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
1) How much ego is
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.
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.
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
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.