How many times have you imagined punching someone because of an insult? How about conning your way into a life of luxury?
We all have dark urges, but most of us recognize that they’re bad and rarely act on them. Then there are those who don’t recognize these urges, or just don’t care about the consequences. Maybe that’s why they’re some of the most cathartic characters in literature.
Books About Sociopaths
Many literary sociopaths are charming, witty, and intelligent. This combination of traits allows them to hide behind seemingly normal facades. The truth is that they never play by the same social rules that we do, and that makes them some of the greatest villains we have in fiction.
Below are 10 books featuring the most compelling sociopaths ever written.
1. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
A product of a broken home, the young and handsome Tom Ripley has one goal: a life among the rich elites. And through his new friend Dickie Greenleaf, he finally tastes the easy life. Reluctant to let go, he finds a way to make it permanent—even if it means murder.
With his victim’s entire fortune at his disposal, he enjoys a lavish lifestyle—and anyone who starts to suspect he’s a fraud ends up dead.
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame lives on a small island somewhere in rural Scotland. Apart from his father, he’s entirely isolated from the world. He spends most of his time with rituals that include killing animals and putting their heads on poles, and forcing wasps to choose their own demise.
From his matter-of-fact explanation of why he kills animals to his telephone conversations with his equally sociopathic brother, Frank looks at the world as if everything in it needs killing.
3. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Rebecca “Becky” Sharp is strong-willed, cunning, and very poor—but that’s not going to stop her from climbing the ranks of English society.
Whether it’s seducing other women’s men, stealing from creditors, or running any other financial con, she’s more than willing to do anything to get ahead, including murder.
4. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Chigurh is a juggernaut who decides the fates of his victims with the flip of a coin. Ruthless and remorseless, he inflicts violence on others as if they were mere livestock lined up for slaughter.
5. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Lou Ford is a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. To those he serves, he’s just a run-of-the-mill cop leading a mundane life. But beneath the facade is a cunning sociopath with sadistic tastes.
While his usual outlet for his desires is harmless, falling into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute opens up a gateway to darker activities. Now he’s ready to have more than just a taste of the things he’s long deprived himself of.
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert has an obsession. Haunted by an unfulfilled love during his adolesence, he falls crazily in lust with his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Dolores.
Desperate for the smallest physical touches, he looks for every opportunity to get closer. There’s nothing he won’t do and no crime he won’t commit to finally be with his Lolita.
7. I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
John Wayne Cleaver knows he’s in danger of becoming a serial killer. He’s obsessed with killers, is fascinated by fire, and abuses animals for the fun of it. But John doesn’t want to be a serial killer, so he lives by a set of rigid rules to help him mimic normal life.
All of that is thrown out the window when a serial killer comes to visit. Now John’s against an unpredictable threat that’s slowly eroding his own self-control.
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Just two days before his 16th birthday, Kevin Khatchadourian goes on a killing spree. He claims the lives of seven high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much loved teacher.
Now, two years later, his mother continues to face the stigma of his actions. To finally be free, she must come to terms with what her son has become, and how much of it was her fault.
9. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Cathy Ames delights in using and destroying the people she interacts with. In her youth, she drives one of her teachers to suicide, seduces a married man, and frames two innocents for rape.
As she grows older, her depravity goes deeper. She bails on her family, poisons her employer to steal her business, and blackmails all of her patrons. There’s nothing she won’t do to always get what she wants, despite already having everything she needs.
10. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Celeste Price is drop-dead gorgeous, rich, and married to a devoted, albeit alcoholic, husband. However, her devotion lies elsewhere—14-year-old boys.
To slake her sexual thirst, she uses her position as a middle-school teacher and picks one of her students as the object of her obsession. And after every school year, she’s always ready to throw them away, caring only for her pleasure. But this year’s student might be more attached and more determined than all the others.
Why Sociopaths Make Interesting Characters
The medical field calls sociopathy by another name: “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. They describe it as a pervasive pattern of disregard for consequences and for the rights of others.
Sociopaths have a conscience, though it is weak. They can feel empathy and remorse, but it won’t stop them from doing hurtful things for their own benefit. They know their actions are wrong, but rationalize why they can and should do them. They’re also impulsive and hot-headed, often going into fits of rage.
It’s a complex condition that lends itself well to fiction. You can make them terrible monsters that are able to kill at the slightest provocation, or you can explore the deeper implications of their disorder, examining how and why they act in a particular way.
Many of us control our actions and desires because of our sense of right and wrong, but it doesn’t mean those impulses disappear. This is probably why many also enjoy reading and watching sociopathic characters.
These characters aren’t constrained by the rules that shackle our own decisions. They’re free of the guilt, drama, emotional consequences, and moral dilemmas. It makes them dangerous, unpredictable, and compelling characters that are satisfying to experience from a safe distance.