Sunday, September 26, 2010

So your character's "insane" - what does that mean?

There's something very mysterious, and often quite appealing, about having a character who thinks differently from other people. You might have a bad guy who's insane, or a character whose different way of thinking makes it hard to know whose side he/she is on, or you could have a protagonist whose voice you want to make really different.

So, what do you do?

I recommend diving in right away, and exploring the character - the parameters of their different concerns, their behaviors, etc. That's an important first step, because you'll very likely have excellent instincts about what kind of behavior and thinking would best fit into your story as a whole. However, once you've got the basics of their thinking and behavior sketched out, the next step I recommend is looking around to find out what exactly is going on with your character's thinking.

When I first created my antagonistic character, Nekantor, he was power-hungry and mean, paranoid, and was never satisfied with the performance of his servants. The problem was, he came across as stereotypically bad, and I couldn't really make any of his behaviors extreme without having it look like I was working too hard as an author. Then I realized that his paranoia could be part of an actual mental disorder, and after some looking around, I found the perfect one for him: obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person with this disorder will have repeated anxious thoughts surrounding a particular fear - such as a fear of germs, or a fear that their parents will die, or a fear of Colorado (seriously). Those thoughts will then give rise to ritual behaviors intended to relieve the anxiety. Nekantor is obsessed with control, and in particular, he fears things getting out of the placements (literal or figurative) that he has put them in. This allows him to be much more extreme in his behaviors (like checking rituals), but also makes him more vulnerable and believable as a character. It applies not only to his servants' performance and the arrangement of his rooms, but to people behaving appropriately for their caste, and to people trying to keep Nekantor from controlling their business. It gives rise (in part) to his paranoia. If he were cured of it, would he still be a bad guy? Oh, yes. But he wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Anxiety disorders are extremely interesting, and can add dimension to almost any kind of character, even if you decide only to use them in a mild and non-pathological form. Take Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes, for example. I highly recommend this site at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) which can provide you with a basic introduction to the features of several different anxiety disorders. One of the most interesting things here, to my mind, was that each entry has a statement from a former sufferer of the disorder about how it felt when they were at their most anxious. If you're planning to write from the point of view of someone who has an anxiety disorder, this is very useful stuff.

You may have heard of the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose point of view protagonist has Asperger's syndrome. Here is the NIMH site dealing with Autism Spectrum disorders, of which Asperger's is listed as one mild form. You may also be interested to learn about Temple Grandin, who has used her different way of thinking to help her be a unique resource in animal management. Here is a fantastic video of her talking about different kinds of minds and the unique resource they are.

You may also be interested to learn about bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or eating disorders (all these are the NIMH links).

When this is well done, it's incredibly compelling. It also requires a great deal of research to be done well. I encourage you to look through the NIMH links, which I've found to be very informative. Do also see what you can find of real examples - either contacts of your own, or videos, etc. Find as much information as you can to make your character portrayal ring true.

There's also a lot of room for individuality in the way you treat a character, obviously. When I work with Nekantor I try to make his narrative reflect his obsessive tendencies by having him think repetitively and be very judgmental, in addition to having him engage in compulsive behaviors. When I work with my character the History Keeper, I try to keep her subtle, even though she's delusional and has an unusual condition called hypergraphia (she can't stop writing).

I hope you find this post gives you some resources to strengthen your unusually-thinking characters, by grounding yourself in research on actual mental disorders.


  1. I'm not a regular follower of this blog, but I did get linked here regarding this article and I felt the need to respond. People with mental illnesses are almost never represented accurately either in fiction or in the media, so I welcome anything encouraging writers to explore this part of the human experience as much as I'd encourage writing about other cultures or belief systems. That being said, I've got some serious problems with how you're presenting the process here.

    I doubt you mean to do this, but the way you're writing this article presents mental illness as a kind of seasoning you can add to the character to make them more interesting, a way of making their behavior something pathological because it's "intriguing" and will increase their appeal. Here's the thing: I work with the mentally ill, and as someone who takes antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication I am mentally ill by definition. We're a group of minorities in every sense of the word. Very few people correctly know what constitutes these illnesses, and often they interpret symptoms as everything from laziness to stupidity, depending on the diagnosis. Listen for a day and think of how many people are described as "crazy" or "insane" - especially villains in any medium, which wrongly links mental illness to violent behavior. Most "insane" villains in comic books or cartoons have thoughts that are far too linear and logical to be attached to any actual mental illness. At most they're sociopaths. Usually they're just sane persons who are very good at deluding themselves.

    The last thing people with mental illnesses need is to have symptoms scattered around without attempting to understand what they actually are and how they'd affect a character's life. It's a fine balancing act, I know, to write a person with a disability (because that's what most mental illnesses are) while making that a whole, real part of their character and yet not a Very Special Episode or the ONLY part of their character. And I wish, since I'm lecturing you, I could also describe the magic formula with which to do this. But the way you're describing it, as a fun little thing you can add to spice a character up, is not the right way. That much I can tell you.

  2. Indigo, thanks so much for your comment. This is a very important perspective that you've brought up here, and I'm glad my readers will get to hear you say this. Do let me say that my approach in this article was not meant to minimize the experiences of the mentally ill in any way. I chose to approach it from this direction - working from the level of characters and their fit in a story rather than focusing on mental illness in the world - because I know that there are writers out there who either flippantly call their characters insane/crazy when that's not what is going on (what you said about "insane" villains), or who create characters who behave erratically but in an entirely non-systematic or baffling way. One of the reasons I felt it was useful to link to the NIMH discussions of these disorders was so that people could actually see systematic descriptions of them and understand better what they are. Another reason was that each of the explanations included a statement by a sufferer, which I thought would be valuable for people who wanted to understand these conditions better. If they don't know a person, personally, whom they can talk to about their experiences, then these basic websites might be a place to start deepening their knowledge.

    I appreciate your comment very much; thanks for this valuable contribution to the topic.

  3. Using non-abnormal psych research as a character design guide is also quite useful and unlikely to be controversial. See e.g. the MBTI system and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

  4. Thanks for those suggestions, Curmudgeon. I appreciate you stopping by to comment.

  5. Just a word: Schizophrenia is one of the most maligned disorders of all. Not only does it have nothing to do with so-called "split personality," but those who have it are generally helpless in the grip of it and lucky if they can manage a task as simple as preparing a meal, much less doing something villainous.

  6. Excellent point, Mike. When I read about schizophrenia, and when I read schizophrenic writings, I knew that wasn't going to work for a character of mine because it was just so severe and chaotic. Which is one reason why I think it's important to have the real information on it. Schizophrenia has quite a media reputation, but some of that reputation may not be accurate.