Character Study: Psychopaths Are(n’t) Always the Same

I love studying the way different authors, filmmakers, and artists represent various kinds of characters, so why not share my conclusions with you? Sharing makes these things much more fun.

Let’s start with psychopaths. There are so many to choose from, but I have two particular ones in mind, and they’re not from books. My two favorite but opposite psychopaths are from films: Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) and Johnny Depp in Black Mass (2015). You’d never normally relate these two characters, but while they have major differences in their superficial characteristics, they are extremely similar in the core of what makes them psychopaths.

How they’re different:

  • Widmark often laughs his insane, maniacal laugh, even during and after his despicable acts, while Depp is very serious and rarely laughs
  • Widmark never carries a gun so the cops can’t pin anything on him, while Depp is unafraid of being caught with a gun
  • Widmark takes his sweet time getting around to eliminating snitches, while Depp moves quickly to get rid of them

How they’re similar:

  • Neither has any mercy or compassion
  • Both know how to avoid being caught for their many crimes, yet both have spent time in prison
  • Both are masters of vetting potential members of their gangs
  • Both have trusted men on their side but turn immediately on those who show a crack in their loyalty
  • Both enjoy violence and not only don’t shy away from it, but they take great pleasure in threatening and hurting others themselves
  • Neither have respect for women and are just as violent towards them as men

But the most fascinating thing of all is how these actors portray their psychopathic characters. Because the characters’ cores are the same, they are drawing from the same place within themselves to outwardly exhibit their mental state. Just look at these pictures and how similar they are, even with the characters’ superficial differences listed above.

Psychopaths Widmark vs. Depp

What does this say? That psychopaths can have their own individual ways of handling things outwardly, but their inner cores are duplications of each other. You can creatively toy with their methods and the cause of their madness, but there’s only so much deviation you can believably make to their psychology. This may sound limiting, but it’s actually really great because it allows for unique characters at the same time that you already know what they’re made of inside. So their baseline creates certain expectations that are always fulfilled. As you can see from the time periods of these movies (and real psychopaths throughout history), the basic psychology has always been the same, something dependable, although that’s a strange word to use to describe it!

Who are your favorite psychopath characters, whether from fiction or fact? Film or book?


Symbol Sample: All That Heaven Allows

From the title, All That Heaven Allows (1955) sounds a bit soppy, but there’s much more to this than the title suggests. In fact, this movie is loaded with symbolism and social critique from quite a lot of varied angles.

On the surface, here’s what we see: widow Cary has two children getting ready to graduate from college, only coming home occassionally. She’s lonely and has only superficial society friends who talk behind each others’ backs, but that’s the world she and her children know. She’s used to it, although she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Cue the tall, handsome young landscaper, Ron, who veered off his expected path and is still single at a time when people married young right out of school. He does what he wants, doesn’t care for money, and ignores other people’s judgments of him. He is true to himself, which is a new concept to Cary and everyone else in her circles.

Sounds like a pretty obvious setup, right? Here’s what you need to know: the setup isn’t the point. It’s everything surrounding it that matters.

My favorite symbol in this whole movie – and there are lots of symbols in it – is the TV set. TV is mentioned several times
throughout the movie as a cure for loneliness, something to keep a woman company when she has no husband. It’s supposed to be a solution to the problem of having nothing to do and no one to talk to. I’m not going to give anything away about the movie, but when Cary’s kids decide to move on with their lives and leave her behind, they think a TV is the solution to everything. Now Mom won’t be lonely! With the turn of a switch, she can have all kinds of people in her living room, whether they’re on gameshows or dramas or commercials. Yes, the TV will take the place of the kids AND the dead husband.

In All That Heaven Allows, the TV set is something dead, something without a heartbeat, of course. Ultimately, if you watch and listen closely, you’ll find that it is equated to the superficial society group that also has no feelings and no care for anyone in the world but themselves. Just as a TV cannot take provide the warmth and comfort of human contact, people who care nothing for you can make you feel lonely in a crowded room. Both the TV and the false friendships are shallow and only for entertainment purposes. They are projections of life instead of actually living it. And so a physical object that is at your disposal 24/7 is just the same as humans following cookie cutter molds of what they think they should be, what makes them appear social and higher up on the class scale, but provides no warmth or depth, no love or true affection – no meaning to life. And the fact that Cary’s children are the ones who think a TV set will make up for their departure shows what she has inadvertently raised: more of the very society that shuns Ron, who is the essence of warmth, care, and living life to the fullest.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I recommend it not necessarily for the plot line but for everything surrounding it. I know that for film buffs, this is a major mark of where melodramas started in addition to several film techniques, but true to form my heart lies with the symbolism and metaphors in All That Heaven Allows. Tell me what you find in the film too! I’d love to hear your conclusions.

Symbol Sample: Harriet Craig

I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in every artistic medium. I always look for it in literature and movies specifically, and I always include it in my writing, no matter how short the piece is.  Symbolism is an essential part of my work, and the great thing about it is that a reader can choose to look for it and find it, or they can ignore it and still enjoy the piece.

I’ve had lots of people ask me how to layer stories with symbolism, some obvious symbols while others may not be so obvious. It might be best to answer this question through examples in both literature and film that I can show you through a series of blog posts. I’m going to start with an easy one: Harriet Craig.

The movie Harriet Craig (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey is a prime example of good symbolism that doesn’t have to be noticed but adds to the enjoyment of the film. Quick synopsis: Harriet Craig is a cold, manipulative control freak wife who will lie to her husband, Walter, about anything in order to keep him all to herself and following her rules. She has no boundaries as to how far she’ll go to make sure her marriage stays in tact – and she covers her tracks well. Her husband is a trusting, loving man who doesn’t catch on to her scheming ways, though his friends and others see her for what she is.

That being said, Harriet has a lot of rules about her house and how it should be kept: make sure the blinds are closed by 11 a.m. every day so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture, keep the expensive vase away from the edge of the mantle, don’t sit on the arm of the chair, never throw anything (like a newspaper) down but instead place it neatly. She treats her husband more like a son and constantly chastises him. A couple of people mention that the house is cold and lifeless “like a thing that died and has been laid out”.

There’s a particular chair in the house that looks ornamental although it’s meant for sitting, but even more importantly it’s stiff and hard. If you watch
harrietcraigchaircarefully, you’ll see that Walter can’t get comfortable on that chair, even with a pillow. Harriet, however, feels perfectly comfortable on it. This is representative of their differences in personality. Walter is a warm person and can’t stand sitting in the stiff chair, but Harriet is a cold person and feels right at home on it. The only time Walter is able to sit on the chair is towards the end of the movie when he rearranges the pillows and lies down on it once he has decided to take back control of his house. He takes control of his comfort in the chair just as he is about to take control of Harriet.

Little things like this are easy to put into your story as light but still important symbolism. Think about what your characters have in common or their differences. Now think about their environments, even their work. How can you implement this same tactic to insert a layer of depth in your story? The good thing about this type of symbolism is that it can be stated relatively outright and still not seem out of place. You don’t have to worry too much about presenting it artistically if you don’t want to; the point of it is to be more towards the surface of the story instead of buried deep inside.