopaths (Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy.) Apparently they've said that when they committed the crimes, they felt compelled to do so, that the need to do these deeds was like a drug in their system or something like that. It was like an addiction that had to be fed. There wasn't any other reason behind it.

    Contrast that with that Brevik fellow in Norway, who shot up all those young people on that island a while ago. He said he did it to call attention to the 'dangers' of immigration and racial mixing.

    Brevik is not classified as a psychopath, apparently, even though he shows no remorse for what he did or feels any empathy for his victims. They were worth sacrificing, in his mind, for a 'greater good.' That's totally warped, but not pyschopathic. Brevik has a warped sense of right and wrong, of fair and unfair, of good and bad, of morality itself (he feels he did the morally right thing to defend his nation from 'impurity,' which is why he feels no remorse)—but at least he is aware of these concepts and can apply them, albeit in a totally unacceptable and wrong-headed way.

    Apparently a fanatic of any stripe, religious or otherwise, is not considered to be a psychopath (unless they simply adopt a fanatic's persona to promote a self-serving agenda of their own, to manipulate people). Fanatics have 'causes' that motivate them. Psychopaths don't.

    Psychopaths never have a greater good or any altruistic motivation in mind. Morality never enters into it for them. They just feel like doing something—so they do. Basically, because they can.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2014
  20. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Yes, of course, but if my cousin exhibits every one of the symptoms described by @jannert (save the promiscuous sexual behavior - I don't know him that well), I feel comfortable describing him as a psychopath, even if I don't have the requisite professional training. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
     
  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think what everybody is saying is not that your cousin isn't a psychopath, but that it's probably not a good idea to go around saying he is without the clinical diagnosis to back you up. What you THINK, however, is your own business ...and you may well be right. I'd steer clear of this guy, for sure—and maybe warn others to the possibility they're being used or fooled, or even in potential danger. It's good that you are alert to the possibility he may not be normal. However, if you start calling him a psychopath behind his back, to people who know him, you could get yourself in a spot of bother.
     
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  22. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Keep in mind that the PCL-R isn't used that way. You can exihibit every trait of a psychopath and still not be one. The tool consists of 20 items, all of which you can either score 0, 1 or 2. 2 being the highest. You need to score about 30 to classify as a categorical psychopath. Maybe your cousin is a bit of a borderliner.
     
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  23. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Regardless of whether your cousin is diagnosable as a psychopath or not I think at best, you could call him a 'psychopath' colloquially. Without a medical or psychology degree, you can't really go around diagnosing people because that list you see is not even the half of things you need to consider. Otherwise anyone could call themselves a psychiatrist just because they have DSM-IV in front of them. Information is not knowledge. ;)

    Having said that, I agree with jannert. Whether someone is diagnosable as a psychopath or not, if you feel they are bad news, steer clear and don't give them a reason to hate you. :)
     
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
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  24. Some_Bloke
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    Some_Bloke Active Member

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    Calm down, I wasn't being serious when I said that I thought she was a psychopath.

    She sure as hell has issues though, even shows a few symptoms of being a psychopath but I don't think she is one.
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The more I read about this topic, the more it becomes obvious that it's not straightforward at all. Even trained experts disagree about markers, etc.

    I think it might be interesting for us, as writers, to explore what a person is like who has some, but not all, of the characteristics. Basically, are they able to overcome this tendency to odd or uncaring behaviour, or not? I find myself wondering a lot what it's like to be them. It's almost as if they come from another planet, when I think about it. They must see the world so much differently from the rest of us.
     

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