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Can a Child Be a Psychopath? (Tom Riddle, We're Looking at You.)

Can a Child Be a Psychopath? (Tom Riddle, We're Looking at You.)

By Melissa Albert

A New York Times article that made us want to remain childless forever recently asked a scary question: can a child be considered a psychopath? The article answered in the affirmative, but we already knew kids could be psychos—just look at Joffrey Baratheon. Characterized by an inability to feel empathy or remorse, and a disregard for social norms and the feelings of others, psychopathy isn't something you want to run across in a dark alley...but we love reading about it in books. Just think: every fairy character you've ever read is basically a psychopath, and no book written about the post-apocalypse can do without a psycho or two (hey there, President Snow). In honor of Books Week, here are some of the scariest psychos in literature:

Cathy (East of Eden): Cathy raises the hair on our necks. She's a merciless killer and ace manipulator, wrapped up in a sweet, docile exterior. Steinbeck's book is at its scariest when Cathy loses control and lets her darkness show—like when she's drunk or in childbirth. Otherwise she keeps a pretty tight lid on her stone-cold evil, mimicking human emotions to get what she wants.

Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones): Joffrey's own (supposed) father nearly kills young Joff after he cuts the kittens out of a pregnant cat. That early taste for sadism is full-blown by the time he's crowned king. Joffrey turns his court into a testing ground for his own repulsive whims: knights fight to the death for entertainment, good men lose their heads, and King Joff's own fiancé lives in fear for her life. We'd like to tell you how it all turns out, but no amount of SPOILER ALERTing can justify giving up crucial Game of Thrones info.

The Joker (Batman): Because no list of psychopaths is complete without a supervillain. While uptight old Batman holes up in his mansion thinking of new gadgets with which to save the world, the Joker works hard on elegantly choreographed mayhem. He's got no compassion, but at least he's got a (brutal, insane) sense of humor.

Leck (Graceling/Fire/Bitterblue): Leck is a Graceling, marked by his differently colored eyes as possessing a particular power, or "Grace." Most Graces have to do with a physical ability, but Leck's is in his voice: he can use it to make people believe whatever he wants them to believe. He uses this power to steal a kingdom, and what he does with it makes Joffrey look like a saint. Leck tortures and kills in the name of medical science, all the while telling his victims that they feel no pain, and his subjects that they love him and support his reign of terror.

Tom Riddle (Harry Potter): What exactly happened between Tom Riddle and his two fellow orphans in that seaside cave, so many years ago? All we know is that Riddle, the boy who would become Lord Voldemort, did something so unspeakable to the children he lured there that the trauma left them mute—and we've always found this to be the darkest detail of Rowling's seven-book series. While Leck committed cold-blooded acts in the name of sicko science, Riddle did it simply because he could.

Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley): Ripley is well-mannered, sophisticated, urbane...and cold as ice. He has an almost superhuman ability to adapt, taking his behavioral cues from others in order to pass himself off as whoever the situation demands he be. He's also a talented forger and adept liar. Ripley doesn't seem to take any particular pleasure in murder, but he also doesn't mind killing anyone who gets in his way. Though seemingly incapable of compassion, he's at least interested in how normal people operate. He's just not that worried about it.

Iago (Othello): Depending on how you see it, Iago is either Shakespeare's most or least interesting villain, because he seemingly has no motive for driving Othello to his own destruction. When asked why he deliberately goaded Othello into a murder/suicide, he has only this to say: "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word." His motive could be anything, or nothing. He also treats his poor wife like crap, strengthening the argument that Shakespeare intended him to be perceived as a psychopath.

Who's your favorite literary psychopath? Do you think children can fairly be considered psychopaths?

Topics: Books, Life
Tags: harry potter, controversial questions, othello, fictional characters, voldemort, game of thrones, the joker, psychopaths, sociopaths, new york times, tom riddle, east of eden, literary villains

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About the Author
Melissa Albert

Melissa Albert reads books, worries about other people’s dogs (they look thirsty), and eats horrible candy for fun and profit. When not wearing her extremely tasteful Sparkitor hat, she’s an editor for the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. You can find her on Twitter @mimi_albert, or in the hot pretzel section of your local cafeteria.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.