It was a bizarre coincidence that I was reading Vince Zandri's Pathological crime fiction e-book the other night when I noticed this post by crime author/criminologist Jennifer Chase. Chase explains the differences, criminally speaking, between psychopaths and sociopaths.


These are two words that come up quite a bit in crime fiction, but as this recent post on Do Some Damage points out, there's little understanding of what those mental health conditions mean. I admit that I've faltered in this area myself, having portrayed both a psychopath and an addict in my crime thriller novel, Cleansing Eden: The Celebrity Murders, without doing a ton of research on either.


With how hard I am sometimes on inaccurate depictions of firearms and knives in crime fiction (I'm even writing a guide to crime fiction weapons for Writer's Digest) I run the risk of sounding hypocritical. Research is important, but I certainly cut some corners with Cleansing Eden. That's not really fair to the reader.


The crime fiction community is coming to the same conclusion. To quote the Do Some Damage post:


We read and write about mental health issues in very narrow terms in our field. It's a gimmick. An excuse. We want some death and some interesting mayhem, and a way to get there is with these impossible magical characters that we create, and then we throw in a suggestion of childhood trauma as if that is "paying the taxes" of examining cause and effect.


We like sociopaths as long as they serve plots, we like addicts as short-hand for failure, and people with extreme temper problems are good for sudden bursts of action. We like the moody protagonist with a fractured psyche. We like the killer who can live double lives. We like the self-loathing copper who is trying hard to self destruct.


Every writer is welcome to type outside the confines of reality - it is fiction, after all. But if the risk of inaccuracy isn't enough of a reason to re-examine these shortcuts, maybe the fact they've become cliche will be.


I'll do my part going forward. One of the characters in my next crime novel witnessed the gruesome death of a family member. This caused the character to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and a key piece of the novel's plot hinges on finding this person help to deal with that. That the character lives in a rural area complicates matters. Every trait is backed up by research.


Posts like the one from criminologist Jennifer Chase and on Do Some Damage are waking me up to mental health issues in crime fiction. Writers, are you experiencing the same thing? Readers, do these things even matter to you? Let me know in the comments.

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That's interesting, I didn't know that. Here's where I sourced that article on the differences:

What happens is that descriptive analysis flourishes.   "The Three Faces of Eve" woman, as she came under more psych scrutiny, spun of d0zens of more personalities because it was rewarded.  So is generating diagnostic categories.

One thing I noticed here is the line "sociopaths are incapable of holding a job".  I think we both know that's not true.   Hell, look at congress.   Cleckley's book had studies with titles like "The Psychopath As Physician",  "The Psychopath As Politician",   "The Psychopath as Psychiatrist". 

I think most would agree it'd be weird to say "Oh, PSYCHOPATHS can hold jobs, but not SOCIOPATHS."  

Those sub-categories, BTW, are merely behavioral descriptions.  You could easily lay out "Socipoaths Who Drive Motorcycles"   or "Sociopaths Who Shoot Meth" or something.

The deeper problem, far as I'm concerned, is the "medical model", in which shrinks (who are basically MD's with some on the job training and little education in psychology)  try to emulate medical style taxonomy.

Psychologists do the same thing, attempting to look "scientific" when their field is just barely an actual science in it's early infancy.  (For instance, where is the general theory of personality--it's as if you asked 8 physicists what would happen in you drop a ball and get 8 different answers."

The WRITER'S problem is that general lay understanding of terms is its own reality.  People think "schizophrenic" means "split personality"  or "bifurcated perception" or something instead of just being a synonym for psychosis.

So what do you do from the reader standpoint? The reader has an inaccurate idea of what something is, you come in with a more accurate description, then you get looked at like you don't know what you're talking about. That's the tricky thing.

Exactly.  It's a serious problem.

I have an article about exactly that problem here.  As I say in the article--"It’s no fun realizing that your research, which cost you hours of work or even exposed you to sacrifice and risk, could actually be damaging your credibility with your readership."

Well, granted that readers frequently don't know what they are talking about. The tricky thing is not how to explain yourself, but how to keep their faulty statements off your amazon book page.

Or you could try to do what historical novelists often do and add an "author's note" to your book where you explain some of the common midunderstandings about psychological states.

An interesting book on the subject of Psychopaths working and the environment they prosper best is the book Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare (who designed the psychopathic evaluation test).

Although I have a great deal of curiosity about WHY certain people murder other people, whether it's in a fit of rage or because they are, in fact, psychopaths, when I read a mystery/crime fiction novel, I don't require the writer to explain. It's enough for me if the "murderer" is believable in terms of his or her actions. Once the identity of the killer is revealed, part of the "why" becomes clear: the motive. We can assume, perhaps, that anyone who commits murder is out of balance, but even in real life, the answer to WHY is elusive, often impossible to pin down. A person who APPEARS to be normal may not be, and that is part of the lure of a mystery. WHEN does the break with sanity occur, what caused it, and what deeper problems were there before all that transpired?  As in method acting, the writer should be able to paint a convincing portrait without having to write a dissertation on mental health. Slippery ground, that!  Just convince me your killer is a killer, with motive and means. For instance we know that some unhappily married people murder their spouses, rather than simply divorce them, and that the reasons can range from jealousy to greed. We really don't need to know whether these people are sociopaths or psychopaths or simply angry or desperate. 

Re: the difference between sociopaths & psychopaths is a pretty large one. Sociopaths are usually not murderers, although they can be. Apparently, one in four people is sociopathic, though they can be difficult to spot because they are often charming people. But they believe that the rules of society don't apply to them, and they put their needs & desires ahead of all others. It's not clear whether their condition is inborn or acquired, though in some societies, sociopathic tendencies are controlled by upbringing and religion. Yes, I read that in a very interesting & accessible book entitled, "The Sociopath Next Door." Forget the author's name, but it's a fascinating read. 

I've always followed that method, Caroline, but I write about the past where such conditions existed but noone named them or discussed them as diseases. They were simply behavior patterns of certain people.


However, the modern fad for thrillers has created a new protagonist found in a surprisingly large number of books these days: the psychologist on the trail if the serial killer. Such a main character will of necessity speak of mental conditions in technical terms and the author will need to be up-to-date on current jargon and research.

Yes, that is one fad  where knowing about mental health can be of use. I've read a few of those. Although one of the finest crime novels about a serial killer was Lawrence Sanders' "The First Deadly Sin,"  in which Detective Delaney is on the trail of killer Daniel Blank. Blank's condition is never actually named, although the author does show us how this man behaves as he chronicles his deeper descent into madness, and at one point describes scenes from his early life. Although the reader is left to guess just what is wrong with Blank, his actions are entirely believable. What Delaney is actually trying to discover then trace is the weapon that Blank used; the weapon, he knows, will lead him to the killer.  But throughout the novel, as it oscillates back and forth between the POV of the killer and the detective, we are as much in the mind & world of Daniel Blank as we are in that of Edward X Delaney.  It's compelling, disturbing, and incredibly suspenseful! The writing is also top notch. Lawrence Sanders wrote so well BEFORE he died! :) 

Hmm.  Not familiar with Sanders. I came at thrillers via mysteries. To this day I have reservations about them. Val McDermid writes a series featuring a psychologist, and just lately I find that Michael Robotham (a very good mystery writer) has also gone this way.  He is better than McDermid, I think, but I'm troubled by the repetitiveness of certain subjects. Victims are almost always women.  In Robotham's case, ratchet that up a bit: prepubescent girls manipulated, raped, and abused by the villain. Though in the case of "Shattered" (I think), prepubescent girls are only used to get at their mothers, proving that a mother will do anything, no matter how horrible, to protect her child. I found that interesting, convincing, and inventive. Otherwise, thrillers are rarely inventive.

I have read some of Val McDermid's novels (and I've seen the Wire in the Blood series too), and I have to say she is just too violent for me!  I've been kind of "off" mysteries lately for some reason, reading other things. I sort of OD'd on the violence in some of my more recent "reads."   So maybe Robotham would be too much for me too. Perhaps it's my age. 

Although I did venture to read the first "Maisie Dobbs" novel at the recommendation of another friend. We'll see!

I suspect MAISIE DOBBS is a cozy. Not for me. Murder is violent and you can't cover that up.  Though I also dislike excessive violence that serves little purpose.


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