Writing Mentally Unstable Characters
Welcome back, loyal listeners! This week, Al talks with Stephanie Carroll, author of A White Room, about writing mentally unstable characters. As always, give us a thumbs up and subscribe on YouTube and through whatever podcast app you prefer. Reviews are always appreciated. Show notes follow the YouTube embed. Don’t forget to ask an author for your chance to win an audio version of Aaron’s book The Bargain.
Al: What is your experience with writing characters with mental illness?
SC: My debut novel A White Room is about a woman who suffers from a form of insanity. Her primary symptoms are depression, anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations, specifically hallucinations of her Gothic house and furniture coming to life and plotting against her.
I didn’t exactly take a real mental disorder and fashion my character’s illness off of it. Instead, I used a combination of real symptoms of mental illness as would be seen through the Victorian lens. I did this by studying my story’s inspiration, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1890 Gothic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Al: How was Victorian Hysteria linked to mental illness at the turn of the century?
At the turn of the century, psychology was still rather new and hysteria became popular as a diagnosis for women suffering from a vast variety of complaints, from physical to mental. Hysteria was believed to be caused by the female reproductive organs, which were believed to have the ability to affect the mind. Because of the physical origins and what wasn’t yet understood about the human mind, women could be diagnosed and treated as if suffering from a mental disorder even if their symptoms were all physical and vice versa. It all depended on the physicians. Some recommended exercise while others recommended rest.
Women could be diagnosed and treated for hysteria for having physical issues like sexual dysfunction or infertility or they could be diagnosed for having mental issues like stress, anxiety, depression, or more severe disorders such as schizophrenia. Treatments could be as mild as diet and exercise or as severe as the removal of the defective organ, which is where we get the term hysterectomy.
Al: How did the insanity in “The Yellow Wallpaper” inspire the insanity in your book?
SC: In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote of a woman who was diagnosed with hysteria and was forced to endure the “rest cure,” which consisted of not only rest but stimulus deprivation. Women undergoing the rest cure were not supposed to read, write, or do anything that might stimulate their mind or body. They weren’t supposed to even hold an in-depth conversation or eat anything other than bland food. All they could do for days, weeks, months was rest.
In Gilman’s story, her character seems to have been diagnosed after experiencing either depression or post-partum depression and through the course of the rest cure, she slowly goes insane, believing that a woman is trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in her room. Gilman later told that she wrote this story to expose the realities of the rest cure and other treatments for hysteria after she underwent a similar experience herself.
My story has much the same idea. My character faces depression and anxiety and is prescribed the rest cure after being diagnosed with hysteria but it only drives her deeper into psychosis. Instead of the wallpaper coming to life, I expanded on this idea and made it the entire house and furniture. During the prepping and writing stages, I studied “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the way in which Gilman portrays her character’s insanity and I modeled mine after that.
Al: What is the most important thing to remember when writing from the POV of a crazy character?
SC: I don’t know if there is any one thing that is most important. The things that come to mind for me are – this should be fun and the crazier you feel the better for your character! I got it – keep it entertaining—if the insanity is bugging the reader, it’s not working. Some people might get caught up in the idea that if it’s insane readers might not get it or find it annoying and that’s okay because it’s insanity, but I’d say no. Your reader is number one. If they are getting so annoyed by your insane character that they put book down and never pick it back up, that’s not winning. Having an insane character should be enjoyable, intriguing, or frightening in a keep you reading kind of way and plenty of authors have succeeded in that.
Al: What are the most common mental illnesses in people, and how do they manifest themselves in people?
SC: I honestly don’t know what the most common are, but what I think is more important is what readers think the most common disorders are because that’s what they are interested in, so which do we hear about most – depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia.
I think readers are also interested in those disorders that are bizarre or little known, for example via my Google search, Micropsia, a disorder also known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome because those who suffer from it see objects as much smaller than they are (Alternet’s 12 Quirky Mental Disorders You Haven’t Heard About), or Alien Hand Syndrome which is when your hand seems to have a mind of its own (Listserve 10 Most Bizarre Psychological Disorders). Or “Folie a deux is a delusion or psychosis shared by several people. One individual has a genuine mental illness, often schizophrenia, and their otherwise healthy friends or family members take on some of their neuroses.” (8 Unusual Mental Illnesses via Mental Floss) – That’s pretty cool!
Al: How do we write from the POV of a “crazy” character without losing the reader–that is how to say, how do we give enough information for the reader to be grounded in reality when the character isn’t?
SC: I think relatability is really important when writing characters suffering from mental illness. A lot, probably most, people feel like at some point that they are going crazy. Who hasn’t checked to make sure the stove is off three times in a row or been so anxious they can’t stop shaking their hands. This is especially true of those diseases that people think are the most common, i.e. depression, anxiety, etc. I think a part of the reason they feel so common is because everyone sometimes wonders if they have one.
Now what about the really out there disorders? As long as you keep the reader intrigued and the character likable, as in not doing anything too perverse or disturbing, it will be okay even if the reader can’t relate. Probably a lot of people who read Choke by Chuck Palahniuk didn’t exactly relate because the main character suffers from a sex addiction and does things no one would ever do, but he is interesting, funny, and remarkably likable so we keep reading.
Al: Does making a character crazy make them sympathetic, or does it alienate the reader from them?
SC: John Nash is sympathetic in A Beautiful Mind because at times he is charming and funny, he’s driven, he is a genius and we get to watch how his heart grows, and when he realizes he is suffering from a mental illness, he submits to painful and unpleasant treatments in an effort to get better.
However in American Psycho we are alienated from the main character Patrick Bateman, a sadistic serial killer (such individuals are usually diagnosed as suffering from sociopathy or psychopathy), but people still like this movie because of the black humor and its tone. Despite being a killer, Bateman is so frank and cavalier about it, it’s almost humorous.
Interestingly enough, James Bond is said by some such as this article in The National to be just as bad as Bateman, i.e. a narcissist, a killer, and a misogynist, but he is one of the most all-time loved characters and this is because of how he is portrayed as having likable and admirable qualities, i.e., patriotic duty, self-control, taking down villains, getting lots of girls, and the occasional brief sympathetic moment.
Then there’s the question of whether or not you want to alienate your insane character from the audience because he or she is the villain such as when it came to Annie Wilkes in Steven King’s Misery (film) (Misery: The Novel by Steven King).
Al: How do you demonstrate the progression of the illness, or the recovery from it?
SC: I think different authors do this in different ways. It kind of depends on the tone of the piece as well. Is it almost a thriller like Black Swan, or is it black comedy like Fight Club (The Novel by Chuck Palahniuk), or lighthearted comedy like It’s Kind of a Funny Story (The Novel by Ned Vizzini) or just a straight drama like Girl, Interrupted.
Although I wrote my insane character without studying actual mental illnesses because I really wanted to mimic the insanity from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I think most would benefit from actually studying the symptoms and progression/recovery from real life cases, not just actual illnesses but also common psychological issues everyone struggles with like Limited Thinking Patterns.
Al: What are some techniques you suggest for writing insane characters?
SC: I wrote a blog post on this topic in 2013 and reposted it on my website – Five Tips for Writing Crazy Characters, and its focus is on how to make an insane character’s inner monologue feel crazy. So I can kind of sum up some of that here, but I recommend anyone interested to actually check out the post on my site www.stephniecarroll.net.
These are techniques that I developed after studying other writers, like I said Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was my inspiration and from that I really got obsessive thinking down. Obsession is a very common factor with mental illness, like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. Distracted thoughts and bizarre tangents are also really good for creating that sort of disjointed thinking. You character is going one way, talking about work, but then gets sidetracked on a rant about government conspiracy.
Repetition of ticks, odd behaviors, and specific thoughts are also good for creating a sense of being a little off. I personally loved the “I am Jack’s . . .” from Fight Club: “I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise,” “I am Jack’s wasted life,” “I am Jack’s smirking revenge.” The main character read this phrase in an odd book about anatomy “I am Jack’s colon,” and then applied it to various moments throughout the story.
When it comes to specific writing techniques that can help create this sense of insanity, I suggest using tone, synesthesia, and nonsensical metaphors. The tone of your work will play a huge role in how the crazy comes off, whether it’s scary, funny, or quirky.
Synesthesia is a really neat comparison technique that involves describing a sensory detail as if experienced through the wrong receptor. So smelling a sound or hearing a touch, stuff like that. It doesn’t make sense, which is why it suggests something oddball. This alone won’t suggest crazy because writers use it all the time for symbolism, tone, and description, but if used in the right way it can really get nutty.
Mixed and nonsensical metaphors can really suggest odd thinkers and they are great if you are going for comic insanity. However, I bet you can get creepy with this effect too.
I really wanted to give you some examples and was having trouble conjuring these up so I borrowed from Mental Floss’ 18 Metaphors and Analogies Actually Found in Students’ Papers or Not But They Are Still Hilarious:
His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
(And my favorite)
He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a landmine or something.