Skip to main content

What is a Story?: Psychopath - The Ultimate Antagonist

Discerning the difference between psychopath and sociopath is enough to drive you crazy. Whatever the difference, the psychopath is one of Hollywood's most favorite antagonists.

A Google search reveals the question is a popular one. Psychopath has a bit more of a personal ring to it, which makes it scarier. According to, "there is no official difference." The article goes on to mention both terms fall under the same heading in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).Scientific American, most certainly a reliable source, focuses attention on the psychopath, but breaks it down in terms like "violent psychopath," "psychopathic serial killer," and other terms.

The simplest definition is a person superficially charming, often times appearing quite normal, but with a profound absence of guilt and/or empathy. It's not hard to see the psychopath all around us, in everyday life. We don't need a serial killer to see the prevalence of phoniness masking evil beneath. Psychopathy, at the extreme, is a good starting point for understanding the spectrum of human behavior in creating a character in storytelling.

In an excellent book, The Psychopath Next Door, Martha Stout tells the tale of Skip, an otherwise good boy with good grades coming from a wealthy family, who, around the age of 11, loved stabbing and blowing up frogs. This behavior was, of course, a view of things to come. If such a character were portrayed in film, other than visually watching pathological behavior, a way to reveal such character would be to show the horrified reactions and responses of children and adults. You can always tell the bad guys from what the good guys do and say.

The label conjures up many notorious characters in film: Hannibal Lecter, Scarface, Natural Born Killers, Mr. Brooks, Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and the classic Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Alan Bates in Psycho. And, not to leave out the female psychopath, Alex Forrest (Glen Close), in Fatal Attraction, or Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery, prove psychopathy is most certainly gender-neutral. The younger generation has its share of psychopathy, even as young as Damien in The Omen or Henry Evans (Macaulay Culkin) in The Good Son. lists the "50 Creepiest Movie Psychopaths." The list is arbitray, since there are 100s more to choose from.

In creating a character, what could be more dramatic than unraveling the psychopath, watching them become undone, so to speak. And once the psychopath implodes, the character usually ends up dead. Who could be more terrifying--and that's a key word in character study--than Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining. It would certainly make for an interesting story where an undone psychopath gets put back together again, although mental/emotional illness is not something that can be fixed. The healing process could prove equally as dramatic as the onslaught of the illness. What happens to the victims of a psychopath is equally dramatic.

In turn, Dr. Lecter has has bursts of rage, but he never really unravels. Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street and Jason Vorhees in Halloween are elevated to the level of monster, with most horror movies having one or more psychopaths as typical leading characters. The Joker in The Dark Knight is born out of the comics, a genre that loves to pit super-heroes against super-villains.

Why psychopaths prove to be so popular in film is clearly obvious in how they represent the two primary elements of storytelling: drama and conflict, or drama born from conflict. They are larger-than-life and capture the imagination. The short definition of what a story is, "ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances," is but one way to tell a story. In reverse, "Extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances" works just as well. Psychopaths, in the extreme, provide the impetus for bloody after bloody scene, the kind of movies where we enter the realm of violence for violence sake. It's debatable whether the portrayal of such extreme forms of behavior is done solely for entertainment, or if some writers actually seek to reveal the underlying cause and effect of such human emotional/mental disturbance. Perhaps movies like Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn do just that. Movies are about show and not tell, so the revealing of character is often done more so visually than through dialog.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country For Old Men, is a stone-faced hitman who flippantly flips a coin each time he decides the fate of his victims.

anton chigurh - No Country For Old Men

Anti-violence pundits aptly criticize the movies for glorifying the psychopath, particularly criminal types, from Jesse James to the Godfather to drug dealers like Pablo Escobar. In these examples, such psychopaths have friends, family and lovers. They laugh, sing, and love animals, good food, and a beautiful day.

Storytelling, and especially actors in any given role, is not meant to judge good or bad, per se, but to simply tell the story. When stories do become judgmental, they become moralistic, and meant more to persuade than to allow audiences to judge for themselves the nature of right and wrong, good and evil. When the day comes to tell the story of Hitler (Bruno Ganz portrayal of Hitler in Downfall notwithstanding), a more revealing story would be one that acknowledges how so many Germans and others did not see the Holocaust as evil or wrong, a truth that seems unfathomable in the face of such horrifying atrocity.

Storytellers decide not only what story to tell, but how to tell it. Moralistic, judgmental, or not, there is always a point of view. Many a war hero, from General Maximus in Gladiator to Patton, kill and order the killing of 1000s, yet are never considered pathological in their actions. In the case of war or fighting crime, pathological is almost a job description. In prison, it's almost normal behavior.

And, of course, what could be funnier than pooling a band of psychopaths together, thanks to screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, a story about a screenwriter writing a script about seven psychopaths.

Having a conscience or not is key to creating a character.

Terrorists are certainly psychopathic, even though many believe what they do is in the name of God. Psychopaths are not necessarily monsters who lust for blood. Instead, they could lust for power, wealth and fame, and will do anything to get it, but draw the line at killing. Even the high school coach who secretly loves demanding 50 pushups as a form of punishment to a wrongdoer could be psychopathic. The schoolyard bully is often psychopathic, or the boss who needs to control others. Allegedly humans are the only species on the planet that enjoy hurting others for fun, although some baboons have been known to pull the feathers off of chickens for the sheer enjoyment of it.


Get tips on creating characters actors want to play with Jon James Miller's webinar series
Create Characters Audiences Connect To