Is there a difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?

By Cori Dyson

I thought there was a difference between the two, but after researching the topics, the consensus among professionals is that they are one and the same. There are still some people who do believe that one is more organized than the other or one is more sophisticated than the other, but even these people can’t agree on which one is more organized and which is more disorganized.

Both, psychopath and sociopath, are based on the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder or ASPD for short. Not every person with ASPD is a psychopath, only about 1 in 5 are. Think of psychopaths as a special form of ASPD. For more information on the diagnostic characteristics of ASPD, click here

Here is the most common definition of a psychopath, cited from Mask of Sanity by Hervery M. Cleckley.

  • Superficial charm
  • Absence of delusions
  • Absence of neurosis (anxiety)
  • Unreliability
  • Lack of remorse or shame
  • Antisocial behavior without apparent compunction (misgiving or anxiety from guilt)
  • Poor judgement and failure to learn from experience
  • Incapacity to love
  • General poverty in major affective (emotional) reactions
  • Sex life impersonal
  • Failure to follow any life plan
charming man
charming man


Here is where truth is stranger or scarier than fiction. Most true psychopaths are worse than any that have been portrayed in film or books.


Here are some examples: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Joseph Vacher, Albert Fish (Hannibal Lecter based on this real life psychopath), and Jack the Ripper (true identity unknown). Click here for more details.

Why would you choose a psychopath for your novel?

You’ve created the perfect, or not so perfect protagonist and now you need the perfect antagonist. If your main character, protagonist, has a few issues and isn’t Snow White, then a psychopath might be a good choice to better highlight the protagonist.  Another reason to choose a psychopath for you novel is because they are just so much fun to write!  Writing about a deliciously evil character can be so much fun.

Two sides of the same coin

In writing a villain, even a psychopath villain, this article, by David Villalva, has some excellent points to keep in mind. I’ll wait while you go read it. It’s worth your time… Remarkable Villains

Okay, so now you know that the villain needs to be the opposite side of the coin as the main protagonist. So how do you do this with a psychopath villain? Well, very carefully, of course.

David gives this example for the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter is not a psychopath, not even close, but he does have similarities with Voldemort such as they are both orphans and they both consider the school their home.  How are your protagonist and antagonist similar?  What can you change or add to make them similar?

Psychopath and Narcissist, what do they have in common?

Another example would be to have a protagonist who is narcissistic (I think I just had a great idea for a future blog post!). A person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will have some of the same characteristics as a psychopath, just not to the same degree. This would be a neat combination, tricky but neat, to write in a novel. It would really give the reader something to think about and figure out. Here are the DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder would make a great protagonist, flawed, but great and would also serve as a balance to the psychopathic villain. Your narcissistic protagonist, wouldn’t need every characteristic above, but three or four ought to be enough.

It’s important to keep in mind the character’s motivations when writing their story.  The motivations for a character with NPD would be quite different than the motivations for ASPD or a psychopath.  For instance, both may take advantage of others, but for slightly different reasons.  The psychopath may take advantage of someone because the rules don’t apply to them and they can.  The Narcissist may take advantage of someone to get what they want in order to increase their self importance.  A slightly different motivation for the same behavior.

How to apply to a villain

Now is the fun part, putting all or some of these characteristics in your villain. It is best to show the reader how the villain is a psychopath. Most of the characteristics involve their interaction with others anyway. Demonstrate some or all of these characteristics in their interactions with others.  This is where “show don’t tell” is important but easy, because it is easy to show a character is a psychopath by describing their interactions with other characters.  Since a psychopath is typically charming, you can show them as charming in the beginning and slowly show more and more of their true character as the story goes along.  This would be great for a thriller!

Now to add some endearing quality

Some villains need the rough edges smoothed out just a bit, and a psychopath needs this smoothing more than any other type of villain. Consider adding one endearing quality or one nice aspect of them. Or one helpful habit. What one unexpected positive trait can you add? Hannibal Lecter loved classical music and, in a playful way, he was helpful to Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. What positive trait can you add to your psychopathic villain?  No one is ever all bad or all good, there is always some good aspect about everyone.

So you want to write a psychopath into your next novel?

I created a worksheet to make this easier for you!  Simply enter your email address below to download a FREE copy of this worksheet.  I would encourage you to print it out and write out your answers.  Use your completed worksheet as you write your novel.

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Originally posted 2015-10-09 11:39:40.

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