My Top Ten Psychopathic Crime & Thriller Characters
Everyone loves a story with a terrifying villain, as long as in the end justice is done. Psychopathic characters fascinate readers because while they can appear just like the rest of us, underneath the surface lurks an alien and dangerous creature. You might be surprised to learn that there can be such a thing as a good psychopath, both in real life and in fiction. Here is my top ten crime and thriller characters, good and evil, with psychopathic traits.
- Pinkie Brown (Brighton Rock, by Graham Green)
At the tender age of seventeen, Pinkie Brown is the leader of a 1930s criminal gang in Brighton, a British seaside resort. A strict Catholic upbringing has left him obsessed with the battle of good versus evil, and with a razor blade and a bottle of acid, he stalks the town’s underworld convinced that he is destined for Hell. His first victim features in one of the best opening lines of any crime novel. ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’
- Jack Reacher (Jack Reacher series by Lee Child)
This may be a controversial choice but Reacher kills so many people in every novel, in such an efficient and matter-of-fact manner, he has to be on the psychopathic spectrum. Thankfully, he’s what you could describe as a ‘good psychopath”, and kills only those both he and we, the reader, believe deserve to die for their crimes. Psychopaths don’t feel fear, and Reacher is definitely fearless. As he says in 61 Hours, ‘I’m not afraid of death. Death’s afraid of me.’
- Amy Dunne (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)
Female psychopaths are relatively rarely depicted in thrillers. Research shows that there are far fewer female diagnosed psychopaths in prison populations than males but that may partly be because they rely less on physical violence, are more subtle when it comes to manipulation, and are better at not getting caught. In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne is a fascinating and incredibly complex character. She’s devious, charming, has no conscience and is willing to do whatever she needs to get what she wants, no matter who gets hurt.
- Patrick Bateman (American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis)
Bateman is a cold-blooded serial killer who follows a strict skin care routine, wears designer suits and loves dining out in New York’s best restaurants. When American Psycho was first published in 1991 it was widely criticised for its descriptions of senseless violence. It’s now considered a dark satire on the evils of consumerism. Bateman, a Wall Street investment banker with a lust for blood is a multiple murderer who lives in plain sight, a monster who both draws you in and repels you.
- Annie Wilkes (Misery by Stephen King)
Wilke’s is one scary woman. She’s obsessive, has violent mood swings and suffers severe paranoia. She’s also a control freak, and when she holds her favourite author, Paul Sheldon, prisoner in her home after he’s badly injured in a car accident, she revels in her dual role as carer and captor and the power it gives her. The retired nurse’s view of life is twisted but she’s such a lonely creature it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her.
- Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon by Thomas Harris)
Dr Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter was introduced to us in Red Dragon, which was initially published in 1981. Thanks to the success of the movie Silence of the Lambs, he is widely regarded as the archetypal American fictional psychopath. A brilliant forensic psychiatrist, he’s intelligent, cultured, charming and accomplished at mind games. He’s also a serial killer who dines on his victims. In Red Dragon, Lecter plays no more than a supporting role but his debut appearance is a monstrously tasty treat.
- Jane Doe (Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone)
Jane is on a mission and nobody is going to get in her way. The self-proclaimed sociopath, who displays several psychopathic traits, wants revenge on a man she blames for her best friend’s suicide. Kill him or ruin him? Either will do. She goes undercover in his place of work and has no qualms about using her obvious sex appeal to draw him into her trap. In the mold of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, Jane is ruthless, devious and a master manipulator. Still, you can’t help liking her, just a tiny bit.
- Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson)
The narrator of the novel is Lou Ford, a cop in a small Texas town. As far as the community he protects is aware, he’s a mild-mannered, polite, old-fashioned Texan but underneath, as the title of the book suggests, he’s a secret psychopath, a compulsive liar and a sexual deviant. After years of keeping this dark side hidden a string of incidents bring it to the surface, and Ford is consumed by what he describes as his “sickness.”
- Fred Clegg (The Collector by John Fowles)
Obsessive butterfly collector Fred Clegg, is a man unable to form emotional attachments. At the same time, he is desperate to be loved. When catching butterflies fails to satisfy his quest for happiness, he decides to ‘collect’ Miranda, a beautiful young art student. He keeps her prisoner in the basement of his home, frustrated that he can’t make her love him. This is a deeply disturbing novel and Clegg is such a creepy character he’ll make your skin crawl.
- Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson)
The anti-social, anti-heroine Salander is physically violent and shows no remorse when she punishes the vicious villains she targets. She is an intriguing and compelling character, who definitely displays psychopathic tendencies but we never hold that against her because she’s using her ‘special’ talents to take on the bad guys. She knows herself better than anybody and at one point tells her rapist, as she’s about to take revenge, ‘Keep in mind that I’m crazy, won’t you.’
Max Manning started his career as a newspaper journalist in the United Kingdom, working for many years as a crime reporter before joining The Daily Telegraph in London as a news sub-editor. He is the author of Don’t Look Now and his new psychological thriller, The Victim, is on sale in the US on August 6, by Sourcebooks Landmark. You can find him on Twitter @maxmanningcrime.