Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths - OH MY!
To write an effective villain you must remember four things. The best villains are 1) smart and in control, 2) they are not insane, 3) they believe they are in the right, and 4) they function on a playing field the average person does not understand.
Chances are high that you will interact with a real-life villain almost every day. One in 22 people is a psychopath according to a 2023 New York Post article. Pretty impressive odds. Even more impressive is the fact that those statistics are lower than your chances of encountering a sociopath or narcissist. Yikes!
If this information seems frightening, take heart in knowing that not all those suffering from one of these personality disorders is necessarily gunning for you. Various degrees of the disorders exist. In fact, according to the same NYP article:
"...it needs to be noted that not everyone who is a psychopath will go on to commit unspeakable crimes or be a danger to society. In fact, some psychopaths go on to enjoy extremely successful careers and will climb the ranks to excel in leadership positions, such as CEOs."
If your intent is to create a believable villain for your story, you will want to have a clear understanding of the differences between mental illness and psychological disorders.
Control is the primary difference and reason not to create a villain who suffers from a mental illness. By definition, mental illness is a mental health condition affecting mood, thinking, emotions, and behavior that are outside of an individual’s control. A villain who is only acting out of mental illness is not necessarily an impossible foe, force to be reckoned with, or difficult to outsmart.
Before we go further, clear the initial thought of using a mentally ill villain in your story. This type of character is likely to garner more sympathy from your reader than the desired anger, fear, or excitement you are aiming for.
Believable villains possess personality traits which are sinister, diabolical, and yet, in full control of their intentions. As mentioned above, the probability is high that we interact with these types of personalities more often than we know. We usually have no initial clue that someone we meet or interact with casually is villainous at some level. Villains do not announce their true character, in fact, they hide it well. Real life villains often portray themselves as charming, amiable, and innocent or harmless. These individuals are adept at putting on a pleasant mask and gaining our trust. It is even highly likely they hold positions of trust within the community, making them more difficult to detect by the average, trusting person.
Three personality disorders represent the types of potential villains you can encounter in real life and creatively craft for your story. Narcissist. Sociopath. Psychopath. All three are what psychology experts call cluster 'B' personality disorders characterized by dramatic, impulsive, and attention-seeking behaviors. The main difference between narcissism and antisocial personalities is that narcissists are motivated by a desire for social recognition and acceptance, and psychopaths and sociopaths are not.
According to Choose Therapy, narcissistic personality traits are more common than the antisocial traits displayed by sociopaths and psychopaths, and are often less dangerous, too. Part of the reason narcissistic people are less dangerous is that they are usually driven by prosocial desires like wanting to be liked, accepted, and respected by others.
Psychopaths and sociopaths, on the other hand, don't have as many prosocial desires and instead use antisocial behaviors like violence, deceit, and exploitation to get what they want at the expense of other people.
This is not to say that narcissists do not engage in this behavior as well, but they tend to be more cautious, preferring to keep up the ruse of appearing normal and making a positive impression on other people. Their aggression or psychological attacks are usually only known by those closest to them and in particular the target who is perceived to have wronged them. Wounded their ego. Look out!
Sociopaths and Psychopaths have traits and symptoms of antisocial personality disorder. Psychopathy is rarer and more extreme. Below is a comparison chart of all three personality disorders - the information found on www.choosetherapy.com.
When crafting your diabolical characters having some knowledge of these psychological disorders can be helpful in deciding to what degree your villainous character exhibits certain traits and what they are capable of doing. Once you have their basic psychological profile defined, you can introduce a nuanced mental illness of some sort, like a phobia, that adds to define them further as a secondary aspect of their persona.
In real life, should you find yourself dealing with a narcissist, sociopath, or psychopath - walk away. If you can't separate yourself from them, limit interactions as much as possible. Ensure you always have another person present when you do interact. And most important, treat each interaction as an information exchange, only sharing a limited amount of information about yourself with them. They may weaponize it against you. Beware!