I’m getting ready for a conference this week hosted by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, where I’ll be co-presenting a workshop called “How to Craft Anti-Heroes, Villains, and Scoundrels” with author Christine Z. Mason. In the course of my preparation, I’ve been looking at personality traits and behaviors of bad guys and girls. One of the topics I’ve been taking a close look at is narcissism.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition describes the essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins in early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” People with this disorder tend to de-value the contributions of others, are preoccupied with success and power, and believe overall they are superior.
Narcissism shows up in Jessica Morrell’s writing craft book Bullies, Bastards & Bitches as one possible trait befitting an antagonist. Gaston immediately came to my mind when I started thinking about narcissists in film and literature; in case you’ve forgotten, he was the arrogant hunter who tried to win Belle’s love in the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast. Like many narcissists, he could not handle being humiliated and not getting his way, and by the end of the film he became the antagonistic monster who tried to kill the Beast. Gaston, in all his narcissism, was indeed a despicable character, a very bad guy.
Other characters in film and literature who have been called narcissists include Don Draper, King Lear, Jay Gatsby, Miranda Priestly, Patrick Bateman, and Dorian Gray. Were they all bad, like Gaston? I guess that depends on how you define bad, but they certainly all lived somewhere on the Spectrum of Significant Flaws.
Besides being condescending and sometimes unpleasant to be around, narcissists have flaws which in turn have a detrimental impact on the rest of us. In the work environment, narcissists are often viewed as untrustworthy, poor leaders, and sometimes even lazy. On the personal front, they frequently turn to sex for comfort and self-reward, which isn’t necessarily the same as love-making. Their inability to accept others leads to unforgiving and control-ridden relationships. Their lack of empathy can drive them to ruthless manipulation of normal people. And their inability to find true, intrinsic happiness can be lethal to the happiness of those around them.
So what do we do with those narcissists in real life?
Actually, this is an important question because some experts believe we are experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of narcissism. And because–forget the experts–we are watching a presidential election in which one candidate clearly suffers from severe narcissistic personality disorder.
Writer Eric Barker discusses five ways to deal with narcissists:
- Don’t deal with them, period.*
- Kiss up to them or keep your mouth shut until you can get out.
- Get payment up front.
- Ask them what people might think, because narcissists can’t handle shame.
- Help your narcissists channel their inner Dexters.
Our approach must vary depending on how bad the narcissist in question is. But the thing we need to remember is that we don’t live in a Disney world, and a lot of us become victimized by narcissists without even being aware this is happening. Or worse yet, we become them, unless we proactively avoid that risk.
Yale professor Nicholas Christakis said, “networks will magnify whatever they are seeded with. They will magnify Ebola and fascism and unhappiness and violence, but also they will magnify love and altruism and happiness and information.” So the best thing to do, it seems, in the presence of narcissists–and maybe in the presence of all anti-heroes and villains and scoundrels–is to model the good behaviors we all really need.
*And to think really hard about how we should vote.