How to Tell If Your Character Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Do you have a self-absorbed character? Make sure you know the difference between someone with narcissistic tendencies and someone with narcissistic personality disorder.

When Carrie first met him, she was blown away.

He was witty and charming and intelligent in a way that no one else she knew could measure up to, and when he entered a room, he just glowed, pulling people in like moths to a flame. She would do anything to keep that light in her life—even if that meant doing anything and everything he asked.

He was entitled to it, he often told her. He was an Oxford graduate, going up in the world, and it was his money and success that kept them comfortable. She would be nothing without him and so she owed him everything she had, whether it was her love or her money or her admiration.

But that only worked one way. He cheated on her, spent all her money, used her to support his own sense of importance. Carrie didn’t know it, but the man she loved had narcissistic personality disorder.

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!

Carrie’s partner is an example of a character with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a Cluster B personality disorder characterised by feelings of superiority, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy.

Individuals with NPD often see themselves as exempt from the rules of society and expect favourable treatment from others, without having done anything to deserve it. However, while these individuals might first seem to have an inflated sense of worth, in actuality they tend to be very sensitive to criticism, with vulnerable levels of self-esteem. They may be disdainful and disparaging to others to hide inner feelings of humiliation and emptiness, and avoid situations in which defeat or criticism could be possible.

Okay... but how do you translate that on to the page? How do you write about a character with NPD? Let’s start with what they’d experience.

How Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with NPD, your character must display five or more of the following characteristics:

  • Has a grandiose and inflated sense of self-importance.
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, intelligence, beauty and ideal love.
  • Believes that he or she is special and unique, and therefore can only be understood by and associate with other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • Demands excessive admiration and attention from others.
  • Believes he or she is entitled to most things.
  • Is exploitative in his or her interpersonal relationships.
  • Lacks in empathy (i.e., he or she is unwilling or unable to identify and understand other people’s feelings, needs or state of mind).
  • Envies other people or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  • Is arrogant in attitude and behaviour.

As with all personality disorders, the behaviours listed above must be maladaptive (in other words, they cause more harm than help), stable and enduring through different situations and over time if a person’s to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

For example, John feels envious when his colleague boasts about her achievements, leaving him preoccupied with dreams of success for the rest of the day. Once he gets home, however, he realises he’s happy as he is and these feelings go away. In this case, John wouldn’t be classed as having NPD, as he doesn’t display enough of the criteria (at least five) and the behaviours he does show don’t last very long.

You can find out more about what the inflexible and pervasive nature of personality disorders means for your characters here.

NPD and Other Personality Disorders

At first glance, it might be difficult to tell some of the features of Cluster B personality disorders apart. Histrionic, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, for example, require attention of some kind. Upon closer inspection, however, the similarities and differences between the characteristics start to emerge.

One way to tell NPD from the other personality disorders is the grandiosity associated with it. Narcissistic personality disorder lacks the impulsive, self-destructive and abandonment-concerned features of borderline personality disorder, the emotional displays of histrionic personality disorder, and the aggression and deceitfulness of antisocial personality disorder.

Requiring some sort of attention is characteristic of narcissistic, histrionic and borderline personality disorders, but the attention sought so desperately by people with NPD is admiring in tone. Also, people with antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders may share common features, such as glibness, an exploitative nature and a lack of empathy, but those with NPD usually don’t have the same criminal or aggressive background as those with antisocial personality disorder.

So that’s a brief look at the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder… but what do they mean in plain terms and how can you make them a realistic and cohesive part of your story? All shall be revealed in the next Psychology & Storycraft post.