Gaslighting: Narcissists & Tampering with Reality

woman crying, woman upset, gaslighting, narcissists, tampering with reality, fiction, Kristen Lamb

‘Gaslighting’ is a term I’ve used for YEARS. Oddly, however, until recently, almost nobody knew what the heck I was talking about. I would have to explain about the movie from the 1940s, based off a 1938 play Gas Light.

Anyway, it would just turn into a rambling conversation almost as awkward as when I pitched my first ‘novel.’

For those who’ve not seen the movie or the play, I strongly recommend it because it dovetails into what I’d like us to discuss today. My archives are bursting at the seams with posts on plotting, scenes and sequels, themes, setting, etc. And NOT to say I won’t write on these topics again.

But, what I am striving for here, is a truly MEATY blog that digs deeper, plumbs the depths of our psychology, and simply offers more.

***For instance, take my last post. How does our story/character(s) change if we introduce a profound mother wound?

Today, we’re going to talk about a staple character in fiction—the narcissist—and one of the most powerful weapons they wield to get what they want. Remember, I am not a psychiatrist, I just play one on the internet 😉 .

Really GREAT storytellers are masters at noticing and unpacking the human condition.

Writers are the blade plucking along the neat threads of our character’s reality just to see how much pressure’s required to make them bleed.

Psychologically healthy, stable people, who always make rational, responsible decisions make for boring stories. So let’s spice things up, shall we?

Gaslighting: What IS It?

older mother yelling at young woman, gaslighting, abuse, ambient abuse, narcissism, narcissists, fiction, Kristen Lamb

Mental health professionals also refer to gaslighting as ambient abuse.

[It] is a form of intimidation or psychological abuse, where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.

Urban Dictionary

The mental health community, as well as popular culture, appropriated the term ‘gaslighting’ from the classic play/movie.

In the story, Gas Light, the female MC is newly married and her husband insists they move into her aunt’s London apartment. The aunt is recently deceased and has willed the apartment to the MC.

Since this is Victorian England, gas lamps light most streets and homes.

Put a pin in here.

Before roughly the 1950s or maybe a little later, it was not uncommon for male family members to commit female relations (wife, mother, sister, daughter, etc.) into insane asylums for any number of reasons that had NOTHING to do with mental health. The burden of proof for ‘insanity’ was extremely low, especially for the wealthy who could afford ‘care.’

Besides, good luck disproving a negative. If someone labels you crazy, the more you try to prove you’re sane, well, the crazier you look, right?


Back to Gas Light...

gaslighting, movie Gas Light, husband abusing wife

In the story, the husband—for reasons I won’t go into here—is actively laying the groundwork to have his wife committed. To do this, he would, say, give her a really expensive necklace. She’d tuck it away in her vanity then, without her knowing, he’d move/hide it.

Later, he’d manufacture a reason for her to wear the necklace, but of course it’s missing. Once she was good and hysterical tearing the house apart, he’d berate her for being so absent-minded, then smugly go to the vanity and—VOILA!

Guess what was there all along?

He’d follow these stunts with lots of comments to express his care. “Are you feeling well?” “You know how you’ve not been yourself.” “Why don’t you go lie down?”

Husband continues to move/hide paintings, furniture, jewelry, common household items and all along acts as if his wife is losing touch with reality. The coups de gras, however, is with the gas lamps.

Every evening, when he leaves for his ‘walk’ the gas lamps noticeably dim. Not only does this make it hard for her to see, but she’s also hearing noises/footsteps from their third floor (which has been closed off and supposedly has no outside access).

Suffice to say, Husband is waging a psychological warfare campaign to persuade his wife (and witnesses) that she’s losing her mind and, thus, needs to be sent away for professional care.

Gaslighting by Degrees

Just like last week, the way we might use gaslighting in a story can vary by genre. First, the narcissist can be represented by proxy. Used this way, the ‘narcissistic force’ believes the ends justify the means and is willing to fabricate the facts and ruthlessly enforce a false narrative to achieve certain goal(s).

In the classic dystopian novel 1984, the government is gaslighting the public.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell, 1984

Thus, if one is writing a political thriller, a dystopian, a science fiction, then a system/structure doing the gaslighting is a mainstay. Regardless what the ‘people’ in your story see with their own eyes, the propaganda machine is there to say it isn’t real and, therefore, something must be wrong with anyone who dares disagree.

Now, I know it’s very easy for us to say, “NO WAY! This could never happen to me.” But, I’d recommend reading up on the Asch conformity experiments. Solomon Asch wanted test the threshold of conformity, as in how long could we hold onto a belief before the group superseded what one saw as ‘true’?

To simplify.

I draw a line on a board that’s slightly crooked. I recruit hidden actors to say the line is straight no matter what. You, however, insist the line is crooked. So, how LONG do you maintain the line is crooked as more and more people join the group avidly claiming the line is, in fact, straight?

How long until you at least questioned what you were seeing?

Maybe YOU would never change your answers, but read up on the studies. The pressure to conform is more powerful than I find comfortable.

This said, gaslighting is a LOT more common in fiction than we might realize. “Area-51 is just a base.” “There’s no such thing as aliens.” “Bat boy doesn’t exist.”

***Okay, I know I lost some of you there. BATBOY IS DEF REAL!

How much of this gaslighting narrative creates the foundation for some of our most beloved sci-fi? Stranger Things, Stargate, X-Files, anyone?

Gaslighting is the beating heart of coverups and government conspiracies so obviously, when done on a mass-scale, it’s essential world-building for many genres.

But what about when we are dealing with individuals?

The Many Kinds of Narcissists

Via ‘Misery”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a narcissist is “an extremely self-centered person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance.” Not all are crazy or violent. Some are well-meaning (in their own minds) as we’ll see.

Their self-absorption can come from psychological immaturity or they don’t believe they can get what they want unless they manipulate. Not all narcissists are gaslighting ‘intentionally.’

Why am I mentioning narcissists? Because gaslighting is a go-to tactic for getting what they want. This said, there is a WIDE range of narcissists to work with, which helps because different genres require narcissists of the appropriate stripe.

If we are writing lighter fiction, say comedy or sweet romance, then simply adding in a person who only thinks about him or herself (without regard to any consequences) works great.

In the lighter genres, we are NOT casting someone with a diagnosable personality disorder. They’re simply self-centered to the point of social blindness.

Think about the comedy classic, What About, Bob? Bob (Bill Murray) is an overly dependent neurotic patient with obsessive compulsive disorder who tracks down his successful therapist when his therapist tries to go on vacation.

The blind spots alone in this movie make for plenty of laughs. But, Bob is SO dependent, so fixated on his own needs, that he cannot see how utterly inappropriate his behaviors are.

In a sweet romance, writers might cast the heartless boss, the mother who’s a relentless match-maker (because SHE wants grand-babies), or the ruthless workaholic investor who doesn’t care who he screws over to land the deal.

***And, before anyone shouts about cliches, cliches are cliches because they WORK. The kicker is writing them well enough that people don’t see them/or care. It is all in the execution.

Gaslighting and Story Problems

Thus, the heartless boss could claim he has no memory your MC had a wedding to attend and her carefully submitted forms don’t exist in the system. Either she works the weekend or she’s fired (tampering with her memory).

The matchmaking mother will claim total innocence, that all her meddling is perfectly innocent, when she knows full well it isn’t. But, needs must.

Our ruthless investor can act as if the property manager didn’t submit the historic papers on time, thus the property is to be demolished for a new condo.

All of these scenarios can be tweaked with casting, setting and we have countless variations to work with. Since the audience has likely dealt with a person in their REAL lives who have acted similarly, this creates resonance.

***For those who’ve seen Glengarry Glen Ross (image above), the entire plot is a gaslighting. There never were any good leads.

Gaslighting can offer up some rough gems we can shape and polish into a story worthy of every storyline from Hallmark, to slapstick to psychological mind-benders and blood chillers.

Comedy & Horror

Image via “What About Bob?”

Gaslighting is a go-to for the narcissist as a tool to get what they want. If we are looking at a comedic character like Bob, from What About Bob? then this is simply a person with highly a warped sense of reality. He projects whatever inappropriate action he’s doing as totally normal and insists it’s actually his target (the therapist) who’s not ‘seeing clearly.’

In fact, insisting someone isn’t seeing/experiencing something is a REALLY common comedy trope.

Tallageda Nights comes to mind.

But comedy and horror are the closest of bedfellows. What do you get when horror is TOO over the top? Comedy. Conversely, what about when a joke/prank goes horribly wrong? Horror.

Once you know what genre you’re writing and start to cast characters, you’ll know what sort of narcissist you’ll need and the ways they’ll use gaslighting to get what they want.

Obviously, as we tread into grittier general fiction, psychological thrillers, thrillers, suspense-thrillers, crime fiction, etc. the narcissist we’ll see more often is the clinical version. Someone with, say, NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder).

This manipulator might be gaslighting unintentionally but, for a good villain, that’s a hard sell. These narcissists see people as pawns to push around a chess board. Others are merely a means to getting what they want.

Narcissists and Gaslighting

Narcissists come in a variety of packages from the overly self-absorbed the ‘clinical’ territory (psychopaths). Psychopathy not a diagnosable mental health disorder according to the DSM-V, yet we all know this is a real thing and professionals can diagnostically measure via assessments.

For gritty fiction or any of the darker sides of the genre spectrum, the ways, the degree, and to what ends the narcissist gaslights changes accordingly.

First of all, a story is only as strong as the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Not all BBTs are villains, though in certain genres, they usually are. This person forms the entire POINT of the story, so I strongly recommend reading the hyperlinked post above.

We (as a reader) must fear and respect the narcissist. Sociopaths and psychopaths are masters of manipulation. If we do our jobs right, our readers will be strapped into the Rollercoaster from Hell alongside your protagonist. WE should be questioning reality if your narcissist is worth his/her salt.

Gaslighting is a highly destructive tool that can cause permanent harm. Refer to my post about how lies change the structure of the brain. Remember the entire point of gaslighting is to make the victim (and those around who might possibly render aid) question themselves, their memory, their sanity.

What makes gaslighting particularly insidious is it extremely difficult to detect . For brevity’s sake, this post has a FABULOUS (okay, TERRIFYING) list of ways narcissists gaslight and the common things they say.

Gaslighting Escalates

Gaslighting always starts small. This is to test if the victim/target has enough self-awareness, strong enough self-esteem to call the narcissist on their bull$!@. Anyone can be a target. Your character might have been otherwise strong/self-aware, but has recently suffered a loss or major life change and is in an emotionally vulnerable state.

Narcissists smell blood in the water.

Frequently, the gaslighter will begin by simply denying your feelings/experiences. You are just so sensitive. Why are you blaming me for your ex? You’re too needy. No one wants you around because you’re too controlling.

***Keep in mind, if the gaslighting remains at THIS stage, alone, it can still be seriously damaging.

This then could possibly escalate to moving your belongings, only for those belongings to reappear in the original spot or some bizarre place no sane person would put that item.

Then, the items (usually something important/treasured) never reappear. The narcissist throws them away, pawns them, gives them away, or maybe keeps them as trophies.

Gaslighting can graduate to more obvious emotional and verbal abuse. The aggressor says the most horrible things, then when you get upset, they act completely befuddled why you’re upset and/or might flat out denying the event ever happened. They will claim you’re tired, over-sensitive, or can’t take a joke.

But, they don’t BEGIN here. They have to prime the person, have them good and rattled before bringing out the bigger guns.

Bigger Guns

A main tactic is to always keep you on the defensive. Remember what I said earlier, you cannot disprove a negative. Narcissists can be among the most dangerous people on the planet, so nothing is off the table when they lock onto their prey.

They’ll accuse the victim of lying, stealing, cheating, not loving them enough, not being attentive enough. And they will do so in ways the victim cannot make a viable defense.

A lover might accuse her partner of cheating, but when he shows her his phone to prove his innocence, she waves a receipt for a disposable phone. One that, of course, HE didn’t buy, but good luck proving it.

The goal is to have the victim SO rattled they are hyper-vigilant and always a) gathering evidence of their innocence or b) actively trying to do ‘enough’ to appease the narcissist.

They dance and dance and dance because, over time, and without knowing, they’ve turned into a puppet the narcissist can make perform on a whim.

Character Assassination

Should the narcissist launch a particularly viscous gaslighting campaign, be certain they won’t do it alone. They will enlist others to buttress their version of reality. The more witnesses on their side, the more the victim spirals into despair and self-doubt.

If you have one glass of wine at home with dinner, the narcissist might do something horrible then a) claim it never happened, you were too drunk to remember b) play the victim because you were blackout drunk. No matter how much you protest you had ONE glass—or even NO glasses of wine—who is going to believe you?

If you’re at home, he’ll have the ‘evidence.’ If you’re out with friends, the narcissist will suggest (compassionately and with deep concern) that you’re a closet alcoholic. He’ll be the long-suffering companion who’s still supporting you even though you cannot see you have a problem.

Look no farther than the psychological thriller The Girl on the Train for prime examples.

Should your MC take any type of medication—psychiatric medication in particular— that can/will be easily weaponized. God forbid your MC have any displeasing emotion—sadness, disappointment, righteous anger—lest the narcissist ask if you’ve taken your meds.

Gaslighting & Weaponizing the Well-Meaning

gaslighting, narcissist, control

Narcissists can use gaslighting to weaponize well-meaning people. Say, the MC has had enough, is wise to the game and *cringes* confronts their abuser. Do NOT put it past the abuser to inflict some sort of self-injury then call the authorities claiming THEY are the victim.

Police are unlikely to have much sympathy for the person who isn’t bleeding and bruised and claiming the ‘victim’ ‘threw themselves down the stairs.’

Or maybe the narcissist lovingly brings your MC a glass of juice, but it’s filled with crushed Xanax (for which your MC has no prescription). The abuser calls the ambulance in the nick of time and insists on a psych hold and drug counseling. They had NO idea the MC was on PILLS!

Once a person hands any abuser the keys to the kingdom regarding their SANITY? Good luck digging out of that. Medical personnel, social workers, mental health workers can all become benevolent soldiers in the narcissist’s campaign.

And, once a narcissist has their victim publicly labeled as mentally unstable, unable to care for themselves, an addict, an abuser, a pervert, a cheater, a liar, a thief? There is almost no end to the level of destruction they can unleash.

We’ll talk more on that on a different post.

In the End

Gaslighting is only one of many tools a narcissist can use to get what they want. Again, remember your genre. In Season One, Episode 19 of Desperate Housewives, Susan’s mother is ditzy, immature, self-centered, over sexual and has zero respect for boundaries.

So, Susan’s mother ambushes her with two men in the living room, Mom insists she was trying to HELP! It was a double date, and Susan is the one always overreacting and a stick in the mud.

This is a FAR cry from the gaslighting psychological warfare campaign in far darker stories like Misery, Fear, Sleeping with the Enemy, or Single White Female. In books? Aside from the dystopian mainstays, I recommend Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, I Eat Men Like Air by Alice Berman, and Rock, Paper, Scissors by Alice Feeny to name a few.

Thoughts on Gaslighting?

Did you know what gaslighting was? Are you surprised to see how common it is in fiction? Did learning about the different types of narcissists and the way they mess with reality spark any good story ideas?

Anything y’all would like to add? Obviously, for time’s sakes, I cannot cover everything, so feel free to chime in.

I love hearing from you, and to show my appreciation…


What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice.

The Prize?

The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***April’s winner is Maria D’Marco. Thank you for your comments! Please email your 5,000 word WORD doc, double-spaced, Times New Roman, to kristen at wana intl dot com. Put CONTEST WINNER in the subject line so I can see you.


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  1. spot on. I just finished my second novel with a villain/boss who uses gaslighting to manipulate his victims and they don’t end well. It takes a Dalton gang ancestor to mete out justice.

    • Anna Erishkigal on May 13, 2022 at 2:25 pm
    • Reply

    It’s eerie right now, how openly our own government and the mainstream media (and I’m talking BOTH political parties … a pox upon the both of them) is doing exactly this to public. Am I the only person who watches the news and asking, “how is this even real?” It’s one of those cases that real life has gotten so bizarre, it puts my fiction to shame.

    1. Yep, and I agree. It is across the board. It’s like VOLTRON, only all the Dystopian Biggies have come together to form ONE GIANT CREATURE. But it is only ‘openly’ to us because we read and think critically.

        • Anna Erishkigal on May 13, 2022 at 9:47 pm
        • Reply

        That, and the fact it feels like they’ve stolen all of our worst dystopian plot bunnies, mashed them all together, and then tried to sell them back to us as an “original” script. It’s like, dude…. We write these kinds of stories for a living.

        1. *fist bump* Seriously. We are all like, *sniff*, “Amateurs.”

  2. It’s both scary and comforting to see how well-informed you are on gaslighting! ? I’m glad you shared this, because not only does it make for creating good villains, but people who know this behavior really does exist can learn how to counter it. I’m glad to see you talk about “good” or well-intentioned narcissists too. Lucifer from the Netflix TV show is a perfect example: it just doesn’t occur to him that the story isn’t all about him. It’s a great character arc throughout the show.

    1. Great example! Yes, I could have written a post about gaslighting I’ve endured over the years before I was savvy to what it was. Bullies at school, boyfriends, coworkers. I was a people-pleaser so an easy target. But I think these deeper psychological layers really help give us insight and make the fiction deeper.

      Until I wrote this piece I truly didn’t know how widely ‘gaslighting’ was used and in such a wide variety of genres and stories.

  3. Seems government leaders have been gas lighting us forever.

    1. S.O.P.

  4. I’m working on edits for my 5th book in the series. I have a chapter that captures the narcissist totally. My main antagonist, vampire Marcus Lancaster has it out with Jean Lafitte (yes, THAT Jean Lafitte) and they keep going with “kettle and black, my friend, kettle and black.” It’s like watching two old married people fight except that Marcus has the big ego and a blind spot the size of the building in smoking ruins behind him. Jean is no light weight in the narcissist category either. Both men are trying to prove something and it’s a toss up as to which ego is going to win. Or not.

    Marcus’s lover, Jesse, keeps butting in and when Marcus tells him to step back, Jesse does. He tries again: “Would you keep it down, gentlemen. We’re getting stares and the press has to have someone near, poking around in things.” Jesse tried to step between the two arguing vampires.
    “Stay out of this Jesse.” Jean warned.
    “Do not address him, you’re not his boss. Jess, shut up and step back.”
    “So, you can boss him around? Oh, that’s right, you’re the top, right. Always the top. In sex, in work, everywhere, you have to be the top. Asshole.” Jean was getting tired of the argument that he believed shouldn’t be happening.

    This whole chapter was so much fun to write. Marcus is so bad, yet he has his good spots. Jean is so good, but he has the bad spots he’s trying to get past. And Jesse has his own narcissist ways, which means this whole thing is one big circle jerk of gas lighting and accusations. And it gave me the ability to write “Andrew **cking Jackson” in a sentence, which has become a family giggle between me and my hubby (who is not a narcissist).

    A good narcissist, comedy or anger, can be a great character. Thanks for the post, I love your blog.

  5. so many thoughts…
    First, thanks for the freebie, but I currently haven’t a WIP (only in my head right now), so maybe dive into the bowl for another pick? :O)))

    On the post today — zooks! Yes, I’ve known about gaslighting and have been the victim of same a number of times over the past 50 years. I did discover a not-heard-before element of true psycho gaslighting with my 2nd husband. He was officially manic-depressive/paranoid schiz fellow, but also brilliant musician. About 4 years into the marriage, we learned of his mental illness and did a lot of reading. About a year later, he discovered how much fun manipulation was, and I was the only target available. We tried various theories that would block these ‘fits’, which increasingly were accompanied with violence, but none could stand up to the ‘monster’. Then, one evening, after 19 hours (no kidding) of dancing with the ‘monster’, trying to avoid any out of control situation, and as he approached me with a weapon, arms raised, I suddenly mimicked his posture, his facial expression — everything. He had a moment of recognition, then laughed hysterically and dropped his weapon and relaxed.

    This little discovery kept me safe for a very long time, and helped him learn how to recognize not only the ‘fits’ but the triggers for same.

    I mention all this because everyone has a ‘way in’, even the most evil manipulator truly knows the reality they project is not the common reality. They can become entranced by their version, but when fear is removed, their power is broken.

    In other words, if your MC is gaslighting, they can also have a secret (to them and others) silver bullet. ‘Course it might also really PO the MC who might decide you need even more punishment (the twists never end). My ex, fortunately, had a huge sense of humor, so he found relief and release by essentially making fun of his disability. I left him after he hit me in the head while I was sleeping. The next morning, we discussed the idea that he was close to murder, and we began plans to divorce.

    Your discussion brought out so many of the tremendous angles available with gaslighting — and yeah, old broad here, so had heard of and used the term. And laughed — a lot — during the former guy’s time in office as the term was discussed and defined.

    Fantastic post… more! more! :O)
    Maria D’Marco

    1. Thanks for the AMAZING COMMENT! Wow, that is terrifying and so sad and so happy you got out. Very insightful. You can hold onto your win for when you need to call it in 😉 .

      1. ooooo! cool beans! I might be nudged toward putting ideas to paper… :O)))) Thanks!

  6. The less experience an author has, the more he or she will benefit from understanding your topic, Kristen. From troll reviews to ‘promotion packages’ to ‘standard contracts,’ gaslighting is one of the main tools diverse segments of an author’s world are going to use to attempt to turn a newbie into a food source or basket case. #WavesHi

    1. I have MISSED YOU!

  7. When working on my second novel, The Wound of Words, I read a number of very interesting books, including If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad? And I realized why my mother was so afraid I’d end up in a disastrous relationship! I met so many of the criteria for a suitable victim of this kind of abuse. Fortunately I am married to a man who is not only great but makes me feel great too.

    I remember reading years ago that Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the man who wrote “It was a dark and stormy night”), had his wife Rosina committed to an insane asylum because she spoke against him when he was running for Parliament. He didn’t even have to convince anyone she was crazy – apparently the laws of the time gave him, as her husband, the authority to have her committed. The next year a friend of his published a novel which shone a light on the issue, The Woman in White. Yay for writers changing things!

    1. That makes me happier now that we make fun of Bulwer-Lytton’s writing to this day. Jerk. I will have to read “The Woman in White.” I don’t believe I have read that yet.

  8. Yep, and not only do we write them, we know how they end and it’s not pretty…..

  9. Sounds like bullies and narcissists practice gaslighting. Bullies spread it out among their victims without necessarily aiming at one goal (send victim to asylum). Narcissists may spread it out but they need to see the end result and win total control.
    As always you enlighten. Thanks.

    1. Bullies often exhibit the dark triad, narcissism being part of that. They would fall under that category. It is why it is maddening that schools don’t deal with bullies and some reward them. Small bullies don’t just get a cap and gown and become lovely people. They just get bigger and meaner.

  10. I found this very interesting. I had never thought much about it but realized my sister used to use this on my with my parents to make them lover her more and me less. My mom never fell for it though. My deceased husband use to do some of this to me too. I may try to fit some of this in my story now that I know what it is. Thanks for your wonderful articles. I love them.

  11. I meant use this on me, and make them love her more. I really thought it was right.

  12. Superb post! Thank you. I have seen the film, and was aware of the term “gaslighting” (main reason I watched the film TBH) but having the concept explained in such detail is remarkably helpful. I’m not sure any of my protagonists have these behaviours; it’s hard enough writing about characters I *like*, never mind those we’re all meant to dislike.

    1. *post*, obviously. Blimmin’ typing fingers…

      1. LOL, I generally will slip in and fix your typos. It happens. Thanks so much for the time to comment. I appreciate that so much more and don’t notice them (aside from knowing Y’ALL will notice them so I tweak them for you). (((HUGS)))

    2. It is unlikely your protagonist would gaslight, but I CAN write a post on the types of “victims” narcissists prey upon.

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

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