1. Evarnae
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    Evarnae New Member

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    Writing Insane Characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Evarnae, Dec 21, 2013.

    How would you write an insane character? I've got a story in mind with a woman who goes crazy after murdering her father in cold blood but I'm not 100% sure how her insanity would manifest itself. What kind of characteristics and behaviours do truly criminally insane people exhibit? I'm not talking about just doing things that society would see as out of the norm like murdering people with no remorse or doing something absolutely awful to her victims, I'm thinking of behaviour more fitting for someone who has gone completely off the deep end.
     
  2. Albirich
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    Albirich Active Member

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    Read the ending of Catelyn Stark's chapter in A Storm of Swords. Heh....

    Just write it as they believe it is.

    Maybe she would still believe her father was alive? - Make his bed, make coffee or tea for two, keep talking to him....just go from there to the darker twisted point you wish her to be at.
     
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  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    1. Write what you know. By this, I mean use your own experiences, particularly emotional background to make the writing come alive, and to inject authenticity. This probably doesn't answer your core question, though, so I'll proceed to the corollary.

    2. Know what you write. There are nearly always elements of a story that are outside your experience. For those, you need to research, research, research. For me, this is one of the more delightful aspects of writing, the opportunity to expand my knowledge in a purposeful way.

    Insanity is a pretty broad area, and will require quite a bit of research to make it convincing, though. Far more than can be covered in a forum thread. I would suggest sytarting your research with "psychotic break" and see if that meets the needs of your story.
     
  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, what @Cogito said. Being able to do research online is wonderful for writers; I wish it had been available when I started.

    I just researched psychopaths, having been told one of my characters IS one ...and you know, my reader was right. My character certainly is. He's got ALL the markers except one!

    So google the kind of mental disorder you think your character will have, and I'm sure you'll find lots. Not only to keep you from making mistakes, but also to give you ideas that will help you make your character's actions even more believable.
     
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  5. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think this is a version of an unreliable narrator -- you're in the character's head, and you have what seems to be rational thoughts from his POV, but other characters continually do things that he perceives as unfair or crazy. The cumulative affect of the fact that "everyone else is crazy" can make the reader realize, hey - it's not everyone else, but it's this guy.

    One book that I read that had a fantastic unreliable narrator was The Dinner. Although that book sounds completely different from the one you have in mind, I'm sure there are tons of others out there, and you could get some good recommendations.
     
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  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree - you need to do thorough research. Start by getting the word "insane" out of your vocabulary...
     
  7. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I think it would depend on why she killed him. Was he hurting her? Did someone else manipulate her to think she had to kill him? Was it an accident?
     
  8. Evarnae
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    Evarnae New Member

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    Basically she killed him because he was very controlling and emotionally manipulative and abusive all throughout her life and when she was taken hostage he refused to negotiate or pay her ransom because he had no use for those who fail him (she had failed him by allowing herself to be taken hostage). She goes crazy when she hears that and escapes from her captors and ends up in her father's office. He asks her what she's doing there and instead of answering she puts a knife to his throat, whispering 'I have no use for those who fail me' (he failed her all her life and when she needed him the most) and he leans forward into the knife, urging her to do it and (unspoken) to become like him. She goes through with it and after spending a few hours in a catatonic stupor she 'wakes up' and goes loopy. Does that sound cliche? I know the hostage thing is overused but if it's executed well it shouldn't matter, right?

    Research is definitely on the cards and I've done a bit of it already but it's really confusing with all the different terms and facets of mental illness and without knowing her behaviours it's difficult to diagnose her with something. What kind of behaviour would make a character seem crazy to you? Stumbling around the street seeing and talking to magic invisible butterflies is pretty crazy behaviour but this character is a darker, more subtle crazy that if you saw her on the street she would look like a normal person but scratch just beneath the surface and she's completely batship.
     
  9. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You need to figure out what you want to do. Is it just a "simple" case of severe PTSD, a psychotic episode, or something like depression? Something else entirely? It's kinda hard to give any specific suggestions since almost anything can work as long as it's executed well, so it pretty much depends on what kind of "crazy" you want your character to be.

    I've written a few people with mental problems:
    -one was a psychopath, incapable of feeling empathy, love, remorse (unless it was along the lines of "hmm, maybe I shouldn't have killed that person, he might've been useful later on... oh well, pass the butter."), and had a morbid fascination with death (liked to experiment with various ways of killing just to see how people died)
    -one was exposed to severe lead poisoning as a kid and hence her physique is like that of a 12yo and mind like that of an 8yo (the syndrome has its own name, but I can't remember it right now), plus she suffered of PTSD after having been thrown into an illegally run prison for a few months where the inmates were subjected to illegal medical experiments and generally sub-human treatment
    -a few have suffered of depression and PTSD after violent experiences (some have been civilians, some soldiers)
    -one developed a second personality (unable to accept the fact that she was sexually abused as a child by a person of authority with the consent of her parents), suffered of bipolar and borderline personality disorders, and behaved accordingly

    I've done research on all the abovementioned disorders, ailments, and syndromes, and I've known quite a few people with some of the mental disorders, and I've interviewed some people suffering of them as well as medical professionals who deal with them.

    What do you want to do / say through the character? Ask yourself that, and finding the most fitting problems / symptoms will become clear (likely after some trial and error).
     
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  10. RaeRae
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    RaeRae Member

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    During college, many of the prerequisites were psychology classes and you get a crash course in the human mental ailments. From just that knowledge, I can create some believably flawed characters. As T.Trian says, you probably know some people with strange mental issues and if not, find out what you want your character to be-do-say-act. Research from there.
     
  11. Echoesian
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    Echoesian Member

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    You'll definitely want to do some research about different mental illnesses and personality disorders. There are *millions* of nonfiction books out there. Probably hundreds of memoirs written by family members of people with mental disorders. For general information, you could check out the DSM IV diagnostic manual, which gives you the criteria for diagnosis. From there, read true accounts of people with these disorders, and you will begin to see patterns in their behaviors.

    Chances are good that if she was raised by an abusive man that didn't care enough to save her life, she's had problems for a long time before his murder. How those symptoms manifest is up to you. People don't generally just "go crazy" unless they have a sudden onset of psychosis, which is present in a few disorders (Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, Major Depressive disorder.) I'd say her breakdown has been building up for a pretty long time.

    How long does her obvious "crazy" last after the murder? When does she begin to mask it and become the person you described later, that looks normal on the street but is nuts underneath? Does she have the ability to control how others perceive her?

    A "psychopath" (antisocial personality disorder, in the psych world) wouldn't likely lose it after killing the father because of the lack of empathy. They could fake it, and might lose it a little if they thought they were in danger, but feelings aren't really their thing. A schizophrenic cannot control their hallucinations, which tend to be auditory (often voices in their heads.) A Bipolar might have psychotic breaks and will have incredible shifts in mood that they cannot control.

    I agree, you'll not want to use the term "insane" as it doesn't describe much in the mental health world. I'd do some research into personality disorders and Axis II disorders on the DSM, such as Bipolar, MDD, etc. Personality disorders tend to be deeply rooted, and are difficult to treat because they are ingrained into the person's... well, personality. They are also quite dramatic. One of my characters has a PD, for sure.

    Hope that helps!
     
  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    @Evarnae - Actually, having read your second post, when you told us what is actually happening with your character, the girl doesn't come across as particularly mentally ill to me. At least not for story purposes—in the sense that her father rather 'deserves' what he gets. He has goaded her to the point where she wants revenge on him. In some respects, that's a 'sane' reaction to the way he's treated her. I believe this would fall in the same category as a woman who finally kills an abusive husband—either 'temporary insanity' or post-traumatic reaction, or simply self-defense (if he's continuing to threaten her.)

    Maybe, rather than researching mental illness, you might want to look up research on cases involving otherwise sane people who finally react to being abused, bullied, goaded or threatened. Not to say I condone this kind of thing, by the way, but it's at least understandable from a 'sane' point of view. It would be especially understandable if this father of hers has enough power in the real world to make her 'appear' to be insane, if she were to, say, go to the police and report him.

    In fact, this story sounds amazing. There is certainly scope here for her to 'recover,' and perhaps finally 'snapping' and taking revenge on her horrifically abusive father might set her on the path to healing herself, giving herself confidence, etc. Maybe finally being able to do all the good things she's wanted to do in her life. Of course the killing will hang over her head—I presume she's escaped and not been instantly arrested?—and she'll need to deal with its repercussions. But it could be the odd twist to the tale. She becomes 'sane' only AFTER doing a murder?

    Just brainstorming here. But I think you've got some excellent story potential.
     
  13. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on the precise illness. 'Insane' as Hollywood uses it (a cheap trick to build suspense, or as tarpaulin for poor characterisation) is not a thing.

    It sounds like you're talking either PTSD or psycopathy, and I can offer you pointers with the former due to personal experience with a sufferer
     
  14. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    David Wong, author of John Dies at the End, said famously,
    "You can't diagnose with the body part. To a crazy person they seem sane, and the world just goes crazy around them."
     
  15. HarleyQ.
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    HarleyQ. Just a Little Pit Bull (female)

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    This.
    ...
    My advice would be to research mental illness, damage to the psyche, psychological problems after killing someone/witnessing them die, etc.

    However, if she kills her harmless father in cold blood, she sounds psychopathic, and already insane. If her father was abusive, etc, and tried to harm her and so she killed him in self-defense, she may have PTSD. (PTSD is what comes to mind, though she could have a number of things.)

    Still, talk with professionals if you can or do a lot of research about mental disorders, psychotic breaks, etc. (I would offer my help as I know a great deal about psychology, but I am not a professional.)
     
  16. Morbius
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    Morbius Member

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    Well, I don't have any answers for you, since this is your creation, but I do have some questions that you may want to consider as you flesh this out.

    If her father was very controlling and emotionally abusive, is she too weak to resist him or leave on her own? If she escapes from her kidnappers, is it because the kidnappers were incompetent or because she was strong enough to overpower them and fight her way out? If she was strong enough to fight her out of her kidnapper's captivity, is she strong enough to resist her father's abuse and control? When she hears that her father will not negotiate for her release, is this really "going crazy" or an anger/rage/revenge issue?

    Would an abusive, control freak silently urge her to become like him (which might imply that he has some mental issues of his own) or would he abusively try to control/dominate her by trying to physically disarm her and punish her for "failing" him? Would she wake up and "go loopy" or would she go through a range of emotions such as feeling avenged, vindicated, justified, guilty, empowered, a failure for giving in to her rage, angry at him (enough to mutilate his corpse after his death), angry at herself (in the "holy crap, what have I done" context), feeling like a criminal that has to hide her crime to protect herself from the police, feeling like a criminal but "So what, the police were never there to protect me when I needed it". Was the violent homicide a kinky erotic turn on for her, or does she recoil at what she's done? Did she suffer from mental issues all along and this latest incident was simply "the straw that broke the camel's back", that pushed her over the line into being a violent psychopath?

    Subtly is how I'd handle such things, keeping it clean cut at perfectly reasonable, right up until the end of your story. Perhaps as the story draws to a close, it is subtly revealed to the reader that all the friends and confederates that helped the main character along the way, were never really there, existing only in her mind. Perhaps the kidnappers, while seeming all too real to her, were only manifestations of her warped imagination. Maybe she turns out to be a male who mentally identifies himself as a female, and the real mental conflict in the story turns out to to be that he/she can't cope with the emotional issues of the father who hates his own son, because he can't deal with what he sees as his "gay son". Maybe she kills her father and it turns out that he is only the latest victim in a series of murders where she keeps replaying out this twisted story in her own mind, over and over again, killing total strangers whom she sees as her father (who was the very first man she killed).

    There are many ways to write an insane character, but I think the best effect is not to tell the reader that the character is insane, but rather allow them to figure it out for themselves as the story unfolds.

    Anyway, these are just some points to consider. I hope it helps.
     

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