It’s All About Me, Me, Me: Writing About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic: a term used to describe people (and characters) who are arrogant and self-absorbed. But there’s far more to narcissistic personality disorder than simple vanity.

There are characters with narcissistic traits, whose selfishness and grandiose view of themselves rankles their fellow cast members.

Then there are characters with narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD). Their hunger for admiration, inflated sense of entitlement and lack of empathy can destroy the lives of those around them—including their own. Carrie’s partner falls into this category. (Remember Carrie, our guest character from How to Tell If Your Character Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder?)

Does someone in your story have NPD? Before you dive into the exploits of your narcissistic character, take a moment to make sure you know what characteristics they’ll experience and what they look like in action. After that, you should be able to write about NPD with enough detail, appreciation and attention to satisfy the most narcissistic of your characters (…well, almost).

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!

To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, your characters needs to display at least five (or more) of the criteria below. If they don’t show at least five of these behaviours, they may have narcissistic traits, but not the disorder itself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Think of narcissism as a continuum, with NPD at the extreme. Your characters could fall anywhere on that continuum, displaying varying degrees of the following behaviours and ways of thinking.

On that note, let’s explore what the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder actually look like, using Carrie’s partner as an example. Your NPD character may experience the following criteria:

Criterion 1:
Has a grandiose and inflated sense of self-importance.

This can be shown through your character’s behaviour (e.g., exaggerating his achievements in conversation) or through his fantasies (e.g., believing he is superior when thinking about himself). Just because your character thinks he is superior, however, doesn’t mean that’s the case—often, his achievements won’t match what he believes he’s accomplished. This could leave your NPD character surprised or outraged when others recognise this and don’t give him the praise he thinks he’s entitled to.

Criterion 2:
Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, intelligence and love.

Your character may daydream about gaining the achievements listed above or muse over “long overdue” admiration and regard. In addition to fantasising about his impending limitless success/power/intellect/beauty/love, he may also compare himself to successful or famous people.

Don’t forget to let these fantasies seep into his thoughts on a regular basis. For someone to be diagnosed with NPD, these behaviours need to be enduring, inflexible and pervasive. If preoccupation with fantasies is one of the five or more behaviours that makes your character a narcissist, then it isn’t enough for him to have them just once or twice; he needs to show them in different situations, over a long period of time.

To keep these fantasies from becoming too repetitious, boring or annoying, intersperse them with other symptoms of NPD or vary the things your character daydreams about, when he does and how he does. Slip them into his thoughts almost in passing and it could create the impression that these fantasies are second-nature, barely noticed by your character because they’re so deeply entrenched.

Criterion 3:
Believes he is special and unique.

Not only does your NPD character see himself as superior to other people, he expects others to recognise and acknowledge this too. He may insist on only associating with people who are as unique, gifted or high status as himself, believing himself and his needs above “ordinary” people and beyond their grasp. Because of this, your character might demand to be treated by only the best doctors, work for only the top companies, or associate with only the finest institutions.

Criterion 4:
Demands excessive admiration and attention from others.

Emphasis here is on the ‘excessive’. Your NPD character may make constant demands for attention and praise—for example, through fishing for compliments—and be shocked when people don’t give him the admiration he feels he deserves. Alongside fantasies of achievement, his thoughts may also dwell on how he is regarded by others—a good means of varying your character’s thought patterns while repeatedly displaying narcissistic traits.

It’s important to understand why your NPD character is seeking admiration. It’s likely because his own self-esteem is fragile and easily knocked. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are often very vulnerable to criticism, which you could show through your character reacting negatively and emotionally to critiques or through avoiding situations in which he could be criticised or defeated (e.g., suggesting new ideas or taking part in competitions).

Criterion 5:
Believes he is entitled to most things.

This could link in with Criterion 3—your character thinks he’s special and so entitled to special treatment. For example, he may believe that his needs are more important than other people’s and that others should defer to him. When this doesn’t happen, he may feel confused, irritated, or outraged, visible through your character’s thoughts, feelings, actions and dialogue.

Criterion 6:
Is exploitative in his interpersonal relationships.

Because your NPD character lacks empathy (see Criterion 7) and expects preferential treatment (see Criterion 5), he may knowingly or unintentionally exploit others. You could show this through having him expect to be given whatever he wants, regardless of how others might feel or the effect it could have on them.

One way to do this is have your character demand a level of dedication that others are hard-pressed to give. For example, in a work setting, he might expect subordinates to work long hours, without giving thought to the impact this has on their lives.

Another way to show your NPD character’s exploitative nature is to have him make a conscious or unconscious decision to form a relationship with someone based on the advantages this person gives him. For instance, your character might enter a romantic relationship not because he loves his partner, but because his partner enhances his self-esteem. Once in a relationship, your NPD character might try to exploit this by taking advantage of any resources or privileges his partner has. Why? Because he’s special and entitled to them.

Criterion 7:
Lacks in empathy.

The thoughts, feelings, wants and experiences of others may have little bearing on your NPD character. Instead of understanding that other people have their own concerns, he may believe that his well-being is at the forefront of everyone’s minds and should be the sole focus of their attention.

This self-absorption could be shown through your character talking in excessive detail about his concerns, while disregarding others’ or forgetting completely that other people have needs of their own. If you took this a step further, your NPD character could be actively disdainful and impatient when others discuss their own concerns—something your other characters might be hurt by or object to fiercely.

A lack of empathy could lead to your NPD character blurting out something inappropriate or incredibly hurtful in front of others—for example, proclaiming the virtues of his current lover to an ex. If he does acknowledge the concerns and feelings of others, he’s likely to be disparaging and unsympathetic towards them, viewing them as a weakness.

Criterion 8:
Envies other people or believes that others are envious of him.

Maybe your NPD character is obsessed with dreams of success or love or power. What happens when someone else has what he believes he’s entitled to? Envy. And what’s a narcissistic character to do but resent others for their successes or possessions and devalue them to make himself feel better?

Another way he may protect his fragile self-esteem is to believe that others are envious of him. This could complement the beliefs embodied in Criteria 1 and 3—that he is special, unique and superior to others, so why wouldn’t others be jealous of him?

Criterion 9:
Is arrogant in attitude and behaviour.

This is a trait often associated with narcissists—an inflated ego that can come across through snobbish remarks, egotistical claims and condescending attitudes. Have your character belittle the achievements and abilities of others and overstate his own, but don’t just do this through dialogue—embed it in your character’s thoughts. It’s a critical part of who he is and it colours how he sees the world and the people in it.

Found this post interesting? You’ll also like Emotional, Erratic and Dramatic: Writing About Cluster B Personality Disorders and Fearful and Anxious: Writing About Cluster C Personality Disorders.