Thursday, February 19, 2009
I read an urban myth that The Madness of King George was originally called The Madness of George III, but it had to be retitled in case Americans thought it was the third in a series. That made me think of writing a post on insane characters…
Obvious vs. subtle
I’ve read that one of the scariest things about serial killers or rapists is that they look like everyone else. The same thing would apply to insane characters.
This isn’t always the case. There was a serial killer called Richard Chase whose disheveled, bizarre appearance helped in his identification and apprehension. But for the most part, people with mental disorders can pass as normal, or eccentric at the most. Writers can often use that to its best advantage, because readers will usually believe that I’m a wolf and will be taken by surprise later.
By the way, the phrase I dropped into the last sentence – “I’m a wolf” – is the first indication in Stephen King’s Desperation that the cop stopping people on the highway is not normal. The cop slipped it into the middle of a regular conversation, and it made me start a little. The people he had stopped weren’t sure if they had heard correctly or not.
The same thing applies to insanity. It’s incredibly fun to watch readers gradually realize that a character whom they took for normal is nothing of the kind. And is probably very dangerous.
Often, such slips in dialogue or odd actions can be more unnerving to the reader than if the character is gibbering and clawing at the walls. You can always start subtle and ramp it up to obvious, but it doesn’t work so well the other way.
Beyond the madness
Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse in Misery, might chop off a man’s foot but she’ll never use the f-word. Insane characters could have their own codes of morality and ethics. The more you flesh them out – giving them hobbies, fears, genuine liking for some people – the more realistic they’ll be. And the easier it might be for the readers to care about them, if you’re going for tragic-insane rather than only scary-insane.
Even in Misery, there’s a moment when Annie laughs along with Paul at something, and he catches a glimpse of what she might have been if not for her psychosis.
Using madness in the story
This was a theme in a couple of Agatha Christie stories, and IIRC both times it led to the characters being murderers. I also like the fact that in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, all women of the Omelly bloodline were insane.
That would be original, and certainly enough to propel a character into a quest. If I were told that I was the Chosen One of some lost kingdom, I wouldn’t even get up from my computer. But if I had evidence that someone in that kingdom had spelled me to go slowly insane, I’d be out there opening up Ye Olde Canne of Whup-Bottom on them.
It doesn’t even have to be a curse, by the way. Enough mind games and manipulation – a la Gaslight - and the victim’s sanity would slip away.
A balance to a positive trait
Just as Cassandra could predict the future but no one would believe her, a character could be a military genius but insane as well. The fun of this is that the protagonists might really need this character’s help, but could never really depend on her, and might not even be sure if the advice came from the sane or insane parts of her mind.
When I was writing an insane character, I read up about thought disorders, poring over the articles and examples so many times that I thought I would go nuts too. Insane characters can be written in infinitely different ways, with their own distinctive behaviors, speech patterns and beliefs.
For instance, one of the most fascinating things about Richard Chase was that he simply entered his victims’ houses through their unlocked front doors, because he believed that a locked door meant that he was not welcome inside, but an unlocked door meant… he was.
As well as psychological and true crime papers and accounts, there are stories about insane characters as well. One of the best known examples, The Yellow Wallpaper, is told from the point of view of a woman slipping slowly into madness, and it’s an excellent read.