Serial Killers and Sociopaths

Despite fads and new genres, serial killers endure as a favorite villain for writers and readers alike, though I lost my taste for such books years ago. For one thing, too many writers use killing as a cheap way of escalating tension, with each murder upping the ante. For another thing, too many writers perpetuate the serial killer myth of the white, middle-class, intelligent, charming male about thirty-five years old.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, debunks this stereotype in a guest post she did for this blog: Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths. As Ramsland points out, “Serial killers are not all alike. They’re not all male. Some have been as young as eight or older than fifty. They’re not all driven by sexual compulsion. They’re not all intelligent, nor even clever – often, they’re just lucky. They’re not all charming. A single killer may choose different weapons or methods of operation, although they will tend to stay with whatever works best. Even with rituals, the basis of a ‘signature,’ they often experiment and change things. They might be profit-driven, in search of thrill or self-gratification, or compelled by some other deep-seated desire, fear or need. Occasionally, serial murder is about revenge or it’s inspired by a delusion. In most cases, the killer does not wish to be stopped or caught. Yet a few do intentionally undermine themselves or stop of their own accord. Some rare killers have even professed remorse or killed themselves.”

Far more fascinating to me are the sociopaths who don’t kill. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand mindpsychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. (Some professionals use “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangably as I am doing and some argue there is a difference, but oddly, no one seems to agree on what those differences are.)

So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Probably many politicians and scientists. Possibly even you.

(In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Peter Jensen says: “I have a theory, entirely unproven, that a lot of psychopaths gravitate to the sciences, biology especially, where they can hide behind that famed scientific detachment. They can also torture animals in the name of science, and no one calls them insane.”)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They can be charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. (Sounds like a politician, doesn’t it?) Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, no need to conform to societal standards, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

In a relationship, such manipulation might be intolerable, but in fiction, it makes for a interesting character, even if the character isn’t a killer.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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7 Responses to “Serial Killers and Sociopaths”

  1. karmami Says:

    Very interesting read and I almost agree with you 100 %…and it is true that serial killers have their own agenda not matter how twisted and sickening it might be. Another thing that I strongly agree with is that these people if we can call them that as disturbed as they are ARE not insane…they are plain and simply twisted people and yes..many of them are living among us… and that is the scariest part.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    My Snake killer is somewhat different from other serial killers, partly because he changes his MO a lot to suit his needs, but also because he’s not entirely sociopathic. He just has some issues.
    Also, my abnormal psych teacher said that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are created. Does that help?

  3. shadowoperator Says:

    Thanks for the informative run-down of the sociopathic personality, Pat. Your explanation makes a little easier to take the technical glibberish of the experts.

  4. lepirategunn Says:

    Very interesting – shocking too, about psychopaths..it is terrifying, this lack of empathy idea.

  5. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    The best source of information I have on serial killers is The Murder Guide to Great Britain by Brian Lane. It covers 100 cases and many of the killers turned out to be serial killers. I also have a book written by an FBI profiler.

    White, middle-class, intelligent, charming male about thirty-five…thrown in American and make him a lawyer with prospects of becoming a judge some day and you have Ted Bundy.

    There was an American serial killer who had gotten it into his head that he was a vampire and required human blood to survive. He was not orderly,methodical or intelligent. This actually made him harder to catch. He invaded a home and struck only when the urge for blood was great. I think he used a hypodermic needle on his victims and each time it was the same one. He was weedy and poorly fed because he had it in his head he didn’t need human food anymore. The only reason why he was close was that he didn’t have much money for travel and thus his crimes were relatively close to home.

    I doubt if LIzzie Boyden could be considered highly intelligent. Some have referred to her as a serial killer but I believe this to be inaccurate. She killed family in one infamous murder spree on one particular day. She was also acquitted in court so some doubts have to remain as to her guilt.

    In the past more women have gone about making male serial killers than being serial killers in their own right. I think that is changing. I think more women nowadays want the more hands on approach.

    You are right about psychopaths. A lot of them run big businesses or are anything from middle management to top manager. This is why it has been so difficult for the world to get away from the use of crude oil. The alternatives have been there for well over a hundred years. But there is a lot of money to be had in keeping crude oil going for as long as possible. Also it would cost to change over to an alternative. A psychopath doesn’t work ever for the good of all – just to good of him or her self.

    For me the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that a psychopath can fit into the workings of a society even if he or she doesn’t have what we would call a heart. We may not like them but their behavior is generally acceptable. The Enron executives I believe had strong psychopathic tendencies bordering on the sociopath with delusions of grandeur thrown in. Some of them may also have been bi-polar. In other words they went from emotional highs in which they were indestructible to emotional lows in which they couldn’t find a cave deep enough to hide in.

    To me a sociopath is a brand of psychopath that enjoys working against society. They enjoy manipulating other people to the point of destruction of these other people. They enjoy power like any psychopath but its actions against society simply to enjoy the results rather than caring about any other gain that counts. I am careful here not to call them anti-social because they do not always appear that way even when they are destroying someone. By destruction I don’t necessarily mean physical destruction.

    Right now I am in first draft on a book I’ve titled Cold Water Conscience. My female sociopath is into the destruction of the spirit of others. This is fun for her. If she can also have monetary gain as well she’d enjoy that too.


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