Reckless and Remorseless: Writing About Antisocial Personality Disorder

There’s antisocial and then there’s antisocial personality disorder—and the distinction is very important. Do you know the difference?

Does your character have an antisocial personality disorder?

If you’ve read the last post in the Psychology & Storycraft series, you’ll know the answer to that. (And if you haven’t read it yet, you should really do that now. Go on, I’ll wait for you. ... Got that done? Great.)

Knowing a list of the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (APD) isn’t enough on its own, however. The next question to ask is how you can incorporate those criteria into your story in a way that’s subtle, accurate and conflict causing.

That, dear reader, is the topic of today’s post. Let’s launch into the ‘translations’ of the diagnostic criteria outlined in the last post and work some writerly magic on them.

To Keep in Mind:

The information in this post comes from the DSM-5 (see ‘Further Reading’). Please do not use it to diagnose yourself or others. It isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional advice so do consult a qualified clinical professional if you have any questions about the diagnosis criteria. Feel free to use this information to diagnose your characters, however.

For your character to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, he needs to meet Criteria A to D. Let’s look at a few examples of how they can be used in your story.

Criterion A:

Shows a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, happening since he or she was 15 years old. This pattern of behaviour is indicated by three or more of the following:

Criterion A1:
Fails to conform to social norms regarding lawful behaviour, demonstrated by repeatedly carrying out actions that he or she could be arrested for.

Show your character breaking the law in some way. It could be through stealing, conning, assaulting, and so on. The illegal acts he carries out can tie in with other criteria on the list, such as the second and fourth items, giving your character the minimum number of behaviours he needs to display to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

Just because your character’s carrying out illegal activities doesn’t mean he has to be caught. Consider what might happen if he gets away with breaking the law—and what might happen if his actions have unforeseen consequences. Most of us are familiar with the simple equation of goal + obstacle = conflict. When you add complications to the mix, you double that conflict.

Criterion A2:
Is deceitful, indicated by frequent lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.

Maybe your character is a con artist, a compulsive liar or someone who has as many names as he does coats, which he slips into and out of with equivalent ease.

What would happen if your character’s multiple guises, usually kept so separate, became tangled together during a con or collided explosively during a heist, when two or more people recognised him by different names? Remember the conflict equation. Add complications to the scene to double its conflict in seconds.

Criterion A3:
Is impulsive and fails to plan ahead.

This lack of foresight is a great recipe for conflict. What problems might arise if your character lied habitually, without considering the consequences? Or what would happen if your character made a spur of the moment decision to steal a car and ended up in a high speed chase with the police?

Think about the effect failing to plan ahead could have on your character’s relationships too. If he’s unreliable and unpredictable, how will that impact on the people around him?

Criterion A4:
Is irritable and aggressive, demonstrated by repeatedly getting into physical fights or assaults.

The impulsive behaviour described in the third criterion could easily result in a punch up. If your character doesn’t think over his words before speaking, he could cause insult—with disastrous consequences—or he could launch himself into a fight without considering whether he’s outmatched.

Criterion A5:
Shows reckless disregard for the safety of himself or herself or others.

How might this strain the relationship between your character and those close to him? If he constantly puts himself and others at risk, who will stick with him and who will abandon him? For those who stick around, what problems could his reckless disregard for safety cause?

Criterion A6:
Is consistently irresponsible, indicated by the repeated failure to keep up regular work behaviour or honour financial obligations.

Holding down a job or long-term relationship could prove untenable if your character ignores his responsibilities repeatedly. He may lie or make excuses to account for his actions, or embrace his impulsive side and abandon his responsibilities altogether.

Failing to honour financial obligations could bring a whole host of problems with it. If he can’t pay bills or repay debts, what might the repercussions be—particularly if the party he’s supposed to be paying has more serious means of getting their money back.

Criterion A7:
Lacks remorse, indicated by his or her indifference to or rationalisation of having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another person.

Your character’s unemotional side may show through here. If his reckless disregard for safety injures someone close to him, he may be unrepentant, make excuses to justify or explain what happened, or simply feel unconcerned with the harm he’s caused.

How might these remorseless tendencies allow your character to commit acts your other characters would never consider?

Criterion B:

He or she is at least 18 years old.

Antisocial personality disorder can’t be diagnosed in someone under 18 so make sure your character is an adult if you choose to diagnose him with APD.

Criterion C:

There’s evidence of conduct disorder that began before 15 years of age.

To be diagnosed with ADP, your characters needs to have a history of some of the symptoms of conduct disorder before he was 15 years old.

Criterion D:

His or her antisocial behaviour doesn’t occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Finally, to meet the criteria, your character’s antisocial behaviour can’t appear only during the course of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. If he has APD, his antisocial behaviour is part of his personality (hence the name antisocial personality disorder) and not caused by another mental health disorder.