I’ve shown my book to a few people recently and one of the things people have picked up on is that my main character Tyger might be a little hard to warm to, not always that likeable perhaps. Obviously I don’t want readers to hate my main character, she’s supposed to be a dynamic and exciting hero. I write her deliberately tough, possibly a little too harsh at times and definitely unempathetic. But at the same time I don’t want her to be a bully.
These thoughts coincided with my reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, in which the journalist, humorist and documentary maker visits various potential and actual psychopaths armed with a copy of the Hare PCL-R checklist for diagnosing the condition. Psychopathic traits included:
Glibness / Superficial Charm
Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
Cunning / manipulative
Poor behavioural controls
Early behaviour problems
Tyger has all of these traits and more. She scored 20 on the test – you need 30 before you’re a serious danger to the public. I’m relieved I haven’t spent the last five years of my life creating a total psycho, but 20 still seems a little on the high side.
Or is it? It occurred to me that some of my favourite characters from children’s literature were likely to score even higher than Tyger. Think of villains like Lord Voldemort, Miss Slighcarp, the Twits – extreme psychopaths. But what of the heroes? Psychopaths aren’t necessarily sadistic murderers, they can be people in positions of power: surgeons, politicians, CEOs of chocolate factories.
Let’s try the psychopath test on a man who runs a successful business built on slave labour and highly dubious scientific experiments, Mr Willy Wonka.
Grandiose sense of self worth – Yes
Lack of remorse or guilt – Yes, in fact often the opposite
Lack of empathy – A bit of a clincher this one. Yes
Lack of realistic long term goals – You stake the future of your business on five random children who you callously allow to fall into grave danger. YES
It’s hard to answer all the questions on the list (e.g. promiscuous / sexual behaviour), but even without them Wonka scores a solid 32. He is a full on psychopathic menace. But what about some of Dahl’s other characters? Fantastic Mr. Fox comes close at 28, scoring highly for glibness, parasitic lifestyle and cunning / manipulative behaviour. But to be fair, he is a fox .
How do Dahl’s child heroes fare? The vengeful heroine of the Magic Finger? A little remorseful I think. Young George Kranky from George’s Marvellous Medicine presents a more interesting case.
He scores for juvenile delinquency, but not criminal versatility and certainly shows no signs of regret or empathy for the attempted murder of an old lady. ‘Cool it, Grandma’ he quips glibly as she literally blows her top. And you know what they say about children who conduct cruel experiments on animals.
This poisonous child topped Tyger with a less than marvellous 22.
You might expect this sort of thing from Roald Dahl, but are there any other psychos lurking unexpectedly on our children’s bookcases? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is full of complex, layered characters. Good and evil is presented as part of a continuum and it is on a single, possibly evil act, from its hero that the fate of the multiverse depends.
Lyra comes from good psychopathic stock: Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel are the epitome of self interest, callousness and superficial charm. What better way of illustrating the complex personality of a psychopath than giving it the form of an enchantingly beautiful woman, accompanied by a cold, vicious monkey.
What of Lyra herself? She inherits many of her parents’ best and worst traits and her name is synonymous with item 4 on Hare’s checklist – pathological lying. I scored her 26.
In ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, author Stieg Larsson created Lisbeth Salander a character based on one of the best loved personalities in children’s literature : ‘My point of departure was what Pippi Longstocking would be like as an adult. Would she be called a sociopath because she looked upon society in a different way and has no social competence?’
But what of the real Pippi? Surely she is too kooky and joyous to score highly in this test?
Proneness to boredom
Pippi scored twenty, the same as Tyger. She is saved by the fact that, despite all her showboating and recklessness, she cares deeply for those around her – even if it takes her a little while to empathise with them.
My findings are of course scientifically unreliable, as they are based on personal readings of the various characters, along with a fair bit of conjecture about what they might become later in life. But I’ve found it fascinating and very useful to think about my own character Tyger in this way.
Psychopaths aren’t all bad. In fact many of their traits – impulsiveness, juvenile delinquency etc are particularly useful in the context of a high stakes adventure story. Clearly I don’t want to expunge all of the awkwardness that is a large part of her appeal, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for Tyger to have a little more empathy for her friends and victims. Then again, psychopaths are very good at appearing to be something they aren’t. Perhaps Tyger is just fooling me as well.