Realistic Narcissistic Characters

by Sera James

Narcissism is fantastic. Not for the real people affected (nor their friends, family, and colleagues), but for writers who are looking for villains, fools, and foils to their leading men and women. That having been said, there is the common Narcissus trope to whom writers defer for a stock “narcissistic” character, but he is not only boring and flat; there are not many avenues of expression for such a tired archetype, which invokes only overt narcissism. Narcissus was the beautiful hunter who fell in love with his own reflection and lost the will to live, starving to death while gazing upon a pool. More recently, you might know him as Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston.

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Hawt.

But there is so much more to narcissistic characters than their vanity, although many works presume that vanity is where this disorder begins and ends, equating to beauty, wealth, and success, among other positive attributes. An actual narcissist has few of these traits, and can be just as destructive to or as your hero (though, perhaps, less glamorous to portray). Seeing as how it’s estimated that as much as 10% of twenty-somethings have it, you’re almost statistically indebted to inventing one if you’re operating on a book with a cast of ten characters (or authoring a drama, obvi).

It’s easy to ruin the honesty of a narcissistic character by making them this simple set of qualities and nothing but: gorgeous/sexy, successful, popular, rich, expertly manipulative, and dangerously cunning. From Lockhart Gilderoy to head Plastic Regina George (Mean Girls), the typical narcissist has been outlined, and narcissists everywhere rejoice at this technically flattering portrayal of physical, mental, and social prowess. Naturally, she’s a blonde (though she’s not a natural blonde). His loafers are Italian and only Italian. Narcissists drive Ferraris and, true to form, spend most of their time blotting cherry red lipstick in compacts.

But is any of this an in-depth assessment, or are we still, not unlike the narcissists themselves, dwelling on the surface of things?

Here are some actual facets of narcissism which go underreported in fictional worlds replete with tawdry affairs, rancorous bosses, and narcissism. All of it is in direct contradiction with the stereotype.

In fiction: Your hero won’t be able to crawl out of this practically telepathic vixen’s tousled sheets in the morning, going on to extol her as the best he’s ever had. Even when he wants to leave after years of abuse, he can’t, because sex.

Example: Don Draper (Mad Men); Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey) 

 But . . .

  • Narcissists are not always sexy, and they’re almost never good at sex.

Keep this in mind when you are setting up your next lopsided love triangle (you know,  where the One is obvious and the Other One is a total douchebag). Because narcissists think primarily about themselves and legitimately struggle to connect to other people, they’re almost uniformly bad in bed. As said in the blog Let Me Reach by abuse recovery author Kim Saeed, partners “begin to feel like an object that the Narcissist uses to masturbate.” If a narcissist is good in bed, it will be a purely acrobatic event at the very beginning, or when they feel threatened (for example, after being caught in a lie). But there’s a lot more to sex than technique, and where sexually happy couples rank connection and intimacy high, narcissists score consistently low.

There are two subtypes of narcissism to date (but not literally): cerebral and somatic (sexual/physical). Even though the somatic narcissist demands constant sex and prefers a variety of partners, both types are mechanical and predictable in bed. The somatic narcissist will probably be gorgeous (thanks to hours at the gym, eerily structured beauty and dietary regiments, and cosmetic surgery), while the cerebral narcissist not only abstains from sex on all but the most desperate of occasions, but abhors their body as the inferior vessel of their beautiful mind. (I think about the Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons, personally.)

In fiction: He’s the smug, award-winning captain of industry to your beleaguered assistant in a Rags to Riches screenplay, constantly reminding your main character how many impossible mountains he has climbed in his rich and fulfilling life.

Example: Aldous Snow (Getting Over Sarah Marshall); Derek Zoolander (Zoolander)

But . . .

  • Narcissists strive even for mediocrity. If they are “successful,” it’s a success of the heiress variety.

Narcissists are actually rarely acclaimed artists or business executives, because these positions take years of hard work and virtual invisibility before they blossom into high-power, meaningful careers, and narcs don’t commit to anything which requires more than, say, two months of effort without clear (to other people) results. They’re low investment, high yield opportunists with a strong tendency to flake, especially after a failure. The exception to this are people who are born into power. I’m talking about the children of billionaires who are handed Ivy League pedigrees, but a narcissist might also inherit their “success” from a well-moneyed and insecure significant other (a resource which they are adept at rooting from the masses) or a lucky lotto ticket. The point is that it has to fall into their lap, and ask nothing of them in return. If your narcissistic character boasts of the difficult past they overcame, it’s got to be at least half of a lie. They would be complete bums if they could do so without damaging their reputations, though would certainly call it something a little more glamorous and romantic, like “a kept woman,” “socialite,” or “princess.”

In fiction: Sympathy and compassion infuriate your narcissistic villain. How dare your empathetic heroine suggest they are anything other than god-like in the scope of their powers? NOTHING HAS EVER HURT THEM! OR TOUCHED THEM! EVER! -swell of ominous music-

Examples: Gordon Gekko (Wall Street); Dennis Reynolds (Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

But . . .

  • Narcissists never cope with and accept the tragedies which “befall” them. They don’t need to be constantly admired; they will happily settle for pity if admiration is short in stock, and are just as likely to laud disasters as they are successes. 

This type of person doesn’t want to do anything that is not fun. Much like children (in fact, several correlations have been found between small children and narcissists, leading some experts to believe the basis for the disorder is found in early development, where some wall was struck), they need constant entertainment and appeasement, unable to accept that self-sacrifice and spates of boredom are sometimes the trade-off for a stable career or marriage. (Narcissists usually burn these bridges incidentally, and can only speak comfortably about the experience if they are able to blame the bridge. If anything else is suggested, their dialogue should become muddled and evasive.) At the very least, thoughtfully navigating the expected pitfalls of an adult life–from the external horror of loss to the internal reality of consequences–is impossible for them because it is a deep and painful growth period most people enter and exit over the course of several months, or years. Narcissists don’t do this part; they just shut down and enter perpetual denial. A story (that they genuinely believe) is quickly fabricated to blame other people, and even abstract forces, such as time, or an inanimate object, like a house. This deflection allows them to never internalize an event; rather, if it is mentioned even thirty years later, their reaction will be as if it just happened. They “confront” it for the first time every time, and the cycle of victimhood kicks on, dismissing the event from their fragile psyche.

To a gullible outsider, it would appear as if they were the hardest-trying, most unfairly treated creature on Earth, leading narcissists to invariably gravitate toward empathy. If they ever really followed the trail of events and consequence back to its source, it would send them into a five-alarm tantrum, like a flame on a long wick of dynamite. The only type of character who could help them reach this intensity of break-through would have to be someone they held in high esteem (a material or mental superior), like an expensive and experienced psychiatrist. They would need to see this psychiatrist for some reason OTHER than self-motivation, or accusations of narcissism. A narcissist would be outraged to hear such an suggestion until it came from someone they actually respected.

In fiction: She confidently purchases a posh dinner for everyone with her gold card, laughing off the idea of a “limit.” Ha ha ha! She’s got this.

Examples: Patrick Bateman (American Psycho); Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street)

But . . . 

  • Narcissists are not rich. They only look rich.

Because of their emphasis on the material and their distaste for hard work (and haughty refusal to do as told, since this would acknowledge the authority of another), narcissists tend to love credit cards and hate child support. Due to the lack of empathy–a primary identifier of a narcissist–they don’t care if other people suffer due to their financial irresponsibility, including friends and family; in fact, they are more likely to make friends and family languish and cover their extravagances because they unfailingly construe friends and family as inferiors; a superior is only someone who can do something to them, someone they cannot insulate against with stories (like a boss, or a police officer). Of course, they wouldn’t use the word inferior; their sister just “doesn’t need that $600” while their needs are all too real and excruciating. Other people are fine right now, and they’ll handle it, forever, “later.” They feel entitled to other people’s money, but not to the resultant bill. Their credit scores are a wreck, so they probably CAN’T get plastic after a few years of adulthood, and they leave behind a trail of embittered associates in every town they visit. If pressed, they can always explain how they needed that fancy set of bamboo blinds; their sister still hasn’t needed anything since they last borrowed that $600. Speaking of pressing them . . .

In fiction: He’s too clever and manipulative of a villain to ever be caught (until the end of the trilogy). He has all the secondaries wrapped around his little finger.

Examples: Jeff Winger (Community)

But . . .

  • They struggle to defend themselves when confronted by someone observant and confident in their own sanity and memory.

Narcissists use a technique called gaslighting to deflect criticism from the individuals they have disappointed. “You have the worst memory,” or a sarcastic “Good one,” (as if your serious complaint was just an asinine jab,) are perfect examples; they use transparent, negative judgments of sanity, memory, and intention to attempt to adjust conflicting realities to more closely mirror their own delusion. For example, the mystery panties found under the bed must belong to your tortured heroine; how can she not remember them? Maybe they should make her an appointment with a . . . specialist. This could be a great threatening dynamic in a thriller–except the specialist is likely to detect the narcissist in their midst (though there are ways to get around that, particularly with a covert narcissist). Most people easily determine what the embroiled character cannot: the simple solution is the likely one. If there is a rumpled negligee under the bed that the wife doesn’t remember ever wearing, what’s more likely: she has selective hallucinations and paranoia, or she’s been the victim of her emotionally distant husband’s infidelity?

Arguments are circular and senseless with the narcissist. The rare fact which wiggles its way into their “point” is confusing and irrelevant. If you understand the tenets of a clean debate, listening to a narcissist in a fight should make you tic. They just want to keep sparring until their opponent is exhausted and gives up, like a matador. This can be fuel for bull-headed characters who refuse to leave, or for someone with a history of actual mental illness.

Just because a narcissist has lost your character doesn’t mean they want to let them go; narcissists are surprisingly needy for being so callous. Walking away is the only tactic they can’t deflect, and will send them into a quiet smolder. They usually end up convincing themselves that they were actually the one that walked away from the fight.

If you want to really ruin your narcissist, you have to put them in actual jail or kill them (fictionally, of course). Otherwise, their delusions make them virtually flame retardant. Even if their reputation is dashed, this rootless parasite can just move to another zip code and start again with a sad story and a new cast of characters.

In fiction: She’s the wintry perfectionist wife of your colleague, and the mastermind behind a painstaking and intricate plot to have him murdered, untraceably and “accidentally”. Afterward, she steals the credit for your co-authored report on genetic engineering.

Examples: Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes); Klaus Mikaelson (The Vampires Diaries, The Originals)

But . . .

  •  Narcissists spend their lives shunting small yet crucial fragments of logic and common sense to the wayside in order to remain forever “right.” This leaves all of them–including those of the cerebral variety–with gaping blind spots. Anyone with a healthy awareness of reality can outsmart them, and easily. This is why hubris is always the downfall.  

Can a narcissist commit a murder? Absolutely. Out of all the cluster-b personality disorders, narcissists may be the fastest to convince themselves that all their crimes are self-defense. People, to a narcissist, are characters in a vast movie which they have been charged with directing. When a character (or “person”) deviates from their script, even for reasons completely beyond the scope of their control, the narcissist resolves to punish them. But would they get away with it? I don’t think so. Why? Because of all the reasons I’ve already said. Narcissists make better ex-husbands and ex-wives than they do villains, because they’re too easy to beat. Their painfully unrealistic perception of themselves leaves them with multiple chinks in their armor that they don’t realize that they have, not to mention their characteristic laziness. Look at those credit scores. Poor planning.

If you want to make them your primary villain, my advice to you is to give them a supportive history or a cast of characters on which to fall back. They do have charm for days, and it’s particularly effective with insecure people, the enmeshed, and those who simply don’t know any better (strangers, acquaintances, casual friendships). The pleasure of a narcissistic villain is how easy they are to plot, but I might make it comedic from time to time, because the narcissist as a villain simply isn’t that threatening, if you have your own resources and they aren’t heavily armed.

I discourage you from enlisting a narcissist as your main character simply because many readers look for not only likability, but change, to occur in the manuscript, based on some epiphany and pivotal event. Narcissists don’t . . . do . . . that. The meaningful revelation for the main character who is narcissistic is how little trauma effects them. Examples: Steve Zissou (The Life Aquatic); Mavis Gary (Young Adult).