It’s no co-incidence that some of my favourite characters in fiction and film are sociopaths. Whether you call them psychopaths or sociopaths (and the debate continues about whether there’s a difference) the fact is they make for hugely memorable characters. There’s something about sociopaths that intrigues and captivates the reader. They’re charming yet cruel, grandiose, callous, fearless and manipulative. They’re fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Here are my top ten sociopaths in film and literature:
1. BOOK/FILM: The Marquise de Merteuil in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1988: starring Glenn Close)
Glenn Close as the Marquise de Merteuil is one of the most enduring, unforgettable female sociopaths in cinema history. On the surface she is charming, upstanding and virtuous but, beneath the polished veneer she’s bitter, manipulative and cold. The ease with which she switches from ‘warm’ (like a true sociopath she’s very good at mimicking qualities she doesn’t possess) to cruel is breath-taking and she mercilessly reeks her revenge on those she feels have wronged her. The power play between the Marquise de Merteuil and John Malkovich’s Vicomte de Valmont is exquisite. She uses every available weapon in her sociopathic arsenal to get her own way.
Favourite line (talking about coming out into society aged 15): ‘I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit.
2. FILM: Mrs Mott/ Peyton Flanders in ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ (1992: starring Rebecca De Mornay)
A sociopath that will surely strike terror into the heart of any mother considering finding childcare for their child. In this film Rebecca De Mornay plays Mrs Mott, a woman who has it all – successful husband, beautiful home, wealthy obstetrician husband – and loses it very suddenly when her husband commits suicide when he’s found guilty of sexually abusing his clients and she subsequently loses her baby and has to have an emergency hysterectomy. When Mrs Mott sees a news report about Claire Bartell – the woman who alerted the authorities about her husband’s crimes – on the television she decides to take revenge by taking on a pseudonym and becoming her nanny. What’s utterly terrifying about her as a sociopath is the calculated way in which she wheedles her way into the Bartell’s lives, even feigning rescuing the baby from choking in order to get the job, and tries to turn each family member against Claire. She’s steadfast in her determination to destroy Claire’s life and not once to you see a flicker of empathy or compassion. Her coldness and ruthlessness are chilling.
[Claire Bartel is having an asthma attack]
Peyton Flanders: Something the matter, Claire? [whispers] When your husband makes love to you, it’s MY face he sees. When your baby’s hungry, it’s MY breast that feeds him. Look at you! When push comes to shove… you can’t even breathe!
3. BOOK: Amy Elliott Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn
Possibly the best know female sociopath in the literary world at the moment – Amy Elliott Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’ was such a sociopath that she meticulously planned her own ‘murder’ and stitched up her husband Nick to make him look like he was responsible. Amy’s sheer sociopathic brilliance (brilliant in the art of manipulation that is) is evidenced in her diary entries. So convincing are they that, not only do they convince the reader to warm to and sympathise with her, but they point the finger of blame for her murder at her husband Nick. The truly wonderful thing about Amy as a sociopathic character is that she manages to manipulate the reader of the book as well as those around her. Gillian Flynn has crafted a truly memorable sociopath.
Favourite quote: “I feel myself trying to be charming, and then I realize I’m obviously trying to be charming, and then I try to be even more charming to make up for the fake charm, and then I’ve basically turned into Liza Minnelli: I’m dancing in tights and sequins, begging you to love me. There’s a bowler and jazz hands and lots of teeth.”
4. BOOK: Tom Ripley in ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
The thing about Tom Ripley that most grabbed me when I first read this book was how innocuous he appears at first. Unlike a lot of sociopaths who are all charm and veneer Tom was almost embarrassingly awkward and uncool. The first time he meets Dickie he ingratiates himself to him and is almost deferential in his approach. It’s not hard to see why Marge dislikes him. And perhaps that’s why Ripley has endured where so many other sociopathic characters in books have faded away – because his brutality, when he eventually murders Dickie, so contrasts with the character we first see. Ripley is the most terrifying kind of sociopath – he’s a true chameleon.
Favourite quote: “He remembered that right after that, he had stolen a loaf of bread from a delicatessen counter and had taken it home and devoured it, feeling that the world owed a loaf of bread to him, and more.”
5. BOOK: Kevin in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver
‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ was the first book I ever read about a child sociopath and, for me, what is most chilling about it is how early on his mother was able to see the signs. Popular convention is that sociopaths are the result of their childhood environment but this book seems to suggest that isn’t true, although Kevin’s mother never really wanted to become a mother and there’s a definite suggestion that she struggled to bond with her child from when he was born, so maybe the lack of love Kevin felt as an infant had some effect on his sociopathic tendencies. Either way we see these tendencies from an early age – he convinces a girl to gouge her eczema afflicted skin, he kills his sister’s pet hamster and he permanently destroys the vision in one of her eyes whilst shooting his bow and arrow – and then he commits his most terrible crime. Unlike some of the other sociopaths I’ve mentioned Kevin lacks any kind of social niceties. His manipulations don’t arise from beneath a veneer of warmth and kindness. Kevin lies. He lies and he blames other people and he tries to deflect the truth. And he’s very, very dangerous. Kevin is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Favourite quote: “Kevin was a shell game in which all three cups were empty.”
6. FILM: Hedy in ‘Single White Female’ (1992 starring Jennifer Jason Leigh)
Imagine your worst possible flatshare. Maybe with someone messy, rude and loud who gets beard trimmings in your soap and steals your food. Now imagine sharing a flat with someone who tries to steal your identity and destroy your life? What is most terrifying as Hedy is that she’s a sociopath masquerading as a saviour. When Allie’s life starts to fall apart Hedy is the one she turns to, the one she trusts whilst, all along, Hedy is the one responsible for her unhappiness. What is most disturbing about Single White Female is how unprepared you are for what happens. Unlike The Joker in The Dark Knight or Alex in A Clockwork Orange – where you know you’re dealing with a sociopath from their first introduction – Hedy initially appears innocuous and the gradual unveiling of her real personality is terrifying.
Allison Jones: I know you weren’t yourself when you did this, Hedy.
Hedra Carlson: I know. I was YOU.
7. BOOK: Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton-Ellis
Outwardly attractive, rich, well-spoken and ‘normal’ Patrick Bateman is the epitome of a wolf in designer clothing. He’s the ultimate stereotypical yuppie – he is vain, well-groomed, obsessed with material goods and obtaining, and being, the best – and his superficial charm draws others to him. Grandiose and full of his own self-worth Bateman won’t tolerate those who anger or, in his eyes, belittle him. Once he starts on his murder spree Bateman loses control and he kills with only the slightest ‘provocation’.
Favourite quote: “I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning”
8. FILM: Dr Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991 starring Anthony Hopkins)
Possibly the most fascinating serial killer in cinematic history Anthony Hopkins embodied and immortalised Thomas Harris’ character Dr Hannibal Lector in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. Intense, intelligent and grandiose Lector typifies a high-functioning sociopath. You can see him, in his very first scene with Clarice Starling (the rookie FBI agent), studying her, toying with her and re-asserting control when he feels challenged by her questions. There’s a sense, all the way through the film that, in some ways, Lector is less dangerous than the serial killer Buffalo Bill that Clarice has enlisted his help in tracking down but that assumption is false. Whilst Buffalo Bill is physically dangerous Hannibal Lector is dangerous on every level – physically, emotionally and mentally – and no amount of FBI training can fully prepare Agent Starling for the games he plays with her.
Hannibal Lecter: [cuts her off] Terns? Mmh. If I help you, Clarice, it will be “turns” with us too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no?
9. BOOK: Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess
‘A Clockwork Orange’ was the first book to make me feel physically sick whilst reading. It is also a book I will never forget. Alex, the main character, is the charming sociopathic leader of a gang called the ‘droogs’. His interests include Beethoven, rape and ‘ultra violence’ and the book chronicles his gang’s horrific crime spree, his capture and the subsequent attempt at psychologically reconditioning him through aversion therapy. Alex’s violence is so abhorrent because it is so random. Unlike someone like Dexter Morgan (a sociopathic serial killer who lives by his father’s ‘code’ and only kills criminals and wrong-doers) Alex’s murder sprees are random and senseless and, like all sociopaths, he feels no remorse and no empathy. In the book they attempt to cure Alex of his sociopathy but, while it appears to work temporarily, the reader is left in no doubt that Alex will never be ‘normal’.
Favourite quote: “But what I do I do because I like to do.”
10. FILM: The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008 starring Heath Ledger)
No one, in any film, ticks as many of the sociopathic check boxes as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. He may be a ‘cartoon’ sociopath but you don’t get much more terrifying than the Joker. He’s grandiose, glib, a pathological liar, impulsive, criminally versatile and he’s dangerous. He’s also hugely compelling. When The Dark Knight came out a lot film critics commented on the fact that Heath Ledger stole Christian Bale’s thunder and that’s because Batman appears positively two dimensional and boring compared to the unpredictable, cruel, risk-taking Joker. Like a lot of sociopaths he has a low boredom threshold. Coupled with poor behaviour control you never know what he’s going to do next – but you know you won’t be able to tear your gaze from the screen.
Favourite quote: “Now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives. But, as my plastic surgeon always said: if you gotta go, go with a smile. “
If you enjoy books about sociopaths why not check one of my gripping psychological thrillers?
The Lie (UK / US / Aus) is about four girls who end up in a dangerous cult run by a sociopath and The Accident ( UK / In the US its called Before I Wake / Aus) about a woman who escapes from a relationship with a sociopath and is terrified that he has infiltrated her daughter’s life.