During some research for a thriller novel concept, I stumbled across The Wisdom of Psychopaths, What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton. It’s a fascinating read, slightly humbling and frankly, shocking.
You see, Dr. Dutton says not every psychopath is a serial killer. If fact, most psychopaths aren’t wicked or crazy, but they are all charming, ruthless and live without fear or shame.
Does that sound like someone you know?
Of course it does. We have all met an individual who gets things done. The narcissistic, intelligent high-achiever who focuses and manipulates, who seduces and succeeds, and who takes risks and seizes control. And who’s mentally tough enough not to care how it’s done or who suffers as a result.
These are the qualities of great leaders. Think Type-A CEOs, cutting-edge surgeons, megastar actors, Olympic medalists, and charismatic politicians. It's dead obvious that you don’t get to the top without trampling, discarding, and terrorizing those poor suckers who happen to be in the way.
What’s astonishing is that they are exactly the same qualities found in violent psychopaths, except for one element.
Self-control or lack thereof.
That’s it, says Dutton. The psychopath who functions well in society exhibits self-control. The psychopath whose behaviour turns criminal, and sometimes sadistic, is ruled by impulsivity.
Yikes! Isn't that alarming? Just being a wee bit short on the ol’ restraint dial tips the balance between achieving greatness and doing great damage.
More astonishing is that less than 2 percent of the population embodies these psychopathic character traits. And yet, we know from our own common sense and experiences that this puny number is responsible for the vast majority of inventions, endeavours and changes that shape and (mostly) improve our lives. If I may take a riff off Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of human development was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Here’s where it gets appealing for writers. It can be tricky crafting a believable, sympathetic 3-D bad guy, you know, one who’s more guy than bad. (Yeah, the vast majority of psychopaths are male.) As in every great horror flick, the scariest monster isn’t the one sporting fangs or excessive body hair. It’s the quiet man, like Hannibal the Cannibal, with a deep dark secret who finally loses...well, you should be able to guess by now.
Take a bow. Of course, it’s his self-control. Talk about a fine line between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
This’s a character goldmine for thriller authors, and a lot of fun for everyone else. So, take a gander round and find the thriving psychopath in your life. And instead of being trampled, discarded or terrorized, why not just stand back, marvel, and wave him on to victory?
After all, without that fairy dusting of will power, your liver could very easily have graced his power lunch, along with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”