The film industry is obsessed with psychopaths. From Alex in A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs all the way to John Doe in Seven and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; audiences can’t get enough of these remorseless killers. However, a recurring theme emerges – approximately 85% of movie psychopaths are men! Despite this, on-screen female psychopaths, albeit rarer, are equally as spine-chilling.
Interestingly, the way in which female psychopaths are portrayed on screen has dramatically mutated over time. Taking inspiration from the 1940s film noirs, the late 80s/early 90s were filled with the classically frightening ‘femme fatales’; Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female are some of the more famous ‘bunny boiler’ depictions of female psychopathy. The 2000s moved away from traditional ‘femme fatale’ archetypes with Angelina Jolie’s iconic portrayal of unpredictable sociopath, Lisa, in Girl, Interrupted. However, Rosamund Pike’s chilling 2014 characterisation of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne revolutionised the way in which female psychopathy was presented in film. The film deviated from the 2000’s deranged depiction of a female sociopath, instead focusing on the more manipulative and emotionless aspects of the personality disorder.
Now it’s 2018 and a new psychopath is in town. Distinct from her predecessors, Killing Eve’s Villanelle is neither noticeably unhinged, like Lisa in Girl, Interrupted, or a crazed seductress like Glenn Close’s Alex in Fatal Attraction. She is a ruthless killer with beautiful cat-like features, highly intelligent, sexually promiscuous and more importantly, emotionally blunted. Yet the age-long question remains: Which of these on-screen female psychopaths, if any, is the most realistic?
The simple answer: none of them. Whilst they all demonstrate real-life psychopathic traits, such as an eerie emotional detachment and a complete lack of respect for the law, not a single one fits the psychopathic bill. Most of these ‘femme fatales’ share more qualities with the fictitious boogeyman, rather than possessing any concrete basis in science. Therefore, if you want to imbue your screenplay’s anti-heroine with a more realistic edge, read this guide on how to characterise a convincing female psychopath.
Tip 1. Sentimental Psychopaths Don’t Exist.
Psychopaths are not sentimental. They are cold. They are calculating. They lack the milk of human kindness. Their lack of empathy/remorse means they do not regret or ruminate. This is the root of a complex challenge for writers; accurately depicting a psychopath whilst also allowing enough emotional capacity to formulate an interesting narrative arc or further their character development. It’s a catch-22 situation. Sadly not everyone manages to crack the code. Although sentimental psychopaths don’t exist, they are not just robotic machines; as Psychologist and Consultant on Killing Eve, Mark Freestone, puts it, ‘they are human, they have memories and there can be pressure points and unresolved feelings from the past.’ Granted, it’s difficult to achieve this balance, but not impossible!
Tip 2. Give your Femme Fatale a Hedonistic Appetite for Casual Sex.
Psychopaths, both male and female, are incredibly sexually promiscuous. Aka. They sleep around. A LOT. The ‘femme fatales’ in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct use their sexuality as a weapon to manipulate and disarm men. However, both films fail to demonstrate the more hedonistic appetite for casual sex which is characteristic of female psychopathy. Killing Eve, on the other hand, perfectly captures this trait; Villanelle is frequently shown engaging in raunchy activities with a multitude of partners; men, women (and even both at the same time!). Luna Centifanti, a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, perfectly sums up this quality; psychopaths are just ‘looking for a good time’.
Tip 3. The Subtler, The Better.
Male and female psychopaths tend to show different types of aggression. Although female psychopaths can be as violent as their male counterparts, they usually express their aggression in subtler ways. These can usually take the form of manipulation, jealousy, self-harm and verbal aggression in lieu of outright violence. Since her aggression is more nuanced, Gone Girl’s Amy is the closest to accomplishing this; she often pretends to be a vulnerable victim in order to manipulate the multiple men in her life. Granted, this is tactfully glossing over the ending where she violently slits her ex-lover’s throat.
Tip 4. Add a Touch of Chameleon.
Psychopaths can easily adapt and so often hide in plain sight. Therefore, provide your female sociopath with chameleon-like qualities, which allow her to skillfully blend into her surroundings. Killing Eve’s Villanelle often does this; she imitates emotions without actually feeling them. For instance, when we are first introduced to Villanelle, we watch her mimic the smile of a little girl (before callously swatting a bowl of ice-cream all over her). Although unsettling, this scene is highly accurate – psychopaths are copycats.
Tip 5. Allow Yourself to Enjoy a Creative License.
Most ‘femme fatales’ are constructed using over-exaggerated psychopathic qualities (eg. Villanelle is more like a robot than an actual human being). However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Although accuracy is an important part of screenwriting, it’s far more crucial to keep the audience entertained. So relax. You don’t have to remove the scene where your psychopathic anti-heroine decapitates an unsuspecting victim. Just squeeze in a few subtler moments of manipulation whilst you’re at it.