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  1. Tucker91
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    Tucker91 New Member

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    Portraying insanity

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Tucker91, Jun 30, 2011.

    Hi everyone. I'm thinking about writing a story based just after a nuke hits the u.s. I want some good writing tips to write how my protagonist slowly passes into insanity with a first person narration told by him. Got any good ideas?
     
  2. Ashrynn
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    Ashrynn Active Member

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    Find a book where a character goes insane and use it as a reference.
     
  3. katica
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    katica Senior Member

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    I know one thing you have to do. Make sure he never once says "I feel insane" or "I am insane", not only is showing better than telling, but insane people never realize that they are going insane.

    Slowly tweak it so his thoughts become a little off after awhile, more and more until he loses some of his morality and starts justifying it using logic that doesn't make sense to a normal human being (but can see how he developed because of the direction of the course of the story). Make him see things that aren't there and that everyone except for the main character can see aren't there (or aren't true.)

    For instance, a character with a dummy who starts going insane and thinking the dummy is coming to life. That it telepathically talks to him and mocks him with its cold stare. We all know dummies don't come to life, but he's lost touch with reality.
     
  4. MRD
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    MRD Senior Member

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    Let the symptoms of madness progress in separate stages.

    Let’s use social interaction when there are no people around as an example.

    Stage one could be the main character talking to themselves. (It is the first sign on madness, after all)
    Stage two could be the main character talking to a rock. (Progressing from something small, such as the character bumping into a rock and swearing at it before moving on, and slowly adding more interaction, one way conversations, maybe?)
    Stage three would then go further, the character dressing up the rock to make it look more human. (A wig, some pebble eyes, maybe a squiggly lipstick mouth)


    I’d also begin with the character worrying about losing their mind, but as the story progresses they care less and less about going mad due to the strain of living in a post-apocalyptic world.
     
  5. TedR
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    TedR New Member

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    Insane people don't generally know they're insane. Like Katica mentioned, the changes should be subtle. The character shouldn't obviously state they are becoming insane. Instead, show it developing in them, in their actions. Things that are outside their immediate control. As a first person narrator, the less grip they have on reality, the less reliable they could become. Maybe their views on the world around them become more and more hyperbolic and delusional? Creative even?
     
  6. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's an old cliche, but it's actually not unusual for people to start doubting their sanity when their symptoms start showing up. For example, they may start having hallucinations, and realise that something must be wrong with them, because the things they hallucinate are impossible.

    At the end of "A Beautiful Mind" (which is based on fact), the main character has had hallucinations for a long time, and has learnt to distinguish real people from hallucinations by noticing that real people age, while his hallucinations look the same as they did decades ago.

    One of the signs of insanity is that a person has bizarre behaviours or notions without realising there's anything strange about them, but that doesn't mean they never realise it. It's a sliding scale. Some may suspect their bizarre notions or behaviour are problematic, and seek advice.

    Common experiences for people going insane include: having a feeling that other people are reading their minds, that they're being affected by invisible beams, that someone is stealing their thoughts, and that objects have been implanted into their bodies.
    Common behaviours include: inability to care for one's physical needs, disorganised thoughts or speech, and losing sight of the time and location.

    Try to find a basic medical text on mental illness, or read the Wikipedia entry on, for example, schizophrenia or psychosis.

    Talking to inanimate objects is not in itself a sign of insanity. For example, people may talk to their plants, to a god or idol, or to a portrait of a deceased relative without being crazy. There's also a type of psychotherapy ("ego-state therapy") based on pretending that objects represent aspects of oneself and talking to them.
    Of course, you can make clear to the reader that the character is having hallucinations by making it sound like the object is giving answers nobody else can hear.

    Don't rely on fictional accounts of mental illness - they're often much more colourful than reality, based on stereotypes, and not very representative. For example, serial killers are very, very rarely psychopaths. Less than ten cases of multiple personality disorder had been documented world-wide up until the 1970's.
     
  7. Mishteh
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    Mishteh New Member

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    First and foremost, I think you should read Flowers For Algernon. He's not insane, but mental retarded and the book shows progression through his I.Q. change. I wont mention what happens, because it's an amazing book and everyone should read it. It may be really helpful seeing the change in the character over time and you can use it to reflect to changes like that.
    Otherwise, research insanity and different insanities. Take what you know about a normal, perfectly sane person and jot it down, then jot down all kinds of insanity symptoms and the like.
    Then make a time line of the sort and heighten each thing over chapters. Slowly at first, then rapidly.
    That's all I know really.
     
  8. Tucker91
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    Tucker91 New Member

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    Thanks fot helping me guys. I didn't want the protagonist to actually say he's insane, but I wanted the text to show what was happening to him over time. Other than that, I'll have to research on different symptoms and see where it takes me. Anymore help will be appreciated though! Thanks
     
  9. TedR
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    TedR New Member

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    Another book to check out is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
     
  10. katica
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    katica Senior Member

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    @Islander: I disagree with you and here's why.

    I know two people with schizophrenia. One of which believes she can see into other dimensions and that god talks to her and tells her how to get through those dimensions in order to make it into heaven and that she has government secrets and the government is always watching here, even through the television. She is crazy to me.

    I have another friend with schizophrenia. She used to believe that there were bugs in her arm, eating her alive, and she'd cut into her arms with razor blades in order to get rid of them. She realizes she has schizophrenia though and she takes pills to control it. She is not crazy to me because she realizes her condition and does something about it.

    Because as soon as you realize its there, you try to fix it and fight it. You face it and do something about it. And I've also been crazy myself before (don't want to get into it) and I know that at the time I had no clue about it. I thought it was normal because it was normal to me.
     
  11. MRD
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    MRD Senior Member

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    It all depends on what kind of a mental state you want your character to be in by the end of your story. Is he going to become socially isolated, to the point of needing to talk to inanimate objects? Will it be worse than that, with him having hallucinations? Will he have a total mental breakdown? Perhaps he’ll be on the more loopy side, and will end up trying to breed a banana-squirrel hybrid hell bent on world domination?

    Once you work out what you want your character’s deepest madness ends, then you can work backwards from there and create a steady (and believable) decent into insanity.

    It's all about what kind of madness you want your poor character to end up with.
     
  12. Tucker91
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    Tucker91 New Member

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    One thing I'm thinking about is having other people present that he knew before the nuke but he can't seem to stay with them. This will tie into some of the symptoms.

    Another thing is that I'm thinking about him having a mental breakdown and committing suicide in the end. One problem though is that I want it to be a first person story but I can't figure out a way for him to slowly lose sanity without doing journal entries. I also don't want the protagonist to tell a story that occurred in the past (hard for him to slowly lose sanity through a story in the past and can't happen if he dies at the end). Any ideas guys? By the way keep the insanity coming! Thanks.
     
  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    "Insane" is a fairly broad term. Often people are talking about some kind of psychosis or detachment from reality. Contrary to katica's anecdotal evidence, from what I've read by psychiatrists, many people with psychoses or other severe mental illness are actually aware that they have it. Awareness of it does not necessarily mean the ability to do something about it or alter behavior. To add further anecdotal evidence, I know someone who falls into this category, and even when she is off her meds and at her worst in terms of mental health, she is well aware of the fact that she is mentally ill. Nevertheless, she will continue to act in a manner produced by her illness despite her awareness of it. Anecdotal evidence aside, apparently it is not that uncommon for a person to be self-aware enough to realize they have a mental illness, even when there is a detachment from reality as in a psychotic episode.

    I recommend going through the scientific literature or finding books with some in-depth discussion on mental illness. That should give you a good idea of how the character might progress over time. Case studies that document a worsening condition might be particularly helpful.
     
  14. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    @katica: What you describe happens alot too, but it's not universal.
     
  15. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    A Beautiful Mind is not in line with actual events and it has been criticized for that, too. It's based on facts, but very loosely. Nash's hallucinations were purely auditory and thus he could not possibly have seen hallucinations not aging.

    To those who wish to write about mental illnesses -- don't base your knowledge of it on other works of fiction. At best, you'll be adding nothing new what so ever, at worst you'll help enforce old misconceptions and prejudices. Watch documentaries, read biographies, read medical books, and, if you have the chance, talk to people who have gone through "your illness of choice" themselves.
     
  16. elneilio10
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    elneilio10 Member

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    Remind me MRD, what's that TOM HANKS film again? ;)

    OP, think:

    Chronic lack of stimulation - both of a sensory and a social nature.

    Stereotypical behaviour (of an unusual / inappropriate nature) - think polar bears in zoos.

    Rapidly diminishing regard for one's safety / well-being.

    Of course, these are non-exhaustive and needn't necessarily define the insane and are probably hardly exclusive to this camp but it's a fair starting point, I feel, from the point of view of a sane person.

    Also, there almost certainly has to be a route for the megalomaniacs amongst us.

    Now you got me thinking that I'M about to lose it! ;) ;) ;)
     
  17. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Heh, I should have followed my own advice and not used an example from fiction.
     
  18. MRD
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    MRD Senior Member

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    Castaway, was it not?
    I've only seen the film once, and even then it was half-way through when I started watching. But I found the whole talking to ball (basketball, or beach-ball, something like that) thing interesting.

    Anyway, as others have said, it would be best if you (the OP) did research into mental illnesses to find out exactly what you want while sticking close to the facts.

    One way you could write about your character losing their sanity from a first person perspective could be to have it in past-tense. Right at the end, in a moment of clarity, your character looks back on (and writes down) everything that has happened and decides that he has no reason to continue on any more. I'm hoping that makes sense to someone...
     
  19. SeverinR
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    SeverinR Contributing Member

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    I think the cause of insanity should drive the symptoms.

    If he is isolated with no one to talk too, he would find something to talk too. (I would think living things first, then non-living)
    If the insanity is caused by enviroment(radiation, minor poisons(ingested or breathed) then it should manefest in some way different.

    If he goes insane because of loss of loved ones, he would drift into insanity in a different way.

    When you decide on why he is going insane, then look for similar accounts to draw from.

    Just remember neurosis is crazy stuff we do but we can still function,
    psychosis is crazy stuff that hender daily function.
     
  20. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I suggest reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth as a reference. It's a fantastic book and the breakdowns of the daughter and father are very well-written, one of the best books I've ever read.
     
  21. Kio
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    Kio Contributing Member

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    Take my advice and DON'T read a book based on "insanity" which is, by the way, a legal term. Many authors don't bother to do much research on insanity and just write nonsense just for the sake of sensationalism. I'm not degrading anyone's work, but the truth is that insanity is far more complex than a few symptoms of completely different disorders melded together.

    There are many types of mental disorders, most of which have specific causes, symptoms, and treatments. You can't think to yourself, "I want this character to go crazy" when you have no idea what type of crazy you're going for.

    It's best to look up the DSM-IV which lists out many psychological disorders, complete with explanations and everything.

    I'd like to throw in that schizophrenia is a very common psychological disorder (with no real cure yet) that usually develops in one's early twenties. Sometimes, however, it could be triggered. I know that smoking marijuana could trigger the disorder due to one of the ingredients in it; I forgot what it was, though. To be safe, you could give your character schizophrenia AFTER looking up the symptoms from a reliable source. The internet doesn't count. Best take a trip to the library.
     
  22. Brandogg12
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    Brandogg12 Active Member

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    A good book that you can use to portray a mental disorder would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. It is done in such a clever manner that it makes it seem as if the main character (the Indian) is not insane at all- instead, what he believes he sees is fitting to his surroundings. The slow dip into insanity is presented as hearing noises and perceiving things in such a way that is to make it almost believable from their perspective, but not at all tangible if we look at it from ours.

    The best portrayal of gradual insanity would be actions that become more and more erratic and their perception that slowly fades as those actions take place.
     
  23. Kaynic
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    Kaynic Member

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    Because insanity is such a broad term, you might want to look into the types of mental illness: schizophrenia, psychosis, etc. Psychosis is an illness most often described as insanity--a psychotic breaks with reality, in simple terms, and may be subject to delusions, hallucinations, fits of paranoia, derealization, or depersonalization, or any combination of these symptoms. However, insanity does not mean a person becomes violent, and there are loose "stages" of insanity--those that actively impede an individual's life, those that are cause for concern but do not manifest strongly enough to completely overwhelm an individual. I myself used to experience derealization, paranoia, and very brief visual disturbances, but I was still able to function, despite having difficulty sometimes in deciding whether I was awake or asleep. The best advice I can give you is research, research, research. Look into books, articles, essay, anything that deals with insanity, including its portrayal in fiction and criticisms of inaccuracies.
     
  24. Alex W
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    Alex W Contributing Member

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    Read into a few people who are insane, particularly the type of insanity that you're wishing to portray in your character. Try to figure out what makes them tick etc. You can try to put your own spin on it, but be careful as it could come off as clumsy or inneffective.
     
  25. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, it was a volleyball ... manufactured by Wilson Sporting Goods. Hence the name Wilson. But in the case of Hanks' character in that film, he began talking to the inanimate 'Wilson' to keep from going crazy. The isolation did eventually start to take its toll on him but it was the desperate need for companionship, someone to communicate with, that led him to 'creating' Wilson. Throughout the ages, isolation, you know, has been one of the military's greatest tools of torment.
     

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