Character and the psychopath test

Many writers struggle at times with the difference between showing and telling. It’s so much easier to tell the reader about your character than to show your character in action and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Here’s a neat approach to help you avoid that show & tell trap.

In The Psychopath Test, journalist Jon Ronson uses this checklist of 20 traits to try and decide whether the people he meets are psychopaths.

  1. Glibness/superficial charm
  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  4. Pathological lying
  5. Cunning/Manipulative
  6. Lack of remorse/guilt
  7. Shallow affect
  8. Callous/lack of empathy
  9. Parasitic lifestyle
  10. Poor behavioral controls
  11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
  12. Early behavior problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Impulsivity
  15. Irresponsibility
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. Many short-term marital relationships
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal versatility

Now – before you start rushing off and analyzing your friends, partners and co-workers, tempting as that may be – take a moment and think about this list in terms of writing. This is a list of traits.

The writer who wants to create a psychopathic character needs to show some of these traits in action. In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson interviews people and then afterwards examines their actions, statements and behavior in the context of the list. As writers we can take this list and turn that process on its head.

Here’s the prompt. Select some – or all – of the characteristics of a psychopath. For each one, note down something a person might do or say to show that characteristic.

Use your list to create a scene.


This entry was posted in developing characters, literature prompt, writing from life, writing prompts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Character and the psychopath test

  1. Great list and reminder. I am knee deep in a WIP and even though it’s the first draft I am already making notes in the margins where a scene is needed.

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