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.


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


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.


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).




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.


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.


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


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.


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

Late At Night by Katherine Mansfield



This sketch is straight dramatic monologue. Virginia feels she is getting on in years and has not yet found the love of her life. She sits in front of the fire and moans about it. She sent a pair of socks to a man who thinks she knitted them. She interprets this as arrogance; she’s not about to hand-knit a pair of socks for a man she hardly knows.

This may be regarded as one of Mansfield’s experiments, altering point of view. But ultimately she wrote her most polished stories in the usual first and third person, suggesting she wasn’t happy with the results. One thing is clear: Mansfield was very aware of POV as a device in fiction.

The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield




This is one of Mansfield’s earliest stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work. The foreshadowing is more like ‘telegraphing’ – far too blatant.

The Story

Three people make a journey on horseback through the rough New Zealand country. They come across a house where a woman is living with her daughter. They stop for the night. The brother, Jo, is starved for female company. Despite the haggard appearance of the woman, he makes arrangements to spend the night with her. The daughter is sent to sleep in the store with the narrator and her husband. Later, the daughter reveals through a drawing that the mother has killed her husband. The next morning the narrator and Jim leave. Jo, left behind, shouts to them that he will catch up.


Much has been said about the ‘naturalistic technique’. Naturalistic details are used to functional advantage. In its favour, the syntax and word choice (especially the strong verbs) create an oppressive atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the narrator intrudes, and breaks the spell. Details are not allowed to speak for themselves.

The Fly by Katherine Mansfield

THE FLY TEXT (PDF, with line numbers)



THE FLY ANNOTATED (doc, feel free to modify)

The Story

The reader is introduced to a man called only ‘The Boss’, watches him entertain a former employee (Old Woodifield), hears Old Woodifield mention the Boss’ dead son, then watches the boss torture and kill a fly.


This story is typical of Mansfield’s story-telling technique: The reader is moved through a series of incidents, carried along with the action. It is no more than action until the reader discovers causal relationships.  Honeymoon, The Voyage and Prelude make use of the same narrative technique. Before long, the reader begins to notice certain positionings that form repetitive patterns that  suggest  possible relationships:


  • Mr Woodifield is consistently described as a baby even though he is aged and sick.
  • Mr Woodifield is consistently contrasted with the Boss, five years older, but still rosy and strong.
  • The Boss is immensely proud of all his possessions, most of them recently obtained. His geniality is an expression of his feelings of superiority.
  • Mr Woodifield’s perfectly normal response to his own dead son is set next to the Boss’ strange detachment.
  • After Mr Woodifield leaves, readers are brought inside the mind of the Boss as he reflects on his son and relationship with him. What the boss says is in strange contrast to what he appears to be. He says that life had no other meaning except for his son and that when he heard of his son’s death 6 years ago, he had left his office ‘a broken man, with his life in ruins’. But the reader sees he does not look like a broken man and his life does not appear to be in ruins at all.


The Fly

When the Boss begins to play with the fly, birth imagery appears and readers remembers that Woodifield was described as a baby. As the fly struggles to recover from the persistent blobs of ink the boss drops on him, readers understand that the fly is a symbol for man and struggle is man’s struggle.

Flys also ‘fly’. They can soar through the heavens, escaping earth-bound reality. But eventually flies die too. There is the ordinary lifecycle: birth, youth, old age, death. There is struggle. But along with the struggle there are moments of flight, desires, hopes, aspirations.

The Boss

What role does the Boss play? He appears to be god, giving life and taking it away. This is typical behaviour for him. The Boss is given no name – he is known simply as ‘Boss’ – authority, father figure to both Woodifield and Macey. He gives a little drop of whiskey to Woodifield, insisting it wouldn’t hurt a child, even though alcohol is forbidden to the old man. Did the Boss drop similar metaphorical blobs of ink on his son? Perhaps. The Boss had insisted that the son follow in his footsteps, thereby providing meaning for his own life.

The Boss has hoped to accomplish immortality by living through his son but a greater power than him has dropped a blob of ink on the son and on the Boss. Realising the son’s death for the first time, the Boss acts out a symbolic drama, assuming the role of God.

The Final Sentence

The story comes together with the revelation in the last sentence:

‘For the life of him [the Boss], he could not remember.’

The words ‘for the life of him’ are chosen carefully. At this moment he has an intimate though subconscious knowledge of his own mortality. For the reader, things are set back in balance.

The Flyphoto by jpctalbot (flickr, creative commons)

For more extended analysis see enotes.

The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield

THE WIND BLOWS TEXT (pdf, with line numbering)

THE WIND BLOWS TEXT (doc, to add your own notes)


THE WIND BLOWS ANNOTATED (doc, feel free to modify)


On the surface level this story is about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a tiff with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.

On the metaphorical level the wind is an extended metaphor for the confused feelings of adolescence.

The Wind Blows

photo by miss mass (flickr)