Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Using the Term Psychopath Correctly in Fiction

This month is a good time to clarify the usage of the term psychopath in fiction, given that in April and May I focused on a two-part series on serial killers, many of whom do fit the description of a psychopath.

Colloquially, people use the term to indicate that someone is “crazy,” but that would be a gross overstatement. I’ve got family members who are crazy, but they are in no way, shape, or form psychopaths. In the psychological field, the term is mainly used in conjunction with or as the equivalent to antisocial personality disorder, but this is shortsighted and incorrect.

The term psychopath isn’t located in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the canon of therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Psychopathy (pronounced sigh-COP-ah-thee) is more like a combination of characteristics from several disorders, not just one.

Dr. Robert Hare, the brain behind the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), wants to disassociate psychopathy from the DSM’s catchall diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. “It’s like having pneumonia versus having a cold,” he said. “They share some common symptoms, but one is much more virulent.”1

Hare’s checklist roughly follows the DSM’s “Cluster B” of personality disorders—antisocial, histrionic, and narcissistic. Antisocial traits make up only one-third of the playground for psychopaths, so you can see how equating the two might be narrow-minded.

The PCL-R measures twenty traits, each of which are scored on a scale of zero to two, to determine a research-based diagnosis of psychopathy. Information is gathered from the person’s case history and a semistructured interview by a clinician with an advanced degree.

But for some fun, grab a pencil and paper and see how your psychopath character makes out on the test2 below. Score him or her a zero if the trait doesn’t apply at all, one if it somewhat applies, and two if it fully applies.

Factor 1: Aggressive Narcissism

1. Glibness and superficial charm
smooth-talking, engaging and slick

2. Grandiose self-worth
greatly inflated idea of one’s abilities and self-esteem, arrogance and a sense of superiority

3. Pathological lying
shrewd, crafty, sly, and clever when moderate; deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, and unscrupulous when high

4. Cunning/manipulative
uses deceit and deception to cheat others for personal gain

5. Lack of remorse or guilt
no feelings or concern for losses, pain, and suffering of others, coldhearted and unempathic

6. Shallow affect/emotional poverty
limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness

7. Callous/lack of empathy
a lack of feelings toward others; cold, contemptuous, and inconsiderate

8. Fails to accept responsibility for own actions
denial of responsibility and an attempt to manipulate others through this

9. Promiscuity
brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate choice of sexual partners

Factor 2: Socially Deviant Lifestyle

10. Needs stimulation/prone to boredom
an excessive need for new, exciting stimulation, and risk-taking

11. Parasitic lifestyle
Intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others

12. Poor behavioral controls
expressions of negative feelings, verbal abuse, and inappropriate expressions of anger

13. No realistic long-term goals
inability or constant failure to develop and accomplish long-term plans

14. Impulsiveness
behaviors lacking reflection or planning and done without considering consequences

15. Irresponsible
repeated failure to fulfill or honor commitments and obligations

16. Juvenile delinquency
criminal behavioral problems between the ages of thirteen and eighteen

17. Early behavior problems
a variety of dysfunctional and unacceptable behaviors before age thirteen

18. Revocation of Conditional Release
violating probation or other conditional release because of technicalities

Traits Not Correlated with Either Factor

19. Many short-term marital relationships
lack of commitment to a long-term relationship

20. Criminal versatility
diversity of criminal offenses, whether or not the individual has been arrested or convicted.

A score of thirty would be needed for the research diagnosis of psychopathy. A noncriminal (aka normal person) usually scores around five, while incarcerated offenders will average out around twenty-two. A “true forty” would be an off-the-charts psychopath like Ted Bundy.

If you want to be psychologically on par the next time you call a character (or someone you know) a psychopath, bookmark this page.



The Character Thrapist