Every time I tell someone I’m a storyteller they immediately equate me with a liar.

Somewhere down the line, invention became inextricably tied up with lying, and – in more radical cases – deception. The logic is that if I can create entire universes with people who never have and never will walk this earth, then my own life must be full of untruths.

Once or twice I took advantage of this by spicing up an old story from childhood or describing the wacky escapades of a friend of a friend who didn’t exist. Children are expected to do this, whereas adults are lambasted. It gets really tricky when writing stories is the only thing you know how to do.

The only other people who live day-to-day within fantasies of their own making, while carrying on a public persona, are psychopaths.

Intellectually, the traits we writers share with psychopaths allow us to breathe into life a host of characters, to drag them through suffering, illness and heartache, only to throw them back into the literary limbo of non-existence once we are done.

Perhaps part of us is drawn to the psychopathic way of life because it excuses us for a variety of sins. We are not antisocial, we simply need time alone to create; we are never selfish, merely concerned with our work; we would never kill a person, but our ability to vividly imagine the act is finely tuned.

The idea of inhabiting a mindset where emotions can be recognised, understood and manipulated but never felt, never experienced, is an intoxicating one. When we write we come as close to evil as can be without crossing the line between fiction and reality.

Given the chance, who wouldn’t wonder what that must be like? Especially considering the ongoing fascination we as a society have with those on the fringes. As forensic psychiatrist Ronald Markman puts it, “as an audience we identify with psychopaths, living out our fantasies of life with no internal controls. There is something inside them that is also inside us and we are attracted to them so we can find out what that something is. We’re all psychopaths under the skin”.

For writers, this skin is shallow indeed.

Since the publication of American Psycho, reviewers and interviewers alike have repeatedly made connections between Bret Easton Ellis and his immortalised fictional character, Patrick Bateman. An easy one to make, considering Ellis’ wild lifestyle and childhood with an abusive father.

In an interview with James Brown, Ellis admitted that despite what he had said of his character in the past, Patrick Bateman was him and he was Patrick Bateman. In Ellis’ words, he was the same age as Bateman, living in the same building, going to the same places that Patrick Bateman was going to. “[B]ecoming an adult seemed frustrating, absurd, disgusting, and I was kind of enraged, and that’s how American Psycho started.”

Some would file this under the heading of ‘write what you know’, but if we assume an element of psychopathy in Ellis it is easy to interpret his novel as an attempt to place his desires from life, with all its violence and depravity, into a space where no one can be hurt. He is certainly displaying a kind of emotional colour-blindness to violence, shown so well through Bateman’s dramatic swings between musical appreciation and sudden, graphic torture of women.

Intellectually, the traits we writers share with psychopaths allow us to breathe into life a host of characters, to drag them through suffering, illness and heartache, only to throw them back into the literary limbo of non-existence once we are done.

Of course, there is an argument that writing violence is infinitely preferable to enacting it, but the writing still necessitates a lack of moral constraint. If you can imagine it, surely there is a part of you that can do it?

The book was voraciously criticised upon publication for its portrayal of violence against women, and while its supporters have always argued that it is in fact satire on violence and the fascination it exerts over us, there still exists Bateman, aka. Ellis, at the heart of it all: a character who says, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion … there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory … I simply am not there”.

When you remember that Ellis created this creature not just from his own personality but the bare bones of his life, it is questionable whether Bateman is not in fact one of the many people we walk by every day.

So what about writers who write psychopaths that are separate from their own life experiences? When John Steinbeck created Cathy Ames in East of Eden he introduced the world to one of the most calculating, perverse and vicious characters in fiction. She is repeatedly named a monster, not for any physical deformity but for the psychological and the metaphysical evilness she portrays.

“[C]an there not be mental or psychic monsters born?” questions Steinbeck’s narrator. “The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”

Cathy is a proto-psychopath, an overblown example of the most exaggerated form of psychopathy while still retaining unique characteristics and personality traits.

Robert Hare, today’s leading psychopathy professor, states that psychopaths display superficial charm, pathological lying, manipulative behaviour, a parasitic lifestyle and lack of empathy amongst other traits. Several times throughout East of Eden, Steinbeck offers an almost medical diagnosis of modern psychopathy, citing Ames’ lack of conscience, desire for power and complete remorselessness, almost twenty years before Hare was on the scene.

There’s a possibility that Steinbeck was able to define these character flaws because he recognised them in himself. In a society where he could not embrace and express these morally neutral actions, he could certainly write about them. Many times over the course of his career he placed East of Eden above his other novels, going so far as to say, “[in it] I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is ‘the book’”. He may not, like Ellis, have publicly correlated himself so closely with his psychopathic alter-ego, but he certainly gave us a glimpse of the inner workings of his consciousness.

In his recent book The Psychopath Test, journalist Jon Ronson delves into the medical world of psychopathy, meeting those in institutions and others who work as CEOs and high flyers. Early on, Ronson states “there is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or normal and in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness (…) leads us to do rather interesting things”. It is obvious he does not consider himself particularly normal, nor does he denigrate some of the “interesting things” he mentions – assault, fraud and murder to name a few – as immoral or even particularly distasteful.

As a journalist he naturally veers towards human madness; even more of a challenge is the objective position he must take. Upon reading the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders he immediately diagnoses himself with twelve different disorders, but as Martha Stout tells him in an interview, “if you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath … that means you are not one”.

By becoming a certified psychopath spotter, Ronson begins to recognise the insane amount of power he is suddenly able to wield over people not so different from himself. Ideally we would all be perched on the lower end of the psychopathic scale, but what happens when people start creeping towards the middle? At what point do we tip from eccentric to mentally ill? And who, ultimately, makes that call?

While it is true that psychopaths come from all walks of life, writers have a unique ability to empathise with and inhabit them intellectually. So are psychopathic tendencies necessary for writers or do they simply come with the territory?

As behavioural researcher Nichole Speer puts it, “whenever we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative … It transforms the way we see the world”. If this is indeed the case, perhaps our writing is what makes us psychopaths. For every story we write about abuse, violence and death, we experience it in ways that make us more empathetic but also less innocent.

Where we truly differ is our intent. Writers create in order to entertain and educate; psychopaths perform for power and self-gratification. There may be some cross-over, but at the heart of it our psychopathy is in our imagination alone. Our words are the end products of complicated mental activities, and how we use them dictates who we really are.

Lara S. Williams is an Australian writer currently living and working in Edinburgh. She holds a masters in creative writing and is finishing her first novel. Her work has appeared in Cordite, Mascara, Antipodes, Gutter, page seventeen, Island and fourW.

Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).