1. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    Help, need a resource for realistic portrayal of a character's descent into insanity.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by delphinerivers, Jun 29, 2012.

    Hi,
    I was wondering if anyone could recommend a good resource for portraying a character's descent into insanity. This character suffers from extremely traumatic events and I want him to, for awhile, become unable to communicate and appear as if he is a babbling idiot. I've already written it but I don't think the descent is believable.

    I've seen a couple of books on psychology for writers but I wanted to see if anyone had personal experience. My daughter is working on a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and she is an incredible writer but I don't have access to her wisdom right now. I'm impatient because I'm looking at this chapter and I'm not feeling it.
     
  2. Chronicle535
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    Chronicle535 Senior Member

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    Hello delphinerivers,

    I saw that you read some books on psychology for writers, but I would maybe sugguest reading a book where a the writer makes the main character actually decends into mental chaos and insanity. That may help give you some hints toward what you are really looking for to make your actor act like you want them too. I know for the book I am writing I looked at multiple writers points of veiw and that helped me out alot with forming my own storyline.

    Hope this helps alittle bit feel free to PM me if you have anymore questions,

    Chronicle535
     
  3. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    That is a very good suggestion, thanks. I poked around with that idea briefly, I will pursue it more fully. I've been thinking about it, maybe psychology forums may be a place to look. Someone with that back ground would know if the portrayal was realistic. Movies may be another consideration.

    Any suggestions of either novels or movies that seemed realistic.
     
  4. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    Just read Hamlet or MacBeth. Those are classic examples.
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you've made the character into a 'babbling idiot' and think that equates with a mental illness, I can understand why it isn't believable. I would suggest looking up things such as PTSD and looking at the actual symptoms.
     
  6. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    Creative, should-have-been-obvious reply, thanks. I also just remembered seeing dramatic interpretation of "The Yellow Wallpaper" so I downloaded that. Of course, in this case the character starts out appearing lucid but slowly reveals her madness.

    Edgar Allen Poe is good along those lines too.
     
  7. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    The character only "appears as if he is a babbling idiot" because he speaks of things they don't know about in ways they have never heard. The story is set in a time when mental illness was not understood and he would have been referred as an "idiot" due to ignorance.

    I've not made him babble. In his mind he is lucid but he knows he is not communicating with people outside of his head and for awhile he doesn't care to. Still, it's ironic because he has made a good, crooked living by his ability to communicate and use the languages of both the European slavers and the people he enslaves. He is haunted by what he has done to others now that he experiences it first hand and , as we are unable to imagine, being in the belly of a ship for months under the most extreme circumstance had to be traumatic.

    He only stays this way for a short part of the story.

    He reminds me of someone I went hitch-hiking with once who decided not to bring his meds with him. By the time we got to Charleston, he certainly sounded as if he were babbling. He did not stop talking for two days. When we listened he sounded as if he were speaking the English language in a way that we were not wise enough to follow and it seemed to be his intent to have us feel that way.

    Some people with PTSD appear to babble because they are reliving something traumatic they've been through. My cousin, when triggered, would be back in VietNam under attack and he would repeat what he was saying at the time.

    What I am not satisfied with was the descent into mental illness, not the character's behavior once he reaches that point.

    Still, I don't want to go on my personal experiences. I will take your advice and make sure the reaction could be as I have supposed. Broke down and bought a book on psychology for writers.
     
  8. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    Well, the biggest problem is that this kind of mental illness is usually not caused by trauma. Schizophrenia (which is what most people think of as stereotypically insane) is a largely genetic condition. It can be set off by stress, such as moving away from home, but the main thing is the genetic vulnerability. It's actually physical degeneration of the brain - schizophrenic brains show noticeable atrophy on MRI.

    Probably the most 'insane' of trauma-induced conditions are the dissociative disorders. I'm afraid I'm not as knowledgable about these conditions, but they include a cluster of conditions such as multiple personality, dissociative fugue (amnesia), conversion disorder (also called hysteria, causes physical problems like paralysis or blindness with no physical cause) and so forth.

    There have been some cases of hysterical aphasia, so if you want him to sound incoherent, that might be the way to go.
     
  9. mrvontar
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    mrvontar New Member

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    No, the main thing influencing shizophrenia is environment. You only have like 10% chance to have it if your parents have it. You could look into disorders dealing with anxiety.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    instead of, or along with fiction, it would make better sense to do your research by reading first-hand accounts by people who've gone through the horror of losing touch with sanity... i'm sure you'll find plenty of memoirs like that with a search on amazon...
     
  11. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    Thank you Etinna,

    I am leaning towards a dissociative disorder. I will narrow it down and make sure the behavior fits. Since the work is set in the early 1700's I won't have to name the illness and no one will diagnose him, I only have to fit the behavior within the guide lines for the illness.

    I spoke to my daughter(working on doctorate in psychology/cognitive neuroscience) about that group of disorders and described some of my character's behavior. It's within the realm of what could occur though some tweaking will be needed.

    Beyond the technicalities, as a writer she reminded me that the most important thing is that it be believable to the readers.

    Again, I can adjust his behavior to make sure it fits a dissociative disorders but, I am not satisfied with is the descent into the illness.

    My daughter's advice is to spend more time showing the level of trauma. I began his incarceration with a period of near total sense deprivations. This would cause a rapid deterioration of mental stability. Originally I didn't show him on the ship through the middle passage. It was more like, I'm such a complex, intelligent, free dude and now I'm a slave and I've snapped as a result.

    Now I've added a scene with him on the ship where, of course, prisoners were chained and packed in like sardines with screws on their thumbs beside people that died, gave birth, defecated and went mad for the months it took to cross the Atlantic. Not responding to orders would result in more abuse. Having been "ruined" by the trip and rendered of less value would lead to the threat of being "put down". Circumstance make it believable that he be on the ship with men he put there, one chained right beside him. This fuels him with the guilt that fuels problems. When the man dies it provides someone to "haunt him."


    I'm just commenting here on some of what I have found out since my original post so that the process of continuing research and responding to recommendations are revealed.


    Still reading Hamlet again and will re-read Macbeth. I would still appreciate favorite novel passages,movie scenes etc., that illustrate the descent into mental illness.

    Again, thanks.
     
  12. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    Thanks mammamaia,

    That is a very good idea since the problem is not clinically describable but is an individual reaction that takes you to the clinical disorder. It would help to get a realistic feel for how it has happened, even if the disorders were different.
     
  13. JMC3
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    JMC3 New Member

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    check out a 1963 film called Shock Corridor....... about a reporter who in an effort to get Pulitzer Prize checks into an asylum
    during his stay he become insane due to the influence of his fellow inmates
     
  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Mammamaia is right on - finding actually accounts - diaries , case studies is your best bet. I've tried to go this route too, creating a character that slowly goes insane.
    The used bookstore is a writers best friend! - Oh, and Shock Corridor was a great film , too.

    I had some experience with a schizophrenic and I'll tell you when his meds were changed and he began to falter his behavior became very strange and paranoid. Even his body movements. Usually he was a bouncy almost hyper individual but he crawled around a wall and crept up the stairs like a spider scaling a mountain. It made my hair stand on end - but to him it was perfectly natural. He thought I was intrustive for pointing it out. He also horded urine in pop bottles that he kept in the closet - which I later discovered was something some schizophrenic's do. He could never really explain why he was doing this. It was more emotional, he needed to do it to feel safe. And if you tried to make him empty them, he acted as if you were disabiling his security system.
    The key thing was he had to be convinced he wasn't behaving normally which was extremely hard to do.
     
  15. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Never use fiction as a factual guide to anything.
     
  16. noodlepower
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    noodlepower Member

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    Well, I did a clinical rotation at mental institute for my mental health nursing class. We had just normal crazy there and then we had the criminally insane there. It was interesting; one patient claimed we were with-holding her meds: marijuana, heroin, lsd, cocaine, etc. She also claimed that Fidel Castro committed her, and a robot cat blew her head off at night and then it grew back in the morning. Very interesting....

    Anyway, based on what you wrote, disassociation seems the most likely thing to happen in your character's situation.

    I don't think that total sensory deprivation will cause his mental state to rapidly deteriorate. Sure, while people are in sensory deprivation, they experience visual and auditory hallucinations. They feel like stuff is crawling on them. But once removed, they can re-adjust. Personally, I don't think mental deterioration is something that happens rapidly unless exposed to some sort of trauma the person can't handle at that time or perhaps some type of disease or medication they may be taking.

    Dementia, after all, happens over a period time. Not rapidly. Schizophrenia starts out slowly before it reaches critical level. Most mental illness start out as small things that progressively gets worse. So if you want to show your character rapidly deteriorating, you may either want to have him slightly crazy to begin with recent events throwing him over the edge or perhaps he has a disease, like syphilis, that makes him crazy.

    If you really want it to be as realistic as possible, I think you're going to need to take your time and show his deterioration over a period of time. Sensory deprivation is a good start. You can focus on all the crazy hallucinations you want, but once he is removed, he'll readjust back into society. I think what you should focus on after the character is removed from sensory deprivation is the negative side effects.

    The after affects of sensory deprivation are trouble remembering things, trouble recalling certain words that start with a particular letter, and the person becomes more open to manipulation.

    The key to showing metal deterioration of a formerly sane person is that they must be subjected repeatedly to abuse. Sensory deprivation is a good start; the formerly sane person has been released from sensory deprivation and now has increase in suggestibility. You keep the fuel going by having his captors reinforce his worthlessness,showing the characters sudden forgetfulness, etc...

    The character experiences repeated beatings and whatever other trauma you have in place for him. Now as each trauma happens to your character, he can start to disassociate from reality as a way to protect himself. The more he disassociates, he starts to create multiple personalities.

    An example:

    Perhaps the main character feels like he can't handle being beaten, so he creates Jon and Jon handles the abuse just fine, even begs for more, and his captors walk away thinking 'Hmm, must be crazy.' And when Jon goes away, maybe the main character is catatonic, looking at himself through a foggy haze and trying to make sense of who that pathetic man huddled in the corner is and why people are abusing him. When he comes out of that catatonic state... Maybe the main character has to do something that he doesn't want to do but if he refuses he knows he'll be subjected to more abuse. That sense of overwhelming fear takes him and out pops Max, a mute boy who does as he told but the takes the beatings for not speaking when spoken too. Hey, it could be worse if Jon was there, cursing them out, right?

    Also (and I'm no expert) the process of disassociation might go something like this: while the trauma is happening, the person escapes into another world inside their mind. Maybe a woman is being raped, but while the rape is happening, inside her mind she's perhaps on a conquest to save a princess. After it's over, she may not remember the details of what happened but she'll feel all the negative emotions that comes with rape: numbness, disgust, feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, fear, etc, and these show themselves in maladaptive coping behaviors, perhaps something like suicide attempts or cutting or promiscuity.

    Just a few ideas for you! I hope they help!
     
  17. JMC3
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    JMC3 New Member

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    I attended a lecture in San Diego given by Ray Bradbury in the late 60’s. He was asked by one of the students where he got his ideas. He response was something like… ”I get them from every where.”

    The film mentioned was not for the purpose of garnering facts. It was just something I saw as a kid and It made an impression on me. The purpose was for stimulation only.

    Who is to say how much fact gathering the writers did maybe a lot or maybe none.
     
  18. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    noodlepower,

    Thanks for the pointers. There's a lot there that's useful.

    The setting is 1704, colonial SC, though this character -- not the main character but a major character-- begins his story in Africa . He was not "crazy" before the sense deprivation but he was extreme and easily obsessed. To avoid telling the story, we can just say that he had been very free and having his way in all areas because he could charm the fangs off of a snake. Because he had personal dealings with the men who traded slaves, he worked for them and cheated them , had him captured. His treatment was more brutal than normal, and normal was very brutal.
    So, after an extended period of sense deprivation he was put in the hands of one group of men after the other that tortured him as he was transported to the coast. Then hell begins: months in the belly of a ship with people that are dieing and rotting, defecating, vomiting, menstruating, giving birth and going mad, only seeing the light of day a few times, thumb screws and shackles keeping him from standing, sitting up or even rolling over.

    His mental state also deteriorates quickly because he is like a cat on a leash. He can't handle anything or anyone trying to control him. Born privileged, then he lives without family or love to play the game where he controls everyone he deals with. He gives up everything to capture slaves not because he needs the money but because it allows him to control the most powerful men he can find, the Europeans. He can speak any language; learned them all to maintain control and the ability to manipulate.

    Also, during a forced stint in a Mystery School in Fez, Morocco as a teenager he ignores the practice of mysteries being revealed in layers and goes straight for what he sees as the cream-- altered mental states such as intentional disassociation. Not much comes of it but he has some knowledge-- enough to be dangerous-- of retreating within at will.

    A lot of the extended ill treatment that has him developing his mental problems gradually have been added as a result of the comments left here by you and others. It's getting there.

    Again, thanks.
     
  19. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    I absolutely agree. A medical thriller written by a doctor? Why not check it out? And as for the film from 1963, if people are still viewing and reading something done that long ago it is because it was believable-- that's one reason we want facts when we write. No promises because this is fiction.

    Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire is mandatory reading at West Point, the US Military Academy, etc. because he researched the place and period so well that it is considered the best way to experience the battle of Thermopylae and the Spartans. The works of James Thom, though fictional, are so well researched that we are assured that the information is no less accurate than information in a history text on the same time and place. And to be honest, I've spent years researching the relationship between the Indians, Africans and Europeans in the earliest days of colonial SC leading up to the Yamassee War and beyond the enjoyment of the readers, nothing would delight me more than to have students and teachers of history look to it for it's accurate portrayal of the period.
     
  20. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    Generally true but not close to "Never." See JMC3's reply.
     
  21. noodlepower
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    noodlepower Member

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    Glad I was able to help. Since you stated that this takes place around 1704, then I would like to direct you to a book called Diseases of the Mind by Benjamin Rush. I don't remember the exact date it was written but it was somewhere between the 1700s and 1800s. It is considered the first psychiatric text written in America and it would perhaps provide you with some insight to how psychological issues were classified and viewed around that time as well as treatments that were.

    The above is a quote from the book that caught my eye since you mentioned that your story starts in Africa. I don't know how much into detail he goes because I only skimmed through parts of the book but it may have something more in there for you to work with.

    Benjamin Rush also discusses several mental disorders including disassociation. If nothing else, it an interesting look into mental disorders from the past.

    You can find the book online for free. I found my copy on Google Play.
     
  22. Quabajazzi
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    Quabajazzi Member

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    I'm just a young writer and this probably won't help you unless you write like I do, but I like to make everything this character says make complete sense, even if it doesn't. Babbling idiot? Well usually, not that I would know since I'm hoping I'm not insane, when someone is insane, it does make sense to them. So I guess the trick is tricking the reader to feeling like what they're saying makes sense, but keeping a conscious eye that it doesn't; or it means whatever it needs to mean. Insanity is a deep thing and no one really knows what it is. It can affect anyone if you think about it. Or maybe thats just me. But try to keep the illusion that it is projected in a way that makes a reader think it makes sense, but it doesn't to someone who isn't 'insane'. Jolly hard to understand but I do hope that helps.
     
  23. aimeekath
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    aimeekath Senior Member

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    Do research on psychological disorders, read some real life accounts of 'insanity', and look at some fictional ones too for inspiration. King Lear has a huge theme of 'madness' in it.
     
  24. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    I'm a nut, I was only viewing the first page so I've just read this from you. Thanks again. I'm sure I can get the book for my kindle or for a droid tablet.

    I've been working, it's going very well with this character.

    The only problem is that I already had 300,000 words before I started writing new chapters for this dude. Guess that's just how it grows sometimes. I intentionally over-wrote. I've been reading about this time and place for years and I had conversations with the characters, written interviews, for months before I started writing last year. I'll just edit, cut, etc. and then see what I have.

    Again, thanks for the absolutely awesome resource. I have a bunch of ideas for historical fictions from this era dealing with these three groups of people. From what I know of the hardships suffered by all of these groups there had to be a lot of crazy going on.
     
  25. delphinerivers
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    delphinerivers Member

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    I absolutely agree. I just wrote a passage where the character is speaking to someone:

    "I was speaking to the gentleman on the cot next to mine, admiring his accommodations, wondering how he had come to acquire such comfortable travel facilities. He seemed, some how, distraught, distracted perhaps. I wanted to tell him how I had come to be on this ship. How I was taking passage to the new world. "

    Actually he is in the belly of the ship bound by thumb screws, etc. He is speaking to a man that he caused to be there and the man curses him. He continues to politely wonder why the man is so hostile and concludes that he is mad. When the man is no longer willing to talk to him he decides to talk to another traveling companion. But, when he attempts to turn he realizes that he is constrained. He realizes that he is in pain, the smells are hideous and there is endless wailing, crying, cursing,etc. He becomes aware of these perceptions one at a time. He eventually convinces himself that the suffering is the illusion and he is able to again bring the reality of the pleasant voyage into consciousness.

    He never babbles as far as he is concerned. He feels that he is wholly lucid. We all do and say what makes sense to us.
     

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