1. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    How do i portray the descent into insanity?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by The_Raven, Sep 23, 2015.

    I need some help on how to portray the gradual descent of my MC (in my story) into insanity. My MC isn't exactly a good guy, many events in the past have traumatized him, and he has some traits of a pshycopath.

    My MC has the curse/ability to experience other people's lives as they have happened/ are happening/ will happen. Thing is, he can't tell which one it is, and this eventually drives him over the edge. I want to know how I could portray his descent and make it seem feasible.
     
  2. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Depends on the type of insanity, but a slow stream of actions which fundamentally alters a character is difficult to do. There can be a sudden "snap" for certain conditions which show suddenly and persist afterwards as well. Research the subject a bit.
     
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  3. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    This is easier if it's in first person. Shifting from more correct sentence structure to something more stream-of-consciousness would be effective. Sentence fragments are helpful. It gives the impression of half-formed, disjointed thoughts. Overblown description, as opposed to more mundane description, could also make it seem like ordinary things are having an unduly profound impact on the mc.
     
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  4. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    @Inks & @ManOrAstroMan have hit upon the two main points I was going to raise, so I'll just expand on them a little.

    What time frame? I think for psychological things, a gradual change is more realistic (I believe sudden changes occur more often with actual neurological problems, although psychology is complex so obviously they're still possible). As Inks said, portraying a gradual change is harder - maybe you could have a few small personality traits from the start increase in prominence until they're his dominant trait (e.g. a compulsive behaviour).

    What narrative mode? First person offers a window straight in, as ManOrAstroMan outlined. If it's not first person, maybe you can focus on the reactions other characters have to his behaviour, and how they become different over time.

    Overall, I think you need to define what you mean by 'insanity' better (referring to it as that can actually be stigmatising to those with mental illness, so be careful). Is it post-traumatic stress disorder? If he has psychopathic traits, what ones? I'd have thought that the problem you outlined in your second paragraph would be more about anxiety/paranoia - how would you feel if you thought you might be able to control something you couldn't reliably predict? (That's the definition of anxiety from what I know of animal behaviour!)

    Hope something there helps :)
     
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  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    If you are writing in first person, it's probably easiest to write what your paranoid character thinks is happening, then contrast it with what is actually happening. In other words, some form of: 'That guy SAYS he's only doing (this particular thing) for (a good, sane reason) but I know better. He really wants to take my cat away from me (or back me into a corner, or cause me to jump off that bridge.) He thinks I'm stupid, but I'm not."

    Just find some way to convey to the reader that what your narrator is saying is probably not reality. Show other characters doing what we would assume are just normal things, then give us his warped take on this. The other characters can become progressively more upset as his actions become more out of control, but he thinks it's because he's winning their battle of wits.

    Beware of mixing all this with psychopathy, by the way. Everything I've read about psychopaths (in the course of my writing research) points to the fact that somebody doesn't 'descend' into being a psychopath. They are born that way, with the inability to feel empathy. They are otherwise quite sane, in the sense that they don't get confused, know exactly what they want, and will stop at nothing till they get it because they have no—and never have had—any conscience. They are often charismatic and manipulative, because they enjoy playing games. They are perfectly well aware that what they're doing isn't what everybody else does, but they like being alone on top of that mountain. They think the rest of the world is stupid, and they are smart. Psychopaths do things for 'fun.' They are not miserable, sad people.

    There is apparently no way to 'cure' a psychopath. There is some evidence that many people who rise to positions of power in companies, etc, are actually psychopaths. These people are ruthless at getting what they want, which means they can climb the corporate ladder very fast, and do truly believe it's because they are superior to all around them. (Bill Gates is definitely NOT a psychopath, because he shows a lot of care and concern about the world at large and the people he's close to, but Robert Maxwell probably was.)

    Psychopaths don't get paranoid, because paranoia is an extreme case of fear. It's one of the traits of a psychopath. They feel no fear. A psychopath can become suspicious of others, if he discovers or suspects they're hatching plots against him, but then he moves quickly to wipe them off his map and moves on. They don't disturb his sleep.

    I agree with @Sifunkle. This sounds more like anxiety/paranoia/depression.

    The very best (bar none) story I have ever read that takes this route you're suggesting is the short novel It Happened In Boston, by Russell Hoban. It's still available for sale as a used book, although I think it may be out of print now. I started out reading that, and ended up feeling just a little bit paranoid and out of control myself. It did the 'descent' into madness better than any other book I've ever read. The main character is definitely not a psychopath. In fact he feels things very deeply and has been badly deceived by a good friend whom he trusted and loved, so we empathise with him early on. So his descent becomes our descent.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2015
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  6. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is very good advice. I'd also add that it doesn't just apply to 1st person, either. 3rd limited gives you similar freedom to color the narrative with your character's biases and misconceptions. This is definitely the way I'd approach it.

    Just make sure you're doing your proper research. Mental illness is infinitely nuanced and complicated, and stories/television can very easily simplify and generalize. Those with mental disabilities are as unique as everyone else, and care should be taken to ensure you're portraying whatever disability you're writing about accurately. It's easy to fall into those traps.
     
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  7. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Obsessive dustbin - check
    Window diary - check
    Home-made love toy project - check
    Underpant marathon - check

    I don't know really.

    The stream of consciousness reel ain't that appealing to me. If you might draw the reader in - to where they identify with the character - and that a series of mundane actions - journeys the reader enjoys alongside the MC - are then construed by others in an entirely different light, that would be intriguing...

    ...the reader might be saying:

    'But no, no...no, oh...maybe yes, oh dear, oh dear.' Might write that myself :).

    I mean, eye of the beholder - larking about on a fairly conservative writer site, UK site, the stuff I regard as wordplay, others - they don't like it, find it disconcerting, or ill...oooh, spooky. Some people like it plain and simple, eh...
     
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  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's also entirely possible to write a story like this without identifying the disorder at all—unless getting it treated is part of the plot. Rather than having the person's disorientation take on some medically-approved label, just get into the character's persona and imagine what they see and how they feel. Nobody can argue with your portrayal, if you don't name the problem.
     
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  9. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Where did you come up with the idea that insanity follows a gradual descent? More often, as in schizophrenia, there is a psychotic break in late adolesence or early adulthood that is quite sudden although might be proceeded by withdrawal and social "oddity." In mania, or bipolar disorder, the first episode is also generally rather sudden and onset of first episode is usually late teens to late 20's. Paranoid delusions, while not technically "insanity" may develop over more time. Edgar A. Poe aside, people, in reality tend not to "descend into insanity" as good a story as that might make.
     
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  10. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    Thank you all for the advice! Maybe I should explain a little more, though. This MC is (was) part of an order of "Blades" and he reached the highest position, known as a "Master Blade". What I'm thinking is that he is a physcopath, and I don't necessarily want readers to sympathize with him. There are events that have happened that push him farther along his physcopathy.
     
  11. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    Interesting. Then again, I'm only 16 and don't know much about phsycology.
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's not so much that mental illness always follows a descending path, but it certainly can. By descent, I mean a person who is or seems normally oriented at first, but then starts to exhibit small delusions or obsessions. These obsessions or delusions become more overt over time (length of time will vary) until the sufferer is totally detached from reality. I've personally watched this happen, so I know it can. However, many mental illnesses do come on suddenly, as you say. The thing is, if you're writing fiction, you can take any of these paths, especially if you don't label them. I think we're discussing how to write a fictional person's illness so it seems convincing to a reader, rather than trying to stick a label on it.
     
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  14. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    Yes, thank you. I'm more intending to make readers believe his gradual detachment from reality than try to put a label on it. However, I realize that making an already physcopath get more detached than he already is doesn't seem as plausible now.
     
  15. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Perhaps I am too hung up on terminology, but mental illness and insanity are certainly not synonymous. And a psychopath (a form of personality disorder) is most often not insane. Some of the most notorious serial killers (Ted Bundy) were psychopaths, while not insane, whereas Ted Kaczcyncki (the mailbox bomber) probably was insane but not a psychopath. Although I agree with Jennert to some degree that fiction gives us some latitude to "make things up" when we vary too far from what happens or could happen in actuality I think we lose a believability that compelling fiction maintains.
     
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  16. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Most madness is well... not dramatic. If you are doing a historical work you might take syphilis or isolation as responsible for certain habits, obsessions and such. True bipolar disorders (especially untreated ones) can show as mania. It is often the depressive states which is not seen as a disorder, but also can be. You do not need to be hallucinating to be "insane", but people generally know at least one person who is so over-the-top or down-in-the-dumps that this is the type of "madness" people see.
     
  17. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    Thing is, my MC isn't hallucinating. He is actually experiencing other peoples lives.
     
  18. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Sorry, was more of a response to DueNorth - your case is different because it's a supernatural thing because it is known to be real. If it was not known to be real then well... it could be indistinguishable from insanity by itself.
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2015
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  19. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    What? This discussion is getting a little "crazy" now. I spent 37 years as a mental health professional. Bipolar disorder is in fact what was once referred to as manic-depressive disorder. Insanity, by both medical and legal definition would not refer to depression (unless psychotic depression a severe form of major depression), obsessions, compulsions, or other odd behavior, and does specifically refer to psychosis, not psychopathic behavior. Insanity is not oddity. It is not personality disorder, nor autism. My main point (originally in this thread) was that, although people may descend into oddity (and depression, isolation, or obsessions, could be reasons for that), they rarely if ever experience a gradual descent into insanity.
     
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  20. The_Raven
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    The_Raven Member

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    Very interesting. Although I'm not exactly trying to be realistic with this story.
     
  21. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not saying this article is wrong (I haven't read it), but just a general word of caution for anyone looking to get accurate psychology info: Psychology Today occasionally publishes articles that contain very dubious science.
     
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  22. nhope
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    nhope Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Wait, what? You don't mix a cup of this and a pinch of that and get 'insanity'. You have to first profile your character, his environment, his relationships, his world, from where he came to where he is, and see if that is indeed the best worst thing that makes sense to happen, and it must be based on his life.

    You're only 16 so why not make your character 16? Write about what you know to this point, what you've lived and put that into your character, then shove him into the complete world you created for him and let him loose. If you pay attention to him, he will lead you to to write about his success or his demise.

    One more thing, you do want to be realistic with your story because you want it to be believable. Smart readers want smart reads, whether they take place on this earth or in outer space.

    Recommended books: "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath, and "Girl, Interrupted" by Susanna Kaysen. Don't waste your time on the movie.
     
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  23. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Well said, nhope, and The Raven could write the story so that the 16 y.o. character "descends" into the beginning of psychosis. Could work.
     
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  24. GoldenFeather
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    GoldenFeather Active Member

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    If he experiences other people's lives, it makes sense that when he sees/experiences something that isn't usual for the way his current life is set up, then we understand it's a vision (or whatever you want to call it). I suppose one way you could portray his gradual decent is to change how he reacts to these experiences.

    At first, he can react normally, fully aware that he is experiencing someone else's life. Then slowly, you can have the character react more and more confusingly, showing that the distinction between his real life, and that of others, isn't so clear to him anymore. I would even go so far as creating a chapter or two of something that happens to the main character, only after to learn that it was not his experience at all. The character could experience some sort of emotional pain due to this. For example, if he has one experience, and then learns in fact it wasn't his own, he could be disappointed or upset, or even sad. This experience may have taught him a valuable lesson, or shown him something to beautiful, and yet, "it wasn't even my own." That emotional aspect will also add to the insanity. After all, when you're losing your mind, it's scary.

    Maybe the growing fear could parallel the growing insanity. Kind of a symbolic parallel -- the more you lose your mind, the more afraid you become.
     
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  25. Arya Stark
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    Arya Stark Member

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    One way you could show insanity is through flashbacks? It would show exactly why he is turning insane, and would add depth to his character :)
     

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