Narcissists in Fiction

I watched an Insight documentary on narcissism – a fascinating topic. (Transcript here.) What I learned:

  • Narcissism is the opposite of empathy.
  • Psychopathy is the malignant form of narcissism. Psychopaths, like narcissists, lack empathy, but also get a sadistic  pleasure out of inflicting pain upon others.
  • Narcissism is part of a developmental stage, and is not necessarily clinical. For example, two year olds are about as narcissistic as you can get. Narcissism – meaning self-promotion and care of self image – continues to be very important during the partnership forming years. (Teens and twenties.) I’m quite sure this is part of what makes some young drivers so dangerous on the road: the delusion that they are better drivers than older people.
  • Clinical narcissism is seen more often in men than in women, in the same way psychopathy is seen more often in men.
  • Corporations tend to reward narcissists, so narcissists often get promoted. But those same behaviours are very hard to live with, so narcissists have turbulent home lives unless they learn to adapt according to the situation. In relationships they are referred to as ‘emotional vampires’ in pop culture.
  • Narcissism doesn’t necessarily respond well to therapy, because therapy can reinforce undesirable narcissistic behaviour in much the same way psychopathic behaviour can be inadvertently validated by therapy. (Think Tony Soprano.)
  • Narcissists have a sense of self-entitlement. They genuinely think they’re more special than other people. They don’t believe they need to do the work to get the reward (they deserve early career promotion, say), and in a relationship narcissists think they are the more important half. Unfortunately, they tend to see all their own negative qualities in the other person. Narcissists can’t see that they are no better than other people. They don’t see themselves realistically. They genuinely think they’re more beautiful/talented/funny than other people.
  • The worst thing that can happen to a narcissist is that their true self is revealed to themselves. If a narcissist’s ‘balloon’ is pricked – if they have an epiphany of sorts – depression often follows. Sometimes this happens some time around middle age. (Midlife crisis?)
  • Not all heavy users of Facebook/Twitter are narcissists, but narcissists are more likely than non-narcissists to be heavy users of such platforms. The usage habits of narcissists also tend to be different: posting lots of pictures, frequent status updates, aiming to gather many ‘friends’ and garner attention. Non-narcissists are more likely to sit back and observe what others are doing on Facebook, or to message privately.

No doubt about it: narcissists make fascinating fictional characters – probably because they feel so real to us.

NARCISSISTS IN FICTION

Worth noting: I have no idea if these characters would be classified as narcissists, or even if they were created as such.

Literary characters do not necessarily have to behave the way real people do, and they do not necessarily follow the prescribed behavioristic patters of the observed course of mental disturbances. Even when authors are familiar with developmental psychology, they are not obliged to construct their characters in consistency with it.

- Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

1. angela hayes – AMERICAN BEAUTY – FILM DIRECTED BY SAM MENDES

Narcissism is a major theme in American Beauty. Every character is a large part narcissistic: Lester and Carolyn Burnham, Angela, Colonel Frank Fitts. The characters with the most realistic view of themselves and others are Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts.

Ricky understands that the worst thing he can tell Angela is that she is not special:

Angela Hayes: Yeah? Well, at least I’m not ugly!
Ricky Fitts: Yes, you are. And you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.

Sure enough, in the car with Jane she confides:

Angela Hayes: I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.

2. BERTHA YOUNG – BLISS – SHORT STORY BY KATHERINE MANSFIELD

Many of Mansfield’s characters were narcissistic – always wondering what others are thinking about them rather than thinking about other characters. I suspect Katherine Mansfield herself never really got through the narcissistic phase. She died young. Her last stories, however, show a shift towards bigger themes such as death, and whether some people really are more important than others (eg. The Garden Party).

3. BRASS IN POCKET BY THE PRETENDERS

‘CAUSE I GONNA MAKE YOU SEE
THERE’S NOBODY ELSE HERE
NO ONE LIKE ME
I’M SPECIAL, SO SPECIAL
I GOTTA HAVE SOME OF YOUR ATTENTION
GIVE IT TO ME
‘CAUSE I GONNA MAKE YOU SEE
THERE’S NOBODY ELSE HERE
NO ONE LIKE ME
I’M SPECIAL, SO SPECIAL
I GOTTA HAVE SOME OF YOUR ATTENTION

GIVE IT TO ME

4. don draper – mad men

The classic corporate narcissist. UPDATE: The longer this series goes on the more I hear people talking about Don Draper as a sociopath rather than a narcissist. Can somebody be made into a sociopath? If so, I’d go with that. Does Don Draper have a conscience? That remains to be seen.

Two types of parenting lead to narcissism – the overindulgent type and the cold, distant type, where the child is only noticed if they do something the parents consider worthy. Don Draper’s flashbacks tell us he falls into the latter category.

Deep down, Don Draper feels like he is nothing — the most terrifying prospect for a narcissist. But he has found the perfect environment in which to behave this way: an advertising corporation, where he is almost expected to take full credit for group effort, and to be dismissive of others who are beneath him in the pecking order.

This same behaviour doesn’t work in his personal life, however, and in that part of his life he’ll keep going from disaster to disaster.

Don Draper can be charming and persuasive, but he lacks true empathy. This works to his advantage because it allows him not to care. This aspect of Don was demonstrated most clearly in his treatment of Faye Miller in season four, but was foreshadowed in his long relationship with Betty.

Every now and then Don Draper catches a glimpse of his real self and this always coincides with a downfall.

5. I’M TOO SEXY – RIGHT SAID FRED

Vanity is different from narcissism. But vanity is a component of narcissism. Also, body image and self image are two different things. It seems vanity is mistaken for narcissism, and self-consciousness mistaken for vanity. Is it vain if a teenaged girl refuses to leave the house without mascara and heavy foundation, or is it self-consciousness?

As a psychologist said on the Insight discussion, narcissism is a poorly understood condition. Everyone knows about mental disorders like depression and anxiety but few are able to pick a narcissist upon first meeting one – unless you’ve had a lot to do with one personally, of course. Narcissism is more than vanity, and this does come through in the myth:

Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae, renowned for his beauty. He was exceptionally proud and disdained those who loved him. Nemesis saw this and attracted Narcissus to a pool. In the water, Narcissis saw his own reflection and fell in love with it, not realising it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died.

6. Edie Britt – Desperate Housewives

That series is full of narcissism and you could easily argue that Edie isn’t a standout case but I’m thinking of the scene where she says to Carlos:

I’m hot, you’re hot. On paper we should be having great sex.

7. TRUMAN CAPOTE

Now I’m cheating, because Truman Capote was a real man who wrote a real book. Sometimes I think narcissists are their own best creations, and Truman Capote is therefore one hair’s breadth away from existing in our memories as a character of fiction.

Bill Bryson nicely encapsulated both the man and his book in The Lost Continent:

Fifty miles beyond Dodge City is Holcomb, Kansas, which gained a small notoriety as the scene of the murders described with lavish detail in the Truman Capote book In Cold Blood. In 1959, two small-time crooks broke into the house of a wealthy Holcomb rancher named Herb Clutter because they had heard he had a safe full of money. In fact he didn’t. So, chagrined, they tied Clutter’s wife and two teenaged children to their beds and took Clutter down to the basement and killed them all. They slit Clutter’s throat (Capote described his gurglings with a disturbing relish) and shot the others in the head at point-blank range. Because Clutter had been prominent in state politics, the New York Times ran a small story about the murders. Capote saw the story, became intrigued and spent five years interviewing all the main participants – friends, neighbours, relatives, police investigators and the murderers themselves. The book, when it came out in 1965, was considered an instant classic, largely because Capote told everyone it was.

There has since been a movie made about Capote’s obsession with this murder… and about his obsession with himself, I might add.

I have 94 per cent recall of all conversation. I tested it myself.

Sometimes when I think of how good my book is going to be, I can’t breathe.

I wonder if you agree that Truman Capote was a narcissist. I also wonder if Capote would’ve spent five years researching for In Cold Blood had he not been so sure of his own abilities and the book’s success.

Alan Bennett had this to say about Truman Capote (and homophobia) in a diary entry from 21 March, 2000:

Read the hitherto unpublished extracts from Sylvia Plath’s diaries without much interest. I hadn’t known about Hughes’s homophobia — though I’m not sure that antipathy to Truman Capote can be so subsumed, Capote really deserving a phobia to himself.

The Truman Capote Insult Quiz

8. ALAN BENNETT’S AUNT KATHLEEN

Speaking of Alan Bennett, and real narcissists: Alan Bennett’s Aunt Kathleen was a real person. Bennett describes her in senility — a state which perhaps amplifies our true selves in the same way alcohol can:

Surrounded by the senile and by the wrecks of women as hopelessly, though differently, demented as she is, she still clings to the notion that she is somehow different and superior. Corseted in her immutable gentilities she still contrives to make something special out of her situation and her role in it.

‘He’ll always give me a smile,’ she says of an impassive nurse who is handing out the tea. ‘I’m his favourite.’

‘This is my chair. They’ll always put me here because this corner’s that bit more select.’

Her life had been made meaningful by frail, fabricated connnections, and now, when the proper connections in her brain are beginning to break down, it is this flimsy tissue of social niceties that still holds firm.

- Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

Bennett has a genius for human insight, and I think he has encapsulated in that character sketch how the demented elderly can slip back into that narcissistic state otherwise common to two-year-olds.

9. HUD

This is a great classic movie from 1963 which hasn’t really dated. I love the honesty of it. Hud is a bastard at the start, and a bastard at the finish, and there’s no character arc. There is a character arc with Lonny, his young nephew who realises what an asshole he has for an uncle, and who leaves the family farm to find his own way in life. But we know when Hud slams the door on the camera in the final scene of this film that Hud will continue to live in exactly the same fashion, and end up a lonely old man.

Hud is an example of a teenage narcissist who never grew up – even in his thirties he ‘doesn’t give a damn’ about anyone except himself. He completely lacks empathy for others, which makes this character an unambiguous narcissist.

This is a great film, and I think stories get away with nasty characters when they’re surrounded by such empathetic characters. The grandfather is truly noble and lovable. We warm to the nephew. It’s when every character in a film is unlikable that I wonder what I’m doing, trapped in a room with all these people.

ANYONE THINK OF ANY OTHERS?

Related Links

1. How to stop checking yourself out, from The Hairpin

2. Evolution of Narcissism – Why we’re overconfident and why it works, from National Geographic.

3. Narcissism Has Higher Health Costs For Men from Freethought Blogs

4. Five Ways Narcissists Screw Everything Up from Jezebel

5. Why They Can’t Feel Joy: Narcissistic Shallow Emotions from Psychology Today

6. Endlessly Entitled Narcissists from Psych Central

7. The Overconfidence Narcissism Spectrum from Psych Central

8. Study: If You’re a Narcissist, It’s Not Your Generation’s Fault. You’re Just a Narcissist from Pacific Standard

9. The Narcissistic Ex Part II from PT

10. Narcissists’ Lack of Empathy Tied to Less Gray Matter from Psych Central

11 responses to “Narcissists in Fiction

  1. * Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.
    * Lucifer from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
    * Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray.
    * Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.
    * Waldo Lydecker from Laura.
    * Addison DeWitt from All About Eve.
    * Iago from Othello.
    * Adrian Veidt from Watchmen.
    * Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs.
    * Gregory House from House.
    * The Master from Doctor Who.
    * Servalan and Avon from Blake’s 7.
    * And just for fun, Lord Flashheart from Blackadder.

    • I would say some of the characters on that list are narcissists gone bad, ie. psychopaths. (Apparently that’s one definition of narcissist.)

  2. Let us not forget Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. Ooh, boy!

  3. I think it’s wrong to say “narcissists can’t see that they are no better than other people.” Often they are. Truman Capote is a sure example of a narcissist who actually was superior to the average person. Other example include Pablo Piccasso, Joan Crawford, Ayn Rand, Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great (you know you’re superior when you’ve got “great” in your name!), the list goes on.

  4. When I say that narcissists are no better than other people, this reflects my egalitarian philosophy. I don’t believe in hierarchy. In the scheme of things (the infinite universe, that is), none of us is the slightest bit important. It’s amazing some people still think so.

    The real life (lay-diagnosed) examples of possible narcissists that we’ve come up between us happen to be famous because they excel at what they do, but let’s not forget the much larger number of narcissists walking among us – in our workplaces, in our neighbourhoods and families, who really aren’t that good at what they do, but who actually think they are. Their confidence is often rewarded, because we do reward confidence in life, often over substance.

    I am open to the idea that narcissistic tendencies do make a person better at a discipline over time, but only if that narcissism is accompanied by putting in lots of hours. I’m comparing this to the other extreme – someone who lacks confidence and so can’t carry anything through, giving up before a high level of proficiency has been reached.

    Like psychopathy, narcissism is a pretty darned effective personality to have, but only when it comes to spreading one’s own genes. It’s an evolutionary advantage. Maybe that’s why narcissism is relatively common, especially during the partnership forming years.

  5. Going back to Watchmen, there’s an interesting scene in that when the character of Dr. Manhattan (a probable sufferer of Schizoid personality disorder) describes humanity as “thermodynamic miracles” which is a term scientists use to describe events of impossibility such as oxygen turning into gold which isn’t really such an impossibility if one thinks about it given that supposedly the universe coalesced out of various colliding gaseous substances. Out of all the cells competing to be born into the world, one complete, unique lifeform emerges from the chaotic miasma which is how humanity was born into existence. The problem is that the world becomes so crowded with these miracles that we forget that they are special.

    Going on from that, humanity is indeed important. I’m grateful that you took the time to answer my comment Stacey (in the chaotic miasma of the internet, that is itself a miracle!) but in my opinion, egalitarianism is itself a myth. It’s completely nihilistic as it debases us to the level of bacteria which exist solely to continue their existence: an empty task. Humanity is the once cell to evolve from bacteria and into the empirical beings that we are today. And it could have been any other cell but it was us and that is in itself, remarkable. Our brilliance is testified by the very machines we’re using now.

  6. I’m not familiar with Watchmen but it sounds interesting.

    Egalitarianism is indeed a myth in that it exists nowhere on Earth, but some approximations are closer than others. The happiest cultures are the ones in which wealth is more equitably distributed, and where women and minority cultures have the most opportunities. I think nature lends itself to hierarchy though, so it’s a constant struggle towards egalitarianism, but I still think it’s something worth striving for. The alternative is bleak.

    I’m not so sure humanity is all that brilliant. We don’t know what else is out there. Maybe there’s a universe full of creatures way more brilliant than us, and the reason none of them has contacted us is because they know that this is a planet full of scumbags.

  7. If great people are overrated then I’m happy to be considered overrated.

  8. I can see you’ve given this some thought.

  9. I recently came across a pithy definition of narcissism in The Spirit Level (Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett), in which narcissism could be summed up as ‘insecure self-esteem’. It would seem that kids today have high self-esteem, but it’s not the genuine kind.

    ‘People with insecure high self-esteem tend to be insensitive to others and to show an excessive preoccupation with themselves, with success, and with their image and appearance in the eyes of others. This unhealthy high self-esteem is often called ‘threatened egotism’, ‘insecure high self-esteem’, or ‘narcissism’.