Thursday, February 19, 2009

Insane characters

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

Something hereditary

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.

A curse

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.


Anonymous said...


I've always been very fascinated with mental illness and have used some characters suffering from different forms in short stories. I'd like to one day have a protagonist in a novel who does.

Unfortunately, in most stories, people with mental illnesses are depicted from dangerous to full-blown psycho killers. That is not the case in real life. Most, on their meds, live perfectly normal lives.
That's something I'd like to explore.

Were you speaking of Agatha Christie's, Crooked House? That's one of my faves by her.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

You're right about most people with mental disorders living normal lives. I didn't mean to give the impression that they didn't - just that I was looking at it more from a fantasy/horror angle where therapy and medication (and understanding) would probably not be available.

Even in those genres, though, I can think of some characters who, while suffering from mental disorders, were not in the least violent or dangerous. After all, mental disorder doesn't always equal full-blown psychosis (though the latter is often more dramatic).

I was thinking of a couple of short stories of Dame Agatha's - one of them in The Labors of Hercules - but Crooked House is a great example too.

Rafael said...

I found a great resource for writers dealing with characters/psychology and metal disorders:

colbymarshall said...

my story Power of Five is set in a psych ward, so this is something I'm all too familiar with. I actually spent a day IN a psych ward for research, which was sad and eye opening and interesting at the same time. So many things that can be done with such characters

Marian Perera said...

Hey Colby,

That must have been a fascinating (if sad) experience.

I've been in a psych ward too - as a visitor! - but that was in the Middle East and there was an armed guard outside the door. It wasn't even as though the residents of the ward were violent. I was there to see a 15-year-old friend who had been clinically depressed and tried to kill himself. I found the othe residents giving him tips on how to do it right next time.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Rafael,

The link doesn't work for me at the moment but I'll try it again later! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Rafael here (switched to my wordpress ID that links to my writer's blog)

I checked the link just to be sure and it worked for me. I hope the problem is fixed by now.

Specter Von Baren said...

This was a pleasing surprise to find. I've been working on three insane characters in a story of mine and was looking for anything about other insane characters in other stories and found this blog posting, though it wasn't a long in depth essay I feel like you know allot about this. I know this is stupid but since you have researched so much about characters with mental illnesses I was wondering if you could tell me what you think of my characters and what I could do to improve them.