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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I don't seem to be unduly troubled by this sort of thing. Of course, in my books technical terms are inappropriate. For me it's generally enough to describe the disorder in behavioral terms.


The closest I've come to dealing with a medical situation is in THE LEFT-HANDED GOD, where an 18th century soldier returns wounded and psychologically traumatized (PTSD) from battle.


I can see where this would become important in police procedurals and serial killer thrillers.

Speaking of which, do you have plans of bringing that to Nook?

I haven't paid as much attention as some to this as a writer, in large part because I stay away from the topic in my writing, with rare exceptions. There are two reasons: I don't know enough about it to feel comfortable, and the kinds of stories I write are more effective if the protagonists and antagonists are pretty well squared away. That doesn't mean I never do it. My PI character has guilt and separation issues about his daughter after his divorce, and is becoming worn down by the violence he's encountering in his cases. 

What concerns me as much as anything comes from my reader perspective. Too many writers use mental illness as a lazy wa out of motivation for a character. The serial killer genre could hardly exist without it. "He doesn't need a feasible motivation (or, at times, any); he's nuts!" Not good enough.

(That's among the things that kept me reading CLEANSING EDEN, when I rarely mess with serial killer stories: you made me believe in him as a killer. He reminded me a lot of the DC sniper, which was as real as it gets for everyone who lives around here.)

Thanks for that, Dana. I'm a little harder on myself, though, because I don't think the pathology of the killers was fleshed out enough, and that I actually fell victim to some of the same crutches that the serial killer genre uses. But it's all about getting better and making improvements.

Writing around the topic altogether is a trick that works with grammar, too. And spelling, sometimes. "Asassanate. Assasinate. To kill a guy."

There's a way to do it, though. I'm just as likely to be turned off by a serial killer book that delves too deeply into why he is the way he is. If i wanted to read a psychiatric text book, I'd read one. There's a fine line to be trod; no one gets it exactly right every time. You came plenty close enough for me.

On the other hand, I felt your "gentlemen's club" depictions were thoroughly researched.

Alas, the lack of receipts makes it such tireless research impossible to deduct from my taxes.

When you write historical novels you run into the same problems. You have to do the research but you cannot use all of it. I'm always bored to tears by all the technical detail on guns etc. in the books I read. But I gather male readers like that stuff.

The trouble is that many writers don't like to lose all that effort and put it all into the book. They may be hoping that the reader will be impressed. I don't read for that sort of information. 

The Writer's Digest book I'm working on now offers a mountain of firearms/knives information to use for writing crime fiction. But there's a note at the beginning of it that says to "iceberg" it. Research your topic, but don't try to cram everything into the piece. For one, going into that level of detail offers more opportunities to get something wrong. Second, it's boring as all hell. If you wanted to read a crime fiction weapons reference, you could, well, buy the reference that WD is putting out.

I suppose the same could be said for historical fiction. Stories written in the 1800s don't go nearly into technical descriptions as period pieces written today. Yet I don't have a problem imagining anything. I don't know a ton about writing historical fiction, so maybe I'm off here.

Oh, no.  You're not off.  You're quite right about that. I've found the same thing.  But readers of historical fiction have come to rely on this stuff. I've had reader reviews that complained that I didn't give them enough detail about the historical period.

A couple of books you may find useful on this topic are Carolyn Kaufman's The Writer's Guide to Psychology and Jon Ronson's excellent The Psychopath Test.

Actually, the terms are synonymous.

"Psychopath" has entered the common language more, meaning "crazed killer" or something like that.

The term was originally coined and defined by Cleckly in "The Mask of Sanity".  What he describes in that book are are a series of case studies that would be termed "sociopathic" today.  I was working as a psychometrist when the "sociopath" term came up... I seem to recall it was mostly from MSW social work types, who were dying to be considered "professionals" at the time.

But the terms mean exactly the same in the disciplines that coined them.


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