Criminal insanity: mad or bad - character development in fiction writing

When violent and terrible acts are committed by one human being to another people want to understand how such a thing could happen. What is the motivation of the perpetrator? Why do they behave the way they do? On some subliminal level people may want to feel reassurance that such acts are committed by others ‘not like me’. The debate about whether people who commit murder are mad or bad is ongoing. Effort to understand may draw upon the discipline of psychology and nature/nurture underpinnings, values related questions of philosophy or theological pondering about how suffering can be explained.

In (English) law criminal insanity is defined as a consequence of a court agreement that a defendant was unable to understand that their actions were wrong. Whilst the defence of insanity is relatively rarely used it continues to be subject to criticism. The Butler Committee as long ago as 1975 suggested that reform was necessary. The Law Commission also suggested reform in 2011 but as yet, recommendations have not been progressed by successive British Governments. When a violent criminal is sent to a top security hospital the media appear to relish stories of the ‘luxurious’ conditions they will enjoy. The UK’s ‘Sun’ newspaper, for example, published an article about the gourmet Christmas dinners of steak and venison ‘Britain’s most evil killers will feast on….’. Broadmoor Hospital is suggested as a ‘holiday camp’ by the Daily Star. It is not surprising that readers get the idea that going to Broadmoor, Rampton or Ashworth high-security Hospital is a bit of a breeze and nowhere near punitive enough for some of the crimes committed. However, people who find themselves under a section 41 restriction order – ‘without limit of time’ have reason to be anxious about it. Only the permission of the Ministry of Justice can allow such an order to be overturned. With very rare exception, If someone is imprisoned even if they are poorly behaved whilst in prison, or do not express remorse, when their time is up they must be released. In special hospitals, this automatic right to release at end date is lost, and the patient must be able to prove to a Mental Health Tribunal that they are sane enough to have the order overturned. The difficulties in proving sanity have been wryly and fairly discussed in Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. The loss of a right to eventual liberty is much feared by many people in that position and the provision of the so-called luxuries of a hospital environment are unlikely to compensate to even a small degree (and whether such hospitals are in any way ‘luxurious’ is a myth that most certainly should be challenged). Also, it is important to recognise that people who have been sent by the courts to such institutions are there because they have been defined as ill. People sent to Rampton, Broadmoor, Ashworth Hospitals are patients having been formally diagnosed as such by a number of qualified medical professionals. Personally, I prefer to live in a society where we treat the ill rather than punish them. I am prepared to accept diagnoses made by qualified professionals and to accept that such diagnoses are made carefully and in good conscience – because what is the alternative? This does not mean that I am unable to understand or be horrified by the harm caused by some individuals against others. Nor does it mean that I think they should evade punishment once they have been assessed by suitably qualified people as able to understand their actions as criminal.

My book The Shadow of the Wing is set in a top security hospital and the protagonist is a woman with an anti-social personality disorder – or for story-telling purposes – a psychopath. In some ways, the development of this character was easy as she was already in hospital. The decisions about her mental health had already been taken, and all I had to do was to draw upon the diagnosis that took her into that environment. The book I am working on at the moment (work-in-progress title ‘Tribute’) also features a protagonist with maladaptive patterns of behaviour and a severely fractured ego integrity. In creating this character, I have drawn upon studies of narcissism, insecure identity and attachment disorder but effectively I am creating him and his disorder. The great number of crime novels featuring psychopaths is something of a testimony to how much readers enjoy their scary unpredictability and the horror of their actions of inhumanity. However, creating a destructive psychopathic character is something of a challenge. The usual rules of character development apply – they must have goals, ambitions, vulnerabilities – in short, such characters must be recognisably human. When these same characters do something in-human such as murder or torture understanding their journey to that point should be a central part of character development. It may be explicit and part of the story, or the ‘known to the author backstory’. I have come to realise also that in creating such a character one has a degree of responsibility to ‘demonise’ carefully. Demonising a criminal act is relatively unproblematic for a storyteller but care must be taken concerning the mad/bad continuum. Crimes are often easily and justifiably called ‘evil’. It is and should be, a far more complex and challenging decision to identify a protagonist as evil. However amoral the character may be, there is a moral responsibility to portray mental ill health accurately and distinguish the relationship between mental ill health and criminality very carefully.

Ronson, J. (2011) The Psychopath Test. Picador. London.

Wilkins, D. Hells Kitchen: How Britain’s most evil killers will feast on gourmet Christmas dinners of steak and venison. The Sun. 21 December 2016. Available to view

Williams, P. Lee Rigby’s killer set for ‘holiday camp’ in Broadmoor as new luxury unit costs £300m. Daily Star Sunday. 20th August 2017. Available to view