I love narcissists.
Well, let me rephrase that: I love writing narcissistic characters. In real life, they are more than a pain to deal with. Writing a narcissist is fun because narcissists cause problems and problems make for interesting writing.
Narcissists are selfish, use people for their own agenda, are secretive and fly into fits of rage. They cause crises that move the plot along. They have intense sexual needs.
The Primary Traits of a Narcissistic Character
This is not meant to be a psychological commentary. Dr. Shell King has done a great breakdown of the psychology here. What I want to focus on are the common ways a narcissistic character views the world and how it shapes his role in the story.
There are three dominant commonalities in almost all narcissists:
They Have a Mission
Narcissists typically have lots of shame, but you’d never know it. To compensate for their inner feelings of inadequacy they must be “bigger than life.” They can never tolerate being seen as “common.” They must be better than everyone else in at least one area of life. They have grandiose plans.
That’s their mission.
There are a number of ways this works out. Some may become religious leaders. Some, business. Some will set themselves up a “mentors” to you lesser folks. Heck, they might even write tutorials on how to create compelling characters despite being a newbie at fiction. Some will focus on personal improvement.
Your narcissistic character wants to project his superiority. He sees himself as smarter. He may only go to “the best parties” with “the best people.” His way of doing things is always the “best” way. He does not tolerate people who he sees as inferior. He does not take advice and criticism puts him into a rage.
They Have Intense Sexual Needs
To cover their deep self-loathing, they use sex. Often. While just the act is originally fulfilling, they find pretty quickly – like any drug – the initial high wears off and they need “more” or “better” sex to fill the need.
Over time this manifests as seeking what most would consider “aberrant” sexual behaviors. They are not likely to be faithful to a partner. They try new and “better” sexual experiences looking for that high. Something “perfect” to fill their intense psychological need.
As a character it would be “reasonable” for him to move over time into more bizarre sexual activity. Often they are deeply ashamed of their sexual needs and try to hide them from others. Like all addicts, they will eventually seek their fix.
They Exert Inappropriate Control of Others
To the narcissist, appearance is everything. It doesn’t matter if their finances are a wreck and they are on the verge of bankruptcy as long as they appear affluent. It’s more important for them to have an attractive woman on their arm than to have a kind, loving partner.
As such, they see their world as a reflection on them. They control family members to make sure they adhere to a strict (often arbitrary) code. People who work for them often find their demand impossible. They have no respect for other people’s personal boundaries or needs. They have no empathy.
They are masters of manipulation.
Writing a Narcissistic Character
If you’ve ever tried to write any character, you’ve already realized the need to understand how your character came to be BEFORE the book starts. We call that backstory.
It’s important to understand how your character became a narcissist and how they informs their current choices in your story. Here’s how I create narcissistic characters.
Create a psychological backstory
Some things you typically see in a narcissist’s childhood would be a close relationship with his mother and a distant or non-existent relationship with is father. Sometimes it is a mother who sees him do no wrong. He is always right, always her special boy. Sometimes the mother will be overbearing and disapproving.
If his mother “spoiled” him, he likely lacks any kind of long-term self-discipline. His grandiose plans never translate into progress because he lacks the grit.
If his mother was intolerant, he likely will do remarkable feats and have incredible self-discipline. Literally “to a fault.”
Because of his emotional issues, your character will have a string of broken relationships. He will find and use pliable people, then throw them away when they are no longer a benefit. His infidelity and/or deep sexual needs will make romantic relationships hard to maintain. He may no longer have any relationship with his mother or, at best, a strained one.
Create “Honest” Scenes
Your narcissistic character is constantly asking himself: “What’s in this for me?”
In action, he will not truly care about anyone but himself. He may feign compassion, as long as it achieves his goals. His ends always justify his means. People exist only to meet his needs.
If he gets angry, it’s their fault for making him angry. If he fails, it was “the man” or “those corrupt politicians” or…whatever. It will never be his fault. He is perfect, better than anyone else, so bad things happen when other people screw up.
He’s probably vain. He may be excessive in his workout routine. He probably dresses well.
He’s surprisingly charming. Manipulating others all his life, he has learned to charm. To seduce. He appears incredibly confident which appeals to the women around him. He needs adoration and cultivates it from others – especially women.
Let His Mission Move the Story Along
Narcissists create story. They have a goal, a direction and it affects all the other characters they encounter. Their drive might be “caught” by other characters and cause them to do great things with him. Their objective might also put a character or three into situations where they are forced to react.
All of these move the story along and make it interesting. Your readers can fear for the woman caught in the web. They can cheer for the accomplishments.
Now, go write a narcissist…
It will be fun. If you have any questions, be sure to put them below.
As writers we enjoy creating characters. I prefer those on the evil side – like David in the novella Dr. Meg and I just finished. But we also write noble, admirable characters. Sure, they have some flaws, but they are brave, in charge, confident, ethical. They work out, eat right, do their jobs well.
At the same time, we as individuals are often not.
Writers like us tend to be escapist. We live vicariously through our characters. THEY are the ones who are beautiful, wise, confident. We enjoy sitting in our underwear, drinking coffee, eating donuts.
But I wonder…what would happen if I started “pretending” like I was one of my fictional characters? If I adopted in my own life the standards that one of my brave, noble characters displays?
My character has standards I do not have. He watches what he eats. He works out religiously. He is kind even when he is treated poorly. He is noble.
I wonder what would happen if I adopted those same standards? Can I become the heroes I write about? Read about?
I’m ponding this today and I believe the answer might just be yes. Your mileage may vary.