Let’s say you’re writing a novel, and somehow—maybe owing to the 24/7 news cycle or to the protest signs leaning against a wall in your garage or to the hours you’ve spent organizing indivisible enthusiasts—you come upon the idea of writing a narcissist into your fiction.
Don’t do it.
A narcissist operates like a wrecking ball. Oblivious to the harm he’ll inflict, he runs roughshod over anything that stands between him and his desires, which center on a singular goal—preserving his fragile self-esteem.
Ah, but he’s a conflicted character, you say. A bloviator, yet fragile within.
Conflicted, yes, but the fact that he’s incapable of acknowledging this internal conflict makes him uninteresting. A narcissist can never allow himself to admit to weakness. He has zero self-regard. He’s incapable of humor, which demands the ability to laugh at one’s self.
The narcissist is a master of projection, accusing his opponents (and they are legion) of the very faults he’s incapable of acknowledging in himself. Manipulation is essential to his psychological survival, and yet his own internal fragility, his insatiable need for affirmation, makes him an easy target for manipulation by other nefarious types.
Maybe this sounds interesting, but in fact it’s all too predictable.
A fundamental tenet of fiction is that readers need to empathize with your characters. You might think backstory will come to the rescue—the character feels inferior to his father, unworthy of the fortune he inherits, resentful of having been shipped off to a military boarding school, intellectually unequal to his peers.
It’s true that backstory can add emotional depth to a character, helping readers to empathize with his plight. But empathy is a two-way street, and the narcissist only travels in one direction, toward himself.
Sensing this, readers gravitate toward characters with the capacity to return empathy. In this regard, the narcissist will always fall short.
Even the “save the cat” strategy doesn’t work with the narcissist. He only saves the cat if there’s something in it for him, if it makes him look good.
You can’t even rely on a narcissist to be a good fictional villain. He’s flat, a character type with a large potential for destruction, like a tornado or some other freakish force that must be reckoned with. If you need this effect in your novel, write in an actual tornado or hurricane or wrecking ball.
In the face of destruction, the intriguing character isn’t the narcissist who unleashes it but the courageous resistor. She’s flawed, of course—we all are—but in confronting the chaos, she discovers the depth of her passion for justice and truth.
Don’t write a narcissist into your fiction. And while you’re at it, don’t choose one to lead the free world.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon. The opinions expressed here are solely her own.