I love a good villain. The more malicious and conniving the villain, the more the hero or heroine has to rise to meet the dire challenge. The creation of a good villain is no easy thing and, if they are going to seem real, they need to be based on some truth. Truth requires research. One of the best research subjects for villains is the psychological makeup of the character you want to incorporate.
While on my quest for discovering the characteristics of a truly vile villain, I wondered about the psychiatric terms sociopath and psychopath. Early on I believed the difference between these two antisocial disorders was the degree of misconduct they presented. A sort of bad villain must be a sociopath and a very bad villain must be a psychopath. But I was completely wrong.
I read a study done by *John M. Grohol, Psy.D. titled “Differences Between a Psychopath vs Sociopath” which helped me come to a better understanding of these two terms.
Here is what he wrote:
These two terms are not really well-defined in the psychology research literature, and so there is some confusion about them.
Nonetheless, there are some general similarities as well as differences between these two personality types. Both types of personality have a pervasive pattern of disregard for the safety and rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are central features to both types of personality. Contrary to popular belief, a psychopath or sociopath is not necessarily violent.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-51 defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:
Regularly breaks or flouts the law
Constantly lies and deceives others
Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
Has little regard for the safety of others
Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt
In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present before age 15. By the time a person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a psychopath or sociopath.
Traits of a Psychopath:
Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths tends to be born — it’s likely a genetic predisposition — while sociopaths tend to be made by their environment. (Which is not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.) Psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences. Research has shown psychopaths have underdeveloped components of the brain commonly thought to be responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
As you can see, according to Dr. Grohol, a psychopath is born with antisocial behavior whereas a sociopath becomes antisocial most likely from environmental influences. The following is a bit more about what I discovered:
Researchers tend to believe that sociopathy is the result of environmental factors, such as a child or teen’s upbringing in a very negative household that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
Signs and Symptoms of a Sociopath: There are a respected range of signs that can identify those who could be labelled sociopaths. These include an outward charm, potentially showing a chameleon like ability to be everything the person they are engaging with wants. As a former wife of a sociopath quoted “he morphed into a perfect being”. This is an indication of another of the traits, sociopaths will be often be deceptive and dishonest, and some would describe them as pathological liars. Sociopaths are by nature manipulative saying and do what is required to deceive those they wish to control. They often believe they are superior to those around them; they will also get bored if not constantly stimulated. Sociopaths appear to have a limited range of feelings, expressing little happiness or sadness, and with no sense of the suffering that they inflict on victims of their actions. At the extreme they can be seen as cold, callous and contemptuous.
Sociopaths, in general, tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While also having difficulties in forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may be able to form an attachment to a like-minded group or person. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths don’t hold down long-term jobs or present much of a normal family life to the outside world.
When a sociopath engages in criminal behavior, they may do so in an impulsive and largely unplanned manner, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. They may become agitated and angered easily, sometimes resulting in violent outbursts. These kinds of behaviors increase a sociopath’s chances of being apprehended.
Sherlock and Moriarty in the grip of battle
Of course there is the popular example of a “highly functioning sociopath” in the fictional BBC series “Sherlock” in which the main character, Sherlock, admits he is a sociopath. His villainous counterpart, Moriarty, on the other hand, seemed to be more of a psychopath. He would plan some devious and gruesome deed in great detail, taking his time to get it just right and seem to enjoy the discomfort and agony of his victims.
Real life sociopaths: (this list may astound you)
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister
Many people show sociopathic traits in their decisions and actions. For example, in recent history the UK Prime Minister during the Second World War, Winston Churchill, did nothing to stop the city of Coventry to be bombed by the German air force despite having warning from decrypted radio transmissions. He knew that if he had done something, the Germans would have realized that their codes had been broken and the allies would have lost the advantage they had gained. He was prepared to make a decision which cost thousands their lives. If a sociopath is as defined someone who can ignore the feelings of others and believe that their opinion is right such as the UK’s Winston Churchill, this could also apply to many leaders.
In the UK Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, in the US President George W. Bush could be counted amongst the ranks of high functioning sociopaths.
Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed
Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was a Hungarian socialite who, seeking eternal beauty, bathed in the blood of her victims. Remembered as “The Bloody Countess”, she murdered over 600 girls and young women during her twenty year killing spree.
You may recall that Jeffery Dahmer was raised in a normal home by a loving family, and yet, he became one of the most gruesome of serial killers who devoured his victims rather like the fictional character of Hannibal Lecter.
Ed Gein was the inspiration for the "Texas Chain Saw Murderer". He murdered at least two women, as well as dug up female corpses and wore their body parts.
Speaking about prison in an interview:
I like this place, everybody treats me nice, some of them are a little crazy though.
When asked if he wore the skin face masks for prolonged periods, he had this to say:
Not too long, I had other things to do.
Even the interviewer purportedly felt ill at ease in Ed's presence. It doesn't take much to get that he was definitely not altogether. Psychopath? Most definitely.
Childhood Clues to Sociopathy and Psychopathy:
Clues to psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood. Most people who can later be diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a pattern of behavior where they violate the basic rights or safety of others. They often break the rules (or even laws) and societal norms as a child, too.
Psychologists call these kinds of childhood behaviors a conduct disorder. Conduct disorders involve four categories of problem behavior:
Aggression to people and animals
Destruction of property
Deceitfulness or theft
Serious violations of rules or laws
These symptoms in a child or young teen predict they’re at greater risk for antisocial personality disorder.
Who is More Dangerous?
Both psychopaths and sociopaths present risks to society, because they will often try and live a normal life while coping with their disorder. But psychopathy is likely the more dangerous disorder, because they experience a much less guilt connected to their actions.
A psychopath also has a greater ability to dissociate from their actions. Without emotional involvement, any pain that others suffer is meaningless to a psychopath. Many famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Not all people we’d call a psychopath or sociopath are violent. Violence is not a necessary ingredient (nor is it for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) — but it is often present.
Do not confuse the terms psychopath with psychotic. They are two different things. A person who is psychotic is one who has lost all touch with reality, and a psychopath is a person who does know reality, but doesn’t have feelings of remorse or follow societal moral codes or ethics.
In my story, FLY AWAY HEART, I wrote about Sid Efford, a young man who became a criminal after years of constant abuse from his father. Sid was more of a victim than a true sociopath, but his father, who showed no remorse whatsoever, was a psychopath.
Also sold in a boxed set of 5 western novels: LOVE’S FIRST TOUCH
So, when you’re writing your next villain, you may want to keep in mind some of these differences between sociopathy and psychopathy to construct the villain you want in your story.
About John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Dr. John Grohol is the founder & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine.
References for Further Research:
The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath - Smithsonian magazine
Hare Psychopathy Checklist - Wikipedia
Letter from a psychopath sent to Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test
Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy - Kelly McAleer, Psy. D.
Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial - Jack Pemment, Psychology Today
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: