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

Character Stereotypes: The Narcissist

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

Other Personality Types

Triangles  Bipolar  The Victim  The Cynic   The Tomboy  The Geek  The Do-Gooder  The Playboy
The Workaholic  The Neat-Freak  

Narcissists get their name from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a man renowned for his beauty. Myths state he was cruel and disdained people who loved him. As divine punishment, he falls in love with a reflection in a pool, not realizing it is his own reflection. He dies there, unable to leave the beautiful image.

But narcissism, like many other character flaws, operates on a continuum. At one end, you have people with the clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). These people want to be the center of attention and feel entitled to first-class upgrades, backstage passes, and half-court seats. They are self-absorbed and believe themselves to be invulnerable, almost as if bad things will bounce off them like they were Superman or Wonder Woman. They usually aren’t anxious or depressed, and rarely feel overwhelmed with stress.

Then there’s narcissism on a subclinical level. These people have a healthy ego that might be at times too large for those around them—the guy who thinks girls are fighting over him when he’s not looking and the girl who would genuinely say that a Victoria’s Secret model has nothing on her.

Carl Vogel of Psychology Today (2006) quotes a researcher as likening a semi-narcissistic person to driving a huge SUV: “You’re having a great time, even while you hog the road, suck up extra resources, and put other drivers at higher risk.”

How can you give your character the right dose of narcissism to fit your story? Try asking yourself these questions:

1) How much ego is too much?

Say a person makes the following comment: “I’m a good teacher.” This could be a teacher who has won awards or recognition for his or her skills in the classroom, or is voted Most Favorite by students. These are external indicators that the teacher is telling the truth. The character could have just said, “I’m a teacher,” but the good part lets the reader know that the character values this aspect of his life and that perhaps that value is well placed.

On the other hand, you could have a diagnosable narcissist say, “I know I’m a good teacher.” This wording would change a reader’s perception of the character, probably negatively. It seems to shun outward endorsements and focuses only on what the character thinks is important: his knowledge that he’s a good teacher. It’s just a subtle difference in dialogue, but it gives the reader far more information into the character’s mind-set.

2) How much do they need to be admired?

Most people want validation. It’s a warm fuzzy, a feel good. Some might even fish for compliments, such as asking, “What do you think of my new haircut?” This doesn’t make them diagnosable, although it’s along the low range of subclinical narcissism. They might ask more out of a lack of self-esteem than an abundance of it. If the character were to receive the comment, “It’s okay . . . but I really liked it better longer,” she would likely be upset, maybe even cry. That would be normal, right? We can all relate.

True narcissists need validation like they need air to breathe. They’ll do anything to get it, even taking ruthless or cutthroat measures. They are willing to forfeit being liked by others as long as they have their admiration. So the difference would be that if a narcissist asks a question like the one above, she would expect—and feel entitled to—a positive, admiring response. If she received a comment that didn’t meet that expectation, even if it was the tiniest criticism, not only would she be highly offended, but also she would harbor a grudge like no one’s business.

3) How mean can they be?

A subclinical narcissist would likely feel some sort of remorse if he were to step on toes or hurt someone else’s feelings. While he might have felt justified in what he said or did, guilt would still niggle at his subconscious.

Remorse isn’t in a narcissist’s vocabulary. They don’t doubt their courses of action and can be completely rude as occasion calls for it. They could step on someone and not think twice, and when crossed, even become aggressive. Manipulation comes easily, and more than one narcissist has used romantic attachments only as a way to further pump up their estimation in the eyes of others.

4) How far do they need to grow in your story?

If your story needs a character with an inborn capacity to change in light of new facts or information about themselves or their environment, stick with a light dose of narcissism for your character. Why? A true narcissist is so hard to treat (read: change). A narcissist might recognize that she is unhappy, or that life is empty, and even seek therapy, but she presents the problem as an external issue, not an internal one.

For example, a man might come in unhappy with his life because he believes he’s not being treated as well as he deserves. By virtue of his personality, he believes that the problem lies with others, not with something that he might be able to do differently. He is blind to his own faults, which means it’s very difficult for him to arrive at the end of the book with a nice character arc of internal change.


The Character Thrapist