Writing Villains And Recognizing Unstable Personalities

writing villainsWhen readers ask me how I learned to write believable villains, I simply shrug and say, “By meeting them in real life.”

It might seem an odd thing to say, especially if you grew up in a completely normal and functioning family, but I spent a lot of time around broken people during my childhood. And by “broken,” I mean people with dangerous personalities—narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.

I gained an intimate, firsthand understanding of criminal predation and violence during my childhood and teen years, then into early adulthood. I don’t say that to gain any sympathy from anyone, but only to convey what many of you already know from reading my work.

That is to say, when it comes to criminal behavior I am more than familiar—I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve seen a man pull a knife and hold it to another man’s throat, I’ve had a pistol stuck in my face, and I’ve had to take a gun away from someone who was trying to shoot another person.

I’ve been attacked both with fists and with weapons. I’ve been in more violent confrontations than I care to recall. I’ve also seen plenty of violence firsthand, as well as the results of physical violence during my time working in an ER.

As well, I spent decades studying violence as a self-defense and personal safety instructor, pouring over statistics from the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics, reading scholarly articles and texts, taking college courses, and interviewing law enforcement officers and victims of violent crime.

Things I Wish I Didn’t Have To Know…

The result of all this experience and education is this: I know how to recognize the sort of person who will be likely to visit violence and abuse on another person without remorse.

To be honest, I wish I didn’t have to know these things. I wish I lived in a world where it wasn’t necessary to learn self-defense. I wish I lived in a world in which I’d never known violent people, where I’d never experienced it firsthand, in a time when I could be raised in innocence, observing the effects of peace instead of predation.

But, that’s not the world we live in today. My personal philosophy, born out of a lifetime of witnessing and later studying violence and predation, is that criminal predators will always be a factor in society. Just as you don’t go into bear country without a large-caliber pistol and bear spray, you don’t go through life without knowing how to spot and avoid criminal predators.

Why I Brought This Topic Up

Which brings me to the reason why I brought this topic up on my blog. I recently had to deal with a person who in my personal opinion exhibited classic narcissistic behavior. As usual, it wasn’t pleasant, but I know how to deal with these types and I did so with as much grace as possible.

However unpleasant such an interaction can be, I realize it’s even more unpleasant for the uninformed. Because I know that most people don’t know how to recognize these personality types, I thought I’d take a break from my typical posts and share a bit of information on how to spot what former FBI profiler Joe Navarro calls “dangerous personalities.”

This is very practical and useful information. From a writer’s perspective, it can help you write more believable villains. And from an everyday, navigating personal relationships perspective, it can help you recognize and escape toxic relationships and people, hopefully before too much damage is done.

Without further ado, here is my very short and to the point treatise on recognizing dangerous personalities.

First, Some Definitions


“Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Source: Mayo Clinic

(Note: Almost all sociopaths qualify as narcissists, but not all narcissists are sociopaths. The difference is that sociopaths tend to be prone to violence, while narcissists strictly adhere to verbal and emotional abusive patterns. See this article for more on this topic.)


“Sociopathy refers to a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes, including manipulation, deceit, aggression, and a lack of empathy for others… Sociopaths may or may not break the law, but by exploiting and manipulating others, they violate the trust that the human enterprise runs on.” Source: Psychology Today


“Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy, and poor behavioral controls, commonly resulting in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior.” Source: Psychopathy: Developmental Perspectives and their Implications for Treatment

(Note: It’s often said that psychopaths are born, and sociopaths are made. While the two terms are often used synonymously, and they share the same DSM-5 diagnosis—antisocial personality disorder—there are differences. Read this article if you’d like to go deeper into the distinctions between the two categories.)

Understand This First

What you have to understand about narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths is that they all lack empathy. When you meet someone who is totally lacking in empathy, that’s your first warning sign that you’re in the presence of someone with a dangerous personality. Watch and wait; their actions and traits will reveal their pathology.

Also, know that the narcissist’s lack of empathy makes them just as dangerous as the sociopath, and in some ways, more so. The sociopath will often reveal their nature through physical violence, while the narcissist will adhere solely to patterns of verbal and emotional abuse. This makes the narcissist more difficult to recognize, and the abuse and manipulation they mete out tends to last longer because of it.

As well, persons with NPD commonly have other pathological mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. This sometimes results in behavior that is unpredictable, and even inexplicable to persons they interact with who exhibit normal psychological functioning. Thus, the victim’s confusion and internal conflict is multiplied, often to their own detriment by prolonging their exposure to the perpetrator.

The Prevalence of Dangerous Personalities

There are a lot more people in the general population with these disorders than you might think. The prevalence of pathological NPD is estimated at about 1 in 20. Sociopathy of all types is estimated at about 1 in 22 to 1 in 24, depending on the source cited. About 1 in 100 people are psychopaths or have psychopathic tendencies.

Narcissists being the more common type, they are the dangerous personality you should learn to identify first. Five of the following nine criteria must be present to diagnose someone with NPD:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents.

2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others.

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Believes he or she is special and unique and can be understood only by, or should associate only with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes.

7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends.

8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her.

9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way.

(Source: Psychology Today)

Many criminals fall into categories of pathological narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy, and are marked as such when they enter the criminal justice system. However, most narcissists and some sociopaths fly under the radar all their lives, taking advantage of and abusing others and wrecking lives as they go.

If you want to learn how to recognize these personality types and disorders, this article is a good place to start. For a more practical perspective, I also suggest you read Joe Navarro’s excellent book, Dangerous Personalities.

Writing Dangerous Personalities Into Your Stories

Writing believable characters starts with understanding human nature and knowing how motivations influence actions. It also helps to understand that people usually act on emotional, rather than logical, reasoning. Typically, it’s only after we act that we justify our actions with logic and reasoning.

This is especially true when it comes to criminal behavior and predation. Criminals are driven by their emotions, just like anyone else. They’re motivated by achieving feelings of power and control. They are motivated by the high they get from personal gain. And, they are motivated by a desire to avoid getting caught—mostly because they like the feeling of “getting away with it.”

To make your villains come to life, know their motivations and then write them into the story. Yet, don’t make them too predictable. If your villain is all logic and no emotion, your readers will soon figure out what the villain is going to do. Remember, unpredictable personalities are frightening to normal, stable individuals. Use that.

As well, create a backstory for your primary antagonists, even if you don’t use it in your novel. Knowing the “why” will add depth to your villain’s story, and it’ll help you direct their actions in ways that will make sense to the reader.

Finally, be curious about IRL criminals. Listen to true crime podcasts, read books and articles, watch documentaries, and learn how the criminal mind operates. This sort of research will pay off, and over time you’ll see evidence of this in the form of positive reader feedback and buzz about your work.

(Final note: If you or someone you know is the victim of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or text START to 88788.)


  1. Kathy on October 27, 2023 at 11:50 am

    I’ve had the misfortune to work with three who should have been officially diagnosed as clinical Narcissists, and two of them were my bosses. In each instance, it often felt at first like I was being gaslighted – how could I possibly still be employed if I was that worthless and unable to do the simplest task correctly? Fortunately, coworkers assured me I wasn’t the problem. I now know to look for the empathy clue – they can talk about it, but they really don’t understand what the term means. In my experience, they’re really good at hiding it from their supervisors – each time, upper management missed what was going on until they were caught flagrantly doing something unacceptable, both times dismissing the fact that all their employees quit and cited management as the issue.

Leave a Comment