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Little Pieces: Constructing American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman 

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American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman has been horrifying readers while trying to impress them for over two decades. Author Bret Easton Ellis used the character to comment on the yuppie greed and materialism of the 1980s in his dark satire. Since then, Bateman, an investment banker and serial killer, has appeared on the big screen portrayed by Christian Bale and even found his way to the stage in a musical starring Doctor Who’s Matt Smith. Bateman has been referenced in the television show Dexter and a TV sequel to American Psycho is in the works. Bateman has popped up in other Ellis books, making his debut in The Rules of Attraction and returning in Glamorama and Lunar Park.

Who is Patrick Bateman and why do people care about this character?

Patrick Bateman is a blank canvas. He is, along with the majority of the people in his life, vapid and self-absorbed, so much so that they don’t even know who the people in their lives are. They constantly confuse one another as other people. A name is nothing more than empty words that can be filled with anything, any face. They can say things to each other like “I’m into, uh, well, murders and executions, mostly” and the words go unheard, uncared for, or taken as a joke. Only his secretary, so out of place in this world, can catch the hints.

Due to a lack of self-identity, Bateman and those around him construct personalities built of consumer products. Patrick Bateman is nothing more than the clothes he wears, the technology he owns, the thread counts he sleeps on and the business card in his pocket. His closest personal engagement is music. He can talk about the merits of Huey Lewis and the News like a mother talks about her child; however, especially in the film when delivered in Bale’s faux rock critic voice, Bateman’s musical opinions seem as if he doesn’t really believe the things he’s saying, as if he’s just repeating what he read in a review that day, as if the words of another are directions on how to think about a product and are now his own opinions. He’s just trying to sound smart and impressive. In fact, the only feelings that Bateman actually owns are his jealousy and rage, so intense that it pushes him to murder.

So if Patrick Bateman is an empty canvas, what can writers learn about characterization from him? A lot, it turns out. We see how careful consideration of character traits fully flesh out the people who populate our written worlds. Sure, Bateman may be nothing more than the clothes he wears, the technology he listens to music on, or the muscles he flexes to impress himself, but these traits fascinate readers. Bateman amuses us. He frightens us.

As writers, we know our characters need a goal, something to fight for. But how do we make a character more than a goal?

American Psycho isn’t alone when it comes to creative, interesting characters. Giving a character unique character traits is an effective way to give them depth, to move them from the realm of stereotype.

James “Sawyer” Ford (from TV series Lost) was the tough-talking, redneck conman trapped on the island after Oceanic Flight 815’s mysterious crash. He sets himself apart from the other survivors with a me vs you mentality, stockpiling as much loot as he can find and constantly butting heads with the group’s de facto leader, Jack Shepard. But Sawyer likes to read. A lot. So much so that Jack, a doctor, has to craft a pair of glasses for Sawyer because he’s straining his eyes reading.

How does being a bookworm add depth to Sawyer? When we first meet him, did we expect to find him reading Watership Down on the beach? Did we expect to see Sawyer matching literary wits with the mysterious mastermind Ben?

The fact that Sawyer is a reader, that he can drop an “Of Mice and Men” reference in his cocky, drawling manner of speech, is never forced on viewers. It’s always subtle. It allows us to consider our opinions of the character instead of the writers making those decisions for us. And when our thoughts of Sawyer soften, when he breaks out of his selfish stereotype and does something for the good of the group, it’s believable. And it all starts with reading. It’s a way into the character for viewers.

Marty Hart (from TV series True Detective), played by Woody Harrelson, is brought to life thanks to his conflicting views on women. He watches out for women. He tries to protect them and is angered when he sees them mistreated, exploited, and hurt. At one point early in the series he encounters a teenage prostitute and he gives her money and inspires her to change her life. So where does the conflict come from in these altruistic actions? Marty is also a womanizer. He cheats on his wife multiple times, first with a co-worker and years later with the very girl he inspired to leave prostitution.

How do these conflicting moral stances shape Marty Hart as a character? They shift him out of the realm of the hero cop. They make him weak and as self-destructive as Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle appears to be. When Hart is at the highest point in his career, his behaviour destroys every aspect of his life.

While Rust Cohle steals every scene in True Detective, it’s Marty Hart who makes repeated viewings so interesting. While his own treatment of women breaks up his family, his concern for women also helps reopen a case thought solved. Marty is in constant conflict with his life, searching for balance, whereas his partner, Cohle, is a misanthrope, someone who thinks humanity’s best path is to allow its own extinction. Cohle doesn’t want to change—and he’s such a dynamic character, viewers would be upset to see a happy-go-lucky Cohle by season’s end. But there’s something at stake for Hart, and it’s not just solving a murder mystery. There’s a family life hanging in the balance, and this conflict, this goal, derives from character traits, not the guiding hand of plot.

Character traits aren’t just something your character enjoys doing. They can break your character out of a stereotype. They can lead to your character’s downfall. Or in the instance of Patrick Bateman, they can be the core of the character.

When writing, think of your character as an empty slate at the beginning, much like Patrick Bateman. What traits can you add to your character that will enhance this person in both the story world and your readers’ minds? What traits take the character in completely new directions? Part of the joy of writing is the trial and error of the process. You may hit on the perfect combination and create a literary favourite. You may find out your character isn’t who you thought he or she was when you started. You may fall flat and decide to start over. Part of the fun of the process is seeing just how far you can go without stretching the believability of a character.

 

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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.