Author Elaine Murphy explains how she got sucked in by the queasily liberating allure of sociopaths—and why you will, too.
Most people use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably, though they’re technically different personality disorders. In both cases, the person acts without conscience and without fear of consequences. They are prone to manipulation, impulsiveness and lies, and they act recklessly. The primary difference is that sociopaths have a bit more emotional wiggle room, if you will. They might have real feelings for one or two people, they might experience a tiny bit of empathy or guilt, and they might have some emotion (like rage), although the emotion is fleeting.
We’ve all known someone who has one or many of these characteristics, and I’ve personally done my best to avoid them in my life. So why are we still drawn to reading about these types of people?
Because it’s fiction! It’s so fun to watch these characters in action precisely because the stories aren’t real. Sociopaths are impulsive and unpredictable, so we never know what they’re going to do next. But much like when we follow a story about a zombie apocalypse or killer mermaids, we have the safety net of our TV screen or the pages of a book to keep the real threat at a distance. (Keep in mind that not all sociopaths are violent, just as all non-sociopaths are not harmless.)
In Look What You Made Me Do, Carrie Lawrence’s older sister, Becca, is a 30-year-old sociopath. Becca has been killing people since high school and roping her sister in to help hide the bodies. There’s a moment in the book when Carrie notes, “Not once in my life have I been afraid for my sister. She’s always been the biggest predator in the room, the one sitting at the top of the food chain, picking and choosing her next meal.” Sociopaths have no regard for how their behavior affects others and enjoy a “rules don’t apply to me” type of attitude.
Becca was an amazing character for me to explore as a writer because she’s never boring. She has an idea, and she acts on it. She plunges headlong into whatever motivates her in any given moment and never considers the consequences. Becca wants to break into a building? Let’s go! Learns there’s a serial killer in town and he’s stealing her thunder and needs to pay? Let’s take care of this immediately, no planning required!
Becca does all those things we wish we could do but have been raised—and possess the empathy and guilt that guide “normal” behavior—not to. Have you ever been in a conversation and just desperately wanted the other person to shut up? Seen something more entertaining over their shoulder and wanted to walk away? Thought the pretzel in their hand looked delicious and wanted a bite? You can watch a character like Becca in that scenario and know you’re not in for a boring scene in which the other person drones on. She’s going to take action. Maybe she’ll simply walk off. Maybe she’ll take the pretzel with her. Maybe she’ll kill the other person and call it self-defense for trying to bore her to death. As a reader and a writer, these are the types of characters that keep me turning—and typing—the pages.
Author photo by Laura Shortt Photography.