Psychology for Writers: Narcissism

The term ‘narcissism’ comes from Greek mythology, where beautiful, proud Narcissus fell in love with his own image in a pool of water. It’s not a story with a happy ending because unable to leave, Narcissus wasted away and died. But the two-sentence story neatly captures the core tenants of narcissism – it’s a preoccupation with ourselves that can ultimately mean less than favourable outcomes.

Narcissus

Narcissism exists on a continuum. From normal and healthy at one end, to a pathological (clinical) full blown personality disorder on the other. The characteristics I’m listing below are for the extreme, pathological end of narcissism—narcissistic personality disorder to be specific. But the wonderful thing about being a writer is that you’re the all-knowing world-maker of your book, so you get to decide where your character exists on this continuum. Does Jo like to feel grandiose and self-important (don’t we all?) but still demonstrates some empathy, or is Jo extremely selfish, live in a world of their own grandiosity, and is happy to use others to prove their self-importance?

Narcissism usually starts in early adulthood and will be present in a variety of contexts (e.g. home, work, while playing tennis) and can be summarised as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and a lack of empathy. Your character will demonstrate a medley of the following:

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance

Your character is likely to routinely overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, often appearing boastful and pretentious. They will probably exaggerate their achievements and talents, and expect to be recognised as superior – sometimes without the commensurate achievements. They may blithely assume that others feel the same way and will consequently be surprised when the praise they expect, and feel they deserve, isn’t forthcoming.

  1. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success

Your character will be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. They may brood about long overdue admiration and privilege, and will often compare themselves favourably with famous or privileged people.

  1. Believe they are special and unique

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they are superior, special, or unique and expect others to recognise them as such. Individuals with this disorder believe that their needs are special and beyond the ken of ordinary people. The flip side of this is that the inflated judgements of themselves will usually involve an underestimation, and devaluation, of others—making them arrogant, disdainful and patronising. They may feel that they can only be understood by, and should only associate with, other people who are special or of high status. They are likely to insist on having only the ‘top’ person (doctor, lawyer, hairdresser, instructor) or being affiliated with the ‘best’ institutions.

  1. Requires excessive admiration

To feed this over-inflated ego, your character is going to need a whole lot of admiration. Interestingly, this is because their self-esteem is almost invariably very fragile, but more about that later. They may be preoccupied with how well they are doing and how favourably they are regarded by others. This often takes the form of a need for constant attention and admiration. They may expect their arrival to be greeted with great fanfare and are astonished if others do not covet their possessions. They may constantly fish for compliments, often with great charm.

  1. Has a sense of entitlement

A sense of entitlement is evident in these individuals’ unreasonable expectation of especially favourable treatment. They often expect special privileges or automatic compliance with their expectations. They expect to be catered to and are puzzled, maybe even furious, when it doesn’t happen. Examples might be assuming they don’t have to wait in line, getting irritated when others fail to help in their ‘very important work’ or expecting others to prioritise their needs.

  1. Takes advantage of others

This sense of entitlement, combined with a lack of sensitivity to the wants and needs of others, may result in your character, consciously or unconsciously, exploiting others. They expect to be given whatever they want or feel they need, no matter what it might mean to others. For example, if your character is a manager they could expect great dedication from their employees, overworking them without regard for the impact on their lives.

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  1. Lacks empathy

Your character is likely to have a lack of empathy and have difficulty recognising the desires and feelings of others. As a general rule, they assume that others are totally concerned about their welfare. They tend to discuss their own concerns in long-winded detail, while failing to recognise that others also have feelings and needs, so much so that they are often contemptuous and impatient with others who talk about their own problems and concerns. These individuals may be oblivious to the hurt their remarks may inflict (e.g., exuberantly telling an ex that ‘I am now in the relationship of a lifetime!’ or boasting of good health in front of someone who is sick). In the moments that your character does recognise the needs, desires, or feelings of others they are likely to be viewed as signs of weakness or vulnerability. Interpersonal relationships are often impaired as a result of this insensitivity.

  1. Vulnerable Self-Esteem

The irony is that all this grandiose strutting is underscored by a vulnerable sense of self-esteem, meaning individuals with narcissistic tendencies are very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism can haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack, although sometimes such experiences lead to social withdrawal or an appearance of humility that may mask and protect the grandiosity.

Capture these details, some of these contradictions, and you’ve got yourself an authentic character, which is exactly why I share this information. Have you got a character that sits somewhere on the narcissism continuum? Has this been useful? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

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14 comments

  1. Like many Americans these days, I’m tempted to apply most of your descriptions to a certain politician, who shall be nameless, but I’ll resist the temptation for now…

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  2. Three of these definitely describe my antagonist: #6, #7, and #8. He’s not well-developed, though, since the reader only sees him after he starts going bonkers and from what his wife, the MC, has to say about him. Of course, *I* know he’s already slipped back into drug and heavy alcohol use which, unknown to his wife, he used to have a big problem with, but he keeps up appearances as a VP in his company (like in your facade article). It’s related to #8 because his wife isn’t providing him with what he expects (#5 and the early ones) and who knows what else. But he self-destructs in the end with alcohol and drugs though his intent was to harm her.

    I’ll have to give my other MC some sort of diagnosis! He’s altogether too healthy 🙂 Wife has anxiety issues, naturally, after 8 years with the bonkers guy.

    Thanks for the food for thought! You could be an editor and check for diagnostic consistency 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Leah, I love how well thought out your antagonist is! And yes, anxiety would be a natural response to living 8 years with a person like that…
      Interestingly, I just put up my PsychWriter services last night, which include editing and consultation 😉

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      1. Thanks Tamar! And I just noticed your services, and I thought, “Oh, how did I miss that?” Good for you! All your knowledge can help other writers so much. I wish you the best. I’m a copy/line editor, by the way, so maybe we can chat one of these days. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely! My grammar is atrocious, we could look at swapping services or cross promote if the opportunity arises 😊

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  3. I’m working on several WIPs at the moment, as usual! One has a truly monstrous villain, literally so since he is immensely fat, a result and symbol in his case of his excesses. I emphasize ‘in his case’ since I certainly don’t want to scapegoat obese people, who have enough problems. But behind him lurks an even worse villain, his psychiatrist, no less, who is manipulating his patient/client for evil ends.

    Either or both might be classified as narcissists, though they live in a future where psychology has changed somewhat. The DSM is virtually forgotten, though not before growing into a book so large my heroine (a psychologist!) uses an old copy as a weapon to defend herself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fascinating John!!! Psychology without the DSM??? 😱 😜I do love the irony that’s it’s grown so much it can be used as a shield. I’d be interested in hearing about your version of psychology in the future, keep me posted 😀

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