Analysis

Five Psychopathic Characters

Popular media is rife with psychopaths. In fact, psychopaths are more common than you might think. Psychopathic villains often serve as foils for heroic deeds, but there are psychopathic heroes, too.

What’s a Psychopath?

Despite its common use in media, there is no universally recognized clinical definition for psychopathy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders* doesn’t even list psychopathy as a disorder.

However, psychopathy is a defined term in law enforcement. 15-20% of male criminals are considered to be psychopaths, and they require different tactics. Therefore, various law enforcement agencies have determined six common psychopathic traits that can be used to identify them:

  1. A lack of empathy or remorse
  2. A grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. A wide array of crimes and methods
  4. Manipulative mindset
  5. Deceptive tactics
  6. Risk-prone behavior

These five characters vary widely in demeanor and method, but they all have these elements in common.

James Bond Film Series

1. James Bond

bond Live and Let Die

Bond is suave, confident, and faces down danger without blinking. These things make him an interesting character, but they also make him a psychopath.

Bond uses people to get what he wants. In Live and Let Die, he meets Solitaire, a fortune teller. She gives Bond a tarot card reading that predicts that she and Bond will become lovers. This prediction makes her uncomfortable, but Bond doesn’t care about what she wants; he stacked the deck in order to trick her into sleeping with him. This type of manipulation is common among psychopaths.

Anyone who has seen more than one Bond movie knows that he’s overly fond of bad puns. In Live and Let Die, Bond kills the villain Kanaga by using pressurized air. Kanaga fills up like a meat balloon, floats to the ceiling, and explodes with a satisfying pop. Bond, undeterred by the gore, says, “He’s always had an inflated opinion of himself.” He is such a callous killer that he thinks it’s appropriate to crack wise after murdering someone.

Bond’s existence is undeniably dangerous. He moves from one emergency to the next, dealing with lethal goons and lieutenants in a series of rapid-fire life-or-death situations. In any given Bond movie, he’s being shot at often as not, and it never seems to bother him.

The fact that Bond is comfortable with a violent job doesn’t make him a psychopath, as there are a number of reasons he could feel that it’s worth it, such as the money or a sense of patriotism. But those things don’t seem to be driving him. Instead, it appears that Bond gets a kick out of violence and danger. Risk-prone behavior is another trait associated with psychopathy.

The Dark Knight Returns

2. Batman

Batman The Dark Knight Returns

Spoiler Notice: The Dark Knight Returns

Although Batman and Bond both direct their violence at the “bad guys,” where Bond and Batman differ is how they deal with authority. Bond (mostly) follows orders, but Batman is known for disregarding authority. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman’s vigilante actions put him at odds with Gotham’s politicians. Eventually, the President gets involved, but not even that deters Batman in the slightest. This reflects his gargantuan self-importance: no one else’s opinions matter.

Batman is unafraid of risk, as illustrated by his fight against the mutants. He uses a giant tank to kick the crap out of the goons, but when the mutant leader calls Batman a coward, Batman leaves the safety of his tank so he can fight the leader in hand-to-hand combat. Later on, Batman hears that Superman is out to get him. No one would have blamed him for hiding or surrendering, but instead, he opts to don some power armor and throw down with a God-like alien. Batman’s conviction that he’s the best is unshakable.

Most criminals stick to a single tactic or form of crime once they find one that works. Psychopaths will branch into other forms of crime depending on their needs and available victims. Batman uses a number of methods to get what he wants, resorting to a wide variety of tactics in his war on crime. Over the course of The Dark Knight Returns, he uses fear, intimidation, overwhelming force, humiliation, allies, trickery, and gadgets to get results.

Batman is also excellent at deception; using Bruce Wayne as a mask comes naturally to him. At the end of the story, when Batman is forced to give up his Bruce Wayne persona, he fakes his own death and starts a new life training the former mutant army to become vigilantes like himself. Batman has no trouble switching from one disguise to another when convenient; he’s a pathological liar.

The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy

3. Mandy

mandy Billy and Mandy’s grim adventure

Mandy is a great example of a non-violent psychopath. She’s domineering, manipulative, and has difficultly empathizing. She treats Grim, Billy, and every other character in the show as tools.

Her lack of friends is telling; they include Billy, a drooling moron, and the Grim Reaper, who’s only her friend because he lost a limbo contest and got shanghaied into being her best friend. It’s apparent she has trouble forming meaningful relationships with other people, signaling a lack of empathy.

In the second episode of season three, “Puddle Jumpers,” Billy goes through a cosmic sinkhole and ends up across the world. According to Grim, it would be both dangerous and hard to follow after Billy, and he doesn’t want to risk it. Mandy has different plans, though. She bosses Grim into helping her find Billy. However, Mandy wants to find Billy because he’s her science project, not because she cares for his safety.

Mandy is also incredibly proud. In episode seven of season four, “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” Dora tricks Mandy into opening her box. Mandy is later presented with the opportunity to close the box, which will prevent an eternity of suffering and chaos for all of mankind. Despite Dora’s encouragement and Mandy’s life goals,* she still closes the box. Why? She’s pissed that she was tricked, and insists that she’ll punish mankind on her own when the time comes. Her self-importance overruled her lack of empathy, in this case.

Mandy has the tell-tale signs of psychopath, but she’s different from common expectations; when most people imagine a psychopath, they likely imagine someone male, violent, criminal, and an adult. Mandy’s a young blond girl who regularly wears a pink dress, which causes a disjunction between what most people expect and how she actually acts. This discrepancy makes her more interesting as a character.

Before Watchmen: Comedian

4. The Comedian

comedian Before Watchmen: The Comedian

If the Joker joined the US Army and stuck with it, you’d end up with someone similar to the Comedian. He’s violent, unpredictable, deceptive, lacks empathy, and takes giant risks. However, because he works for the government, a lot of his behavior is sanctioned.

While coordinating a bust with federal agents, they ask him to play it subtle. He responds by slamming on the gas, driving through a wall, and shooting all of the thugs. He’s got brass balls and doesn’t take orders well.

Near the end of the comic arc, the Comedian murders a village filled with hundreds of non-combatants. When one of the soldiers who helped him has a moment of doubt, the Comedian begins to lecture him. He claims that he’s really a patriot at heart, but people don’t understand him. He says, “These f**king people. They’re not OUR women and children.” In typical psychopathic fashion, he’s making excuses to manipulate the situation. It’s clear that the Comedian doesn’t feel any remorse for his actions.

When the Comedian realizes that he may have to deal with the consequences of mass murder, he murders an old friend to avoid facing the music. Psychopaths will typically never face consequences if they can avoid them.

Preacher

5. Gran’ma

Granma Preacher

Gran’ma is one of the cruelest and coldest villains I’ve ever encountered. All of the other characters I’ve listed here today are heroes or protagonists; even the Comedian, a violent and brutal madman, isn’t as ruthless as she is.

Gran’ma is Jesse Custer’s evil grandmother. She dreams of making the L’Angelle family into something powerful, and she uses Jesse to gain this end. She murders his parents and does all kinds of awful things in order to manipulate Jesse into becoming a minister.

Gran’ma uses many strategies to get what she wants from Jesse. Often, her abuse is psychological. After ordering the murder of his parents, she whispers into his ear, “look what you have done.” She also physically torments Jesse using a device known as the coffin (don’t ask, it’s pretty bad). He is only a child at the time, yet she has no qualms about punishing him. Whenever her current method stops working, she changes to another, equally brutal tactic.

Gran’ma is undeniably certain of her importance. She thinks it’s her right to control Jesse’s life. After Jesse retaliates for years of abuse by kicking the crap out of her goons and lighting her house on fire, she insists he must die for his insolence. This kind of narcissism is the most common of the psychopathic traits. Gran’ma is convinced that if she can’t win, no one will.

Like Mandy, Gran’ma doesn’t look like a psychopath. She’s a frail, hunched octogenarian, connected to an oxygen tank and confined to a wheelchair. No one expects a little old lady to arrange the murder of her relatives or to physically and emotionally abuse her grandson.

Female psychopaths appear infrequently in fiction, and when they do, they’re generally more manipulative than violent. When they are violent, they often use proxies. Gran’ma uses her goon, Jodi, and Mandy uses Grim. Although this pattern also happens with real female psychopathic criminals, you don’t have to stick to it. Psychopaths do prefer to use many different methods and tactics, after all.

 

This is just handful of the types of psychopathic characters that exist. Psychopaths are complicated and varied; they exhibit the same traits in many different ways. If you plan on writing a psychopathic character, make sure to do your research carefully, since there’s a lot of misinformation available.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Ethan C.

    Good article. I think that in Skyfall, they really took on Bond’s psychopathic personality head-on. The idea, I think, is that while Bond is clearly psychopathic, he directs his actions toward positive and necessary ends. Plus he has ethical lines that he won’t cross, even though his motives for doing so seem to be more aesthetic than moral, per se.

    Another important point that you touch upon is that psychopathy is a collection of symptomatic behaviors on a continuum, rather than a simple binary between normals and monsters. Not every psychopath is Hannibal Lecter or Bernie Madoff. Some are only ruthless in certain ways, or only in certain circumstances. While the various behaviors on the checklist do tend to cluster together (probably because they all come from low cortisol and serotonin levels in the brain), they aren’t necessarily all strongly expressed in a particular individual.

    A very interesting book to read on this subject is “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry” by Jon Ronson. Which I’ve read, as I’m sure you can tell.

  2. David Mesick

    Hey Ethan, thanks for the feedback.

    Yea, out of the list, Bond is the least obviously psychopathic. In fact, it didn’t occur to me until I was watching Live or Let die, and then it hit like a ton of bricks. He may direct his violence in a positive direction, but it’s still easy to forget how comfortable he is with violence.

    I’m glad you mentioned that Ethan. That was actually supposed to be one of the major points of the article. People think that’s there’s a switch in people’s brains; flip it the wrong way, and lookit that, you’ve got a psychopath. There’s also a lot of expectations involving violent behavior, when in reality an overwhelming majority won’t engage in such behavior and very well may lead successful lives. Sure, they may be prone to predatory behavior, but violence itself is rarer. It’s not a switch, it’s a sliding scale, and finding out how exactly law enforcement measures psychopathy in prisoners was really interesting.

    I may have to look into that book. They’ve always been a point of interest for me.

  3. H. M. Turnbull

    Great article! I always knew Bond was a psychopath, but a lot of people didn’t believe me when I pointed it out.

    Another character I think is a psychopath—albeit one from a really bad story—is Bella Swan. She doesn’t care about anything or anyone, she seems to love manipulating people, and she views everyone around her as merely a tool for her to use in achieving her sick, horrible goals. She also displays an impaired ability to experience fear. The scene where she seduces the werewolf in an attempt to get information (in particular her thoughts as she’s doing this) is really quite chilling. The scariest thing is that I don’t think the author intended this character to be a psychopath, but that’s sure how she turned out.

    • David Mesick

      Accidental psychopaths do show up sometimes. Many think of psychopaths as serial killers or akin to other monsters from our history. Of course, reality is far more complicated, and your average psychopath is merely someone who is deceptive and just plain doesn’t understand empathy. Haven’t read the series, but she certainly fits the bill, and I have to agree it probably wasn’t Meyer’s purpose to make Bella a psychopath

    • Carly

      Psychopaths are often serial killers since serial killers do enjoy killing people. In Yu-Gi-Oh!, the characters that are truly psychotic are Yami Bakura and Yami Marik. Atem can sometimes be like that too if pissed off enough.

      • Cay Reet

        Not necessarily, no. That’s something you’ll find in movies and novels, but that doesn’t make it more true.

        Psychopaths have a higher chance to go into a criminal career, because they’re not burdened by guilt or a bad consciousness, but many of them also go for dangerous work, where their cold blood and missing fear are helpful.

        Most serial killers are neither psychopaths nor are they highly intelligent. Statistically, they’re even less intelligent than average.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.