"The mind is like a cellar,” Zomblique's philosopher Mr. Boggs opined in a hollow voice which seemed to ring out from inside a tin can. "The mind is like a cellar," he repeated with self-assured gusto after a long pause. Zomblique's right hand shuddered as it hovered above the blank paper pad, the great plume of the quill wavering like a strutting peacock. "The mind is like a cellar," Zomblique repeated deflatedly and set his pen back in the inkpot, drumming his fingers on the desk in frustration. "Boggs by name, Boggs by nature," he muttered through his teeth. The mechanical philosopher was not working out. He could never afford another, for there would never be sufficient coin. Not so long as the only thing the wretched clockwork theorist was spouting was precisely such nonsense as this. Truism after truism, empty beatitude after beatitude, triteness, passing conjecture, idle wonder. Sellard's Philosopher, a dedicated aphorist belonging to his neighbour, had run like a top since it had first come into his possession. Dourf owned a verifiable man of letters, a clockwork vintage of one hundred and fifty years in age, still putting forward no less than three sweeping theories per week, publications in major journals at least once per month. His wife and children did not go hungry. Creech had a model that was a patent Fool, not even a Philosopher and it still managed to successfully produce biting satire of a somewhat dark although entertaining tone. Zomblique bit into the lace sleeve that covered his hand and attempted to stifle the misery that clutched at his throat. A lone tear escaped. The swine rustled impatiently in the sty, the baby cried plaintively. Fitting on his leather gloves to avoid the philosopher's sharp edges, Zomblique set his chest of pauper's tools next to the chair in which the automaton was seated. Tuning the fickle machines was more art than science, or so he had been told, and each model was unique. No more than one was ever produced by any one craftsman. Which combination hadn't he tried? Dourf had suggested alternately tightening and loosening the brace that held the mandible in place, to no avail. His grandfather who had been the original owner of the philosopher suggested setting the misericord beneath its left shoulder deep enough so that it was pressing upon, but not puncturing, the diaphragm corresponding to the human heart. It made no difference. He had measured the cranium and expanded and contracted the skull with drift punch and tongs – nothing. Although walking models were said to fare better, the sitting and reclining models also had their strong suits. Zomblique's philosopher had not responded favorably to any variation in positioning. He had tried setting him as if gazing aloofly out of a window, as though aspiring to grasp the heavens. He had tried posing the thumb and forefinger to thoughtfully cradle the chin. "Hungry dogs will eat dirty pudding," Mr. Boggs mumbled. Dourf climbed down the ladder, followed by his lanky companion, the artifice known as Vesselius. Brass bones encased in handsomely-grained walnut, studded with small levers and dials, emblazoned with esoteric glyphs and almost perfectly silent but for the quiet whirring of gears. A darkly shining monocle regarded the limp philosopher with what appeared to be sympathy. "Vesselius, something inspiring please," Dourf requested in his unusually soft tone. The mechanical thinker stood in silence for some moments before adopting a theatrical stance and looking to the skies as though there were no ceiling, he spoke: "It is only the deepest motivation which inspires each and every human action, and it is the vain fear of vulgarity which lies the deepest and closest to man's heart." Zomblique slapped his face with both palms and began to weep. There was a long silence. The animatron maintained its pose as gears whirred, quietly contriving another profound aphorism. "A little cynical," Dourf offered by way of consolation. "I would cut off my thumbs for cynicism," moaned Zomblique. “Please leave us be." Dourf and his machine crept back up the ladder to the sunlight above, a realm where Zomblique would perhaps occasionally visit, but never dwell. To his surprise, Mr. Boggs suddenly stood up. Zomblique's jaw nearly dropped. With clacking wooden feet he made his way to the ladder and followed after Dourf and Vesselius. "Yes, that's right you wretch. Go with them, you're of no use to me." Mr. Boggs awkwardly clambered up the ladder. Before his head went through the trapdoor he turned to Zomblique with his typical empty expression and issued his parting words. "The mind is like a cellar." The mechanism left, never to return. Through the swinging doors, the sullen Zomblique returned to the stink of the underground sty, and the croaking and barking of angry swine. All that remained was the empty cellar, a fine chair and writing desk. Finally without either the consternations of Zomblique nor the dubious adages of Mr. Boggs there was a beautiful silence - a silence that belonged there. * Simon P Murphy is a Nelson occult philosopher and the author of His Master's Wretched Organ.
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Autism has gone from being a little-known condition to being a condition that everyone is accused of having, autistic or not. However, just because everyone is aware of autism doesn’t mean that everything they think they know about the condition is accurate. This article looks at how to write believable and realistic characters with autism.
The most characteristic feature of autism is a pronounced difficulty with social interaction, usually coupled with an obsession with certain repeated actions. This difficulty with social interaction is enough to cause immense difficulty in the lives of some autists and the people around them. This goes beyond mere awkwardness, to a point where fundamental communication becomes difficult.
From the perspective of a person with autism, much of the difficulty about living with the conditions comes from an inability to make the intuitive understandings about other people, and their behaviour, that is usually taken for granted. A person without autism (a “neurotypical”) seems to have an almost psychic understanding of how other people think and behave. Social interaction just seems so effortless for such people.
Your protagonist might have difficulty getting along with someone who has autism, on account of that the autistic character doesn’t seem to understand what the protagonist believes to be the rules of social interaction. The protagonist might make jokes that don’t get laughed at, and come to think that the autistic character doesn’t like them, when the problem is a low level of communication.
Then again, your protagonist might get along with an autistic character just fine. Autists can make a lot of sense, in their own way. Often, a person with autism will be capable of observing human interaction without all the pretense and brainwashing, and can arrive at objective, if odd and unconventional, conclusions. These can sometimes be valuable wisdom (and they can sometimes be juvenile truisms).
Viewed from the outside, an autistic character might appear as excessively orderly, to the point of dysfunction. Autists often like to ritualise certain behaviours (much like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), to the point where not being able to perform the ritual sometimes creates unbearable anxiety. Their speech can be likewise regimented and repetitive. It’s common for them to compulsively stack objects or line them up.
Moreover, autists often feel solidarity with other neurodiverse people, and vice-versa. Autism is entirely different to, say, schizophrenia, but much of the lived experience of autism is similar to other mental conditions. The social rejection and the anxiety about more rejection, the anxiety, the shame, the frustration, the despair: these are all emotions that mentally ill people tend to experience more than others. An autist might relate strongly to someone who also feel them, even if that person is not autistic.
If your protagonist has autism themselves, you will have to be very careful about how you render their internal dialogue, should you write about them in the first person. A lot of fiction is poorly written because the characters in it have an unrealistically high level of understanding the behaviour of other people. An autistic protagonist will frequently be baffled by the behaviour they encounter. Much of their behaviour will be a complete mystery.
One of the most dramatic things about autism is the emotional consequences of the social difficulties that arise from having the condition. The awkwardness of autism is often mistaken by other people for malice, psychopathy, pedophilia, terrorist intent and all manner of other things. This makes life extremely difficult and can make for a harrowing story (unless your protagonist turns out to be a pedophile or terrorist).
It ought to be easy to engender sympathy from your reader here, because most people are sympathetic to the sense of injustice that comes from undeserved social rejection. Despite that, the other characters might feel like they have good reasons to reject the autistic character. After all, it is hard to tell the difference between social clumsiness and malice sometimes.
Because autism is a spectrum, there are many subclinical versions of it. A character with a subclinical level of autism will be relatable for many – after all, there is no person who has perfectly smooth social interactions all day every day. For them, their autism might be something that just makes life more colourful or interesting.
Autism can increase in severity all the way up to the point where a character with it will just about live in their own world, divorced from the concerns of most of the others. Realistically, a character with severe autism will have a hard time being a major character in your story because their degree of communication impairment will be so severe that no-one else will understand them. More moderate forms could involve a degree of social impairment that can be more or less overcome.
There is reason to believe that small amounts of autism can be helpful in certain occupational fields, especially those that pertain to the imposition of order upon chaos. Therefore, an autist need not be presented as conspicuously mentally ill. They might have found a niche that suits them perfectly, in some job that requires order to be imposed upon chaos. Mechanics and computer engineers are favourites.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
Once known as Multiple Personality Disorder, and known casually by some as “split personality”, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a condition characterised by more than one distinct personality in the same physical body. The disorder is one of the most misunderstood and mischararacterised of all psychiatric conditions. This article looks at how to write believable and non-cliched characters who have Dissociative Identity Disorder.
People who have DID don’t change personalities whimsically. It usually only happens in response to intense stress or emotional pressure. When it does, however, it can be frightening and confusing for the people who see it. A person who has “switched” personalities might indeed seem to be an entirely different person, with different facial expressions, a different gait, different body language and an entirely different way of talking. Their vibe might feel entirely different, and not just in the sense of a change of mood.
Like many of the conditions in this book, DID is believed to have origins in early childhood abuse. The currently prevailing theory is that particularly intense early childhood trauma can cause the mind to dissociate. If this is severe enough, this dissociation can lead to one part of the mind becoming almost quarantined from the others, as if to protect the whole.
For example, a child might receive such intense physical abuse that their personality splits into a regular child’s personality (or primary identity) and a second, much harder and meaner one, who comes about as an adaptation to the abuse. What this can lead to is a situation where the second personality comes out in stressful situations as if trying to “defend” the primary personality from further trauma and abuse. That second personality might be willing to make decisions and take measures that the first cannot countenance.
Characteristic of this condition is the inability for one persona to remember things that have been said to another persona. Because the various personas are complete personalities with their own set of memories, things that are understood by one persona are not necessarily understood by others. People with DID can also lose track of time very easily, on account of that time that passes for one personality doesn’t necessarily also pass for another.
If the protagonist of your story encounters a character with DID, their first clue might be observing signs of depression in that other character. People with DID commonly also have depression, partially on account of the difficulty of living with the condition, and partially as a result of early childhood trauma and abuse. Other conditions are commonly comorbid with DID, especially the other conditions that are believed to have origins in heavy childhood trauma, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia and bulimia.
Your protagonist might find it baffling how that the character with DID sometimes doesn’t remember what’s said to them. Even more baffling is that the character with DID will often react with anger if it is put to them that a certain subject had already been talked about. Your protagonist might conclude that the character with DID is on drugs of some kind, and they might feel like they have good reason to draw such a conclusion.
In other ways, your protagonist might have to tread carefully. The heavy childhood abuse that usually precedes the development of DID can make a character with the condition hard to deal with for reasons not directly related to it. For example, they might be paranoid, suspicious, vicious etc. before the effects of DID are accounted for. This might mean that your protagonist mistakes the separate personalities of a person with DID as them being dishonest. Your protagonist might feel that the character with DID is only pretending not to remember things.
If the protagonist of your story has DID themselves, then telling a story about them automatically becomes a challenge because it isn’t clear who is speaking in the first person and who is speaking in the third. Assuming that there’s a primary personality and a secondary one, the primary one might be the one that is written about in the first person. It’s possible to do both, but care has to be taken not to sound like you are retelling the story of Jekyll and Hyde.
Your protagonist’s encounters with other characters could become extremely difficult if the protagonist has this condition. They might find themselves confronted with repeated accusations of being two different people – an accusation which is, understandably, not simple to deal with. Neither are accusations of being on drugs, or being a bastard, or lying, or just being fucked-up – all things that a protagonist with DID might have to deal with from other characters.
DID is not schizophrenia, but it shares many things in common with schizophrenia. DID is believed to be the single most strongly correlated psychiatric condition with severe early childhood abuse and neglect, with schizophrenia closely behind. So a person with DID might have deep understanding of how schizophrenics think and operate, and may have gone through some parts of the schizophrenia spectrum themselves.
It’s worth noting here that attempting to get off a criminal charge by claiming that one has DID and that one’s alternate personality did the crime has virtually zero chance of success, and that even if it did succeed the consequences would probably entail involuntary psychiatric care every bit as unpleasant as going to prison. Juries and judges are wise to such simple tricks and it won’t succeed outside of an extraordinary setting.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) is a condition characterised by an extreme emotional dependence on other people. It’s usually a long=term condition that makes it much harder to live an ordinary life, and is slightly more common among women and young adults. This article looks at how to accurately write about characters with Dependent Personality Disorder.
People who have DPD have extreme difficulty making decisions on their own on account of their dependence on other people. They tend to lack the self-confidence to back their own instincts and their own decision making. They are rarely certain that they have made a good decision, unless someone else gives it their approval. This approval they constantly seek, and they constantly act to avoid disapproval.
DPD is a Cluster C Personality Disorder, which means that fear and anxiety are ever-present features of it. In this case, the fear and anxiety primarily relates to making wrong decisions. For whatever reason, people with DPD don’t learn that no-one on this planet really knows what they’re doing and that their decisions are usually as good as anyone else’s. Dependent personalities have a strong desire to have someone else give the “stamp of approval” to their behaviours and actions.
If the protagonist of your story encounters a character with DPD, they might perceive that second character as childish, even infantile. Many of their mannerisms will be the same as young children who are yet to learn the boundaries of social behaviour. A common example is when they make a joke but become afraid that it was a social error until someone else laughs, at which point they do too.
This can be frustrating if the protagonist has to get the character with DPD to take adult responsibilities and to be independent. The condition is especially challenging since the harder someone pressures a person with DPD to take responsibility, the more anxious they will become, and consequently the more dependent. The protagonist will have to know patience to succeed, and if they don’t know if they have to learn.
Your protagonist might be resented by a DPD character if that character feels the protagonist is not approving enough. It’s common for people to think disparagingly of someone with DPD because they see dependency as weak and craven. This timidity can breed resentment, so that a character with DPD might easily feel themselves slighted and wish to take revenge. Passive-aggressive behaviour is a common feature.
A protagonist who has DPD themselves probably lives a life of extreme anxiety. Because so many decisions are made in everyday life, a protagonist with DPD will almost certainly have a lot of difficulty living one. They will have great difficulty getting projects or activities started, because they are too dependent on what other people think to take the initiative themselves.
This is especially the case when a person with DPD has to be examined by an authority figure. If a protagonist with DPD has to, for example, sit a driver’s licence test, it’s common for them to work themselves into a state of panic beforehand, thinking about the possibility of making a mistake and earning the instructor’s disapproval. Passing through international customs is also a great trial. Both of these situations induce far more anxiety in someone with DPD than in a person without the condition.
If your protagonist has this condition, they might find it extremely difficult to ask for their rights if they are being taken advantage of. A character with DPD might be so afraid of disapproval from their boss that they don’t seek to enforce their rights, and standing up to one’s parents is out of the question (unless one is really pushed too far). They might also take measures to ensure that they are never alone, because this requires that one think for oneself.
People with this condition tend to be highly motivated to seek out and maintain relationships with people they consider protectors or caregivers. A protagonist who is acting along these lines might find that pledging their allegiance to a leader of some kind alleviates much of their anxiety about not making correct decisions, for good or for ill.
DPD patients usually have a perception of themselves as powerless or incapable of anything, which might betray a life story of having been treated in that manner by authority figures. Mirroring this is a perception of other people as all-powerful and infinitely capable. This is not simply the same as low self-esteem, because DPD doesn’t tend to come with the bitterness and resentment that characterises a poor self-image.
As with many of the conditions in this book, there is believed to be a considerable link between early childhood abuse or neglect and later development of DPD. In particular, it is thought that parenting styles with too much overprotectiveness or authoritarianism correlate with having the condition. Overprotective parents might prevent a child from exposing themselves to danger and therefore from learning that they are capable of overcoming it, whereas authoritarians might create a sense of learned helplessness.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
Frequently confused with schizophrenia, Schizotypal Personality Disorder (STPD) is a schizophrenia spectrum disorder that manifests as an extremely odd or eccentric personality type, with strong social anxiety and unpopular beliefs. The characteristic feature of it is an unwillingness or inability to engage in close social bonds such as friendships. This article looks at how to write engaging and believable characters with STPD.
The concept of a “schizophrenia spectrum” is relatively new and the precise boundaries between the various stages on this spectrum are not yet perfectly clear. One way of thinking of STPD is as a less debilitating and destructive form of schizophrenia. STPD is a Cluster A personality disorder, which means that people with the condition broadly come across as odd or eccentric, but not particularly dangerous or anxious.
Despite affecting around 3% of the population (and a higher percentage in males), so that almost everyone will have met someone with it, STPD is not a well-known condition. A character with STPD might be conspicuous on account of odd habits when it comes to speech or dress. They might mumble and speak vaguely and imprecisely, and they might wear highly unfashionable clothing or styles of clothing without thinking it amiss.
Some theories consider that there are two different forms of schizotypal personality disorder, one which is passive and one which is active. These are called insipid and timorous schizotypy.
If the protagonist of your story encounters an insipid schizotypal person, they might have difficulty with that person’s strange and absent way of being. Sometimes this sort of schizotypy can come across as vacant, as if the person inside was without emotion. If your protagonist is not a worldly type they might mistake a character with STPD for being on heavy drugs.
The protagonist of your story might want to make friends with a character who has a condition like this, only to be constantly frustrated. The other character might have decided as a general rule that other people don’t like them and so it’s not really worth trying to be friends with them, and so they are not interested in a friendship with your protagonist. Your protagonist might try several ways to overcome this social reticence, and may or may not succeed.
People who are timorous schizotypal are likely to create a different set of problems. This version of schizotypy is more active, which means that it is more likely to present as hostility and paranoia. Although a character with this condition is not likely to become aggressive, they are still likely to exhibit much of the suspicion, wariness and hostility that other people often mistake for aggression.
If the protagonist of your story has schizotypal personality disorder, they might find that other people can’t tell the difference between them and a schizophrenic. It is possible that a person with schizotypal personality disorder is not much different from the characters around them, but that this difference is still enough to cause their ostracisation.
As might be guessed from the above descriptions, people who have STPD often have related conditions, such as Paranoid Personality Disorder, Depression or Avoidant Personality Disorder. People with STPD are often genuinely afraid of other people and what those other people might think of them, and this can lead to them becoming paranoid about what other people are saying about them.
A person with STPD might then choose to just stay away from other people so as to not give them a reason to dislike them. A character developing this condition might find themselves discovering more and more reasons for avoiding social contact until they end up becoming a shut in.
Also very common are what are called delusions of reference. This is when a person encounters an event that they interpret as having special meaning just for them. For instance, a character with STPD might hear some advertisement on television and think it’s referring to them specifically, or they might meet a person twice on the same day by total coincidence, and mistake this for being stalked or similar.
Like many of the conditions in this book, schizotypal personality disorder is heavily correlated with early childhood abuse and neglect. There are some theories that suggest that the schizophrenia spectrum, rather than being simply a form of damage, is an adaptation, in which the person afflicted falls into chaos in the hope of reforming in a healthy way, instead of staying hard and risking becoming vicious.
For this reason, the schizotypal personality, like the schizophrenic, often feels hard done by and misunderstood. They might be aware that the usual course of action for a person who has been damaged as badly as them is to become cruel, perhaps vicious, and that their condition has in some sense prevented this. A profound sense of injustice can arise from the reality that their condition will afford a low social status.
Bulimia nervosa (usually known as bulimia) is a psychiatric condition characterised by intense bouts of over-eating, followed by a “purge” of some kind. The condition is about nine times more common in women than in men, and is believed to affect 1% of young women at any given time. This article looks at how to write engaging and believable characters with bulimia.
The classic example of bulimic behaviour is to consume an abnormally large amount of food, and then go to the toilet to vomit it all up. It’s worth noting that simply throwing up a lot, even after eating, is not sufficient for a bulimia diagnosis. The throwing up is not the main factor, as the condition is psychological and not physical.
It’s also worth noting that bulimia is very different to anorexia, despite that both conditions are eating disorders caused by a nervous complaint. Bulimics and anorexics share many symptoms, in particular the obsession with food and body image, but there are major differences. Bulimics are often at or near a healthy weight (despite the unhealthiness of much of their activity), and anorexics do not binge eat as a general rule.
If the protagonist of your story encounters another character with bulimia, it might be a matter of slowly coming to the realisation. The character with bulimia might show signs of having thrown up a lot or recently, such as bloodshot, puffy eyes or burst blood vessels in the face. Other physical tell-tale signs are low energy and evidence of self-harm.
Another character might give away signs that they are falling into a pattern of bulimia. An obsession with dietary rules is a common early sign. A character developing bulimia might also develop a set of strict dietary rules that they expect themselves to abide by. These rules might seem obsessional to a second character, but the bulimic character is unlikely to appreciate this sentiment.
These rules are key to understanding the condition. Because consuming fewer calories than one needs to survive is not sustainable in the long-term, the strict dietary rules will inevitably be broken. This doesn’t come with a sense of relief but a sense of horror and shame – feelings so intense that they have to be purged. In this state, vomiting often brings the desired relief.
If the protagonist of your story has bulimia, they are likely to live a very difficult life with a considerable amount of confusion. Thoughts of suicide are common, a symptom of both the condition itself and the difficult life circumstances caused by the condition. Also common are depressive and obsessive-compulsive thoughts, especially self-recrimination and rituals relating to food.
A protagonist with bulimia will probably experience a great deal of anxiety in their everyday life. This is not just because of the condition itself, with the neverending worry and guilt relating to food and body shape. It is also because of the social anxiety that comes with trying to keep their condition a secret. Your protagonist might find themselves telling lies to keep other characters from realising they are bulimic.
A character who develops bulimia may do so on account of exposure to media images that create an idea about what a human body ought to look like. It’s common for teenage girls – especially those who have never previously thought about their bodies as things that sexually attract men – to develop an obsession with what their bodies ought to look like. Bodily self-hate is an inevitable consequence of this for some people.
Some societies that have not yet been exposed to sophisticated and manipulative Western advertising culture find it a shock when they finally are. Many people have been unaware of the possibility of hating their own body on account of it being the “wrong shape”. Some cultures are naive when it comes to lies and lying, and are more easily affected by them. These cultures can see sudden spikes of bulimia rates when this advertising does come.
Like many other psychiatric conditions, bulimia carries an increased risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm. Thoughts like this form an unpleasant positive feedback loop, where the low self-regard puts a person at risk for bulimia and the bulimia causes low self-regard. A character with the condition may not realise that their thoughts are circular. On the other hand, they might be all too aware, and start losing sanity.
Also like other psychiatric conditions, there is a body of literature that suggests a strong correlation between having bulimia and early childhood abuse, in this case sexual. It’s possible that the trauma of sexual abuse leads to some difficulty in handling thoughts and feelings related to one’s own sexual attractiveness.
Bulimia is, along with anorexia and schizophrenia, one of the psychiatric conditions most likely to end in suicide. It is easily possible that such a fate will await a bulimic character in your story – after all, the average woman can no easier look like a photomodel than the average man can look like Schwarzenegger. However, like most mental illnesses, the majority of people with bulimia find some way to accommodate it in their lives.
Bipolar Disorder is an extremely taxing mental disorder that is believed to affect about 1% of the population at any given time. Most commonly affecting people in their mid to late 20s, the condition affects men and women in roughly equal numbers. This article looks at how to write believable and realistic characters with Bipolar Disorder.
As the name suggests, bipolar disorder refers to two distinct poles, one corresponding to ‘up’, the other ‘down’. These relate to mood and behaviour; Bipolar Disorder was once known as “manic depression”. The stereotypical course of Bipolar Disorder is for someone to feel extremely low and depressed, and then suddenly feel high-energy and manic, only to fall back into depression, in a cycle that never ends (important to note here that the cycle is not predictable, like a pendulum, but chaotic).
Although the idea of mania can sound appealing to those with no experience of the condition, and although it is generally much less unpleasant than depression, Bipolar Disorder causes problems at either pole. It contrasts with healthy, natural changes in mood in the sense that people with the condition are seldom in an average, moderate state inbetween the two poles, as mentally healthy people are.
When a person in this condition is in a depressed phase, they are at risk for all of the suicidal behaviours that accompany Major Depressive Disorder. Self-harm is common among people with Bipolar Disorder, a function of the deep self-hatred that occurs in depressive phases. However, when a person is in a manic phase, they are also at risk of harming themselves.
Manic periods have to last for at least a week to really count, as an elevated mood could occur for any number of reasons. The manic phase of Bipolar Disorder can, at its most extreme, present much like a methamphetamine bender. A character undergoing one will tend to talk fast, sometimes stammering, and will have difficulty following a conversation, being easily distracted. Also like a methamphetamine bender, manic episodes tend to result in very little sleep. At worst, they can cause a person to become psychotic.
The combination of these factors can result in some extremely risky behaviour, which could be dynamite for your creative fiction. Hypersexuality, gambling, drug-taking and speeding in motor vehicles are all common behaviours for a person with Bipolar Disorder while they are in their manic phase. Someone behaving like this might seem like they’ve been given a week to live and want to make the most of it.
A character with Bipolar Disorder might not be easy for other characters to deal with. The erratic moods of bipolar sufferers means that other characters seldom feel comfortable around them. People with bipolar can be unpredictable. They are also very high suicide risks, because of the combination of impulsiveness arising from the mania and the self-hatred arising from the depression.
Sometimes a character with Bipolar Disorder will come across as full of energy and life and enthusiasm, making them seem very charismatic to another character. Other times they were be low in energy and miserable, which makes them seem very different. Someone who meets a Bipolar character while they are at one pole, and then meets them again while they are at the other, might have difficulty believing they’re the same person.
If the protagonist of your story has Bipolar Disorder, they might find themselves facing a considerable degree of social stigma. As mentioned above, their condition might make other characters feel uncomfortable. The protagonist might find themselves getting overlooked for parties and for social occasions on account of that other characters are afraid they will be in too crazy of a mood.
If the protagonist encounters another character with Bipolar Disorder, things might not be much easier. It’s common to meet a person with Bipolar Disorder during one of their manic phases, because this tends to cause them to become more extraverted. During this time, they might strike others as dynamic, engaging and enthusiastic. However, if a friendship is formed, it may not survive the depressive phase.
There are two kinds of Bipolar Disorder, known as Bipolar I and Bipolar II. The essential difference lies in the severity of the manic symptoms. The more powerful the manic symptoms, the more likely the sufferer will get a diagnosis of Bipolar I. This is not to downplay the difficulty of living with Bipolar II, but some of the hypomanic episodes in the latter case can actually be useful for getting things done.
Bipolar Disorder is distinct from Borderline Personality Disorder, although the behaviour of people with the condition can appear similar. For instance, people with either condition are capable of changing their attitude towards another person very quickly, but the Bipolar sufferer tends to have more self-awareness than the Borderline and maybe aware that their change in perception is not fully rational.
Panic Disorder (PD) is a kind of anxiety disorder that is characterised by reoccurring, sudden attacks of intense fear without any obvious cause. These attacks, called panic attacks, involve a number of unpleasant psychological and physical sensations, including shortness of breath, dizziness, heart palpitations and sweaty hands. This article looks at how to believably portray Panic Disorder in your creative fiction.
A panic attack usually lasts for about ten minutes. The first sign is usually a wave of adrenaline and noradrenaline that surges through the bloodstream in preparation for the fight or flight response. It’s common for sufferers to feel a panic attack even in their bowels. Despite the absence of an obvious threat, the panic can be equally as intense as if one was confronted with a terrorist mass shooter.
One unpleasant feature of these attacks is that they can stir many different kinds of fears. Some panic attacks make the victim afraid of dying, whereas others make them afraid that they will lose control and become a screaming mess (even though this is extremely rare). In some ways the experience is like a tour de force of terror.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about this condition is that panic attacks are so unpleasant that they can be traumatising, and this creates fear of future panic attacks, which is often enough to itself cause a panic attack. So a person with the condition can end up learning to fear situations which may cause panic, and this can lead to social isolation in a similar fashion to agoraphobia.
If the protagonist of your story has panic disorder, it is likely that they have to live a life somewhat on the outside. Panic Disorder makes it difficult to socialise, especially when a person starts to become afraid of future panic attacks. This can lead to an everyday experience of constant misery, as the protagonist starts to twist themselves up in knots of over-thinking and anxiety.
An interesting story can be told about a normal life that starts to break down because of Panic Disorder. It’s common for a sufferer of the condition, at least in the initial stages, to be unaware that they are suffering from a recognised psychiatric condition. The panic attacks can be embarrassing, on account of that they have no obvious cause, and it’s easy for a person who suffers them to consider themselves mentally weak rather than sick. They can seem to come out of the blue.
People with Panic Disorder tend to develop a fear of the places in which they have had panic attacks, by way of association. This is one of things that makes the condition so disruptive. Even something as simple as going shopping can become an ordeal if a person is afraid that the experience will trigger a panic attack. Because much of the suffering of the condition is caused by fear of the next attack, certain places can themselves become intimidating.
If a character in your story encounters another character with Panic Disorder, how the first character reacts will tell the reader a great deal about their level of compassion. Because panic attacks can be set off without any obvious cause, the suffering is in the mind. This means that people who need help and reassurance from others can usually only get it from especially empathetic people. A character who helps out another one suffering a panic attack might demonstrate their nature to the reader.
A character with Panic Disorder might have a very complicated relationship with drugs. Many people with the condition have found that alcohol, cannabis, tobacco etc. has a short-term, immediate effect of quelling the panic, but have also found that using these substances makes a panic attack more likely once they have worn off. A character taking drugs to treat their anxiety might not have figured the second point out yet.
In contrast with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder tends to come in sharp spikes or groups of attacks. GAD is an ever-present background hum of anxiety, whereas people with Panic Disorder can often live entirely normal lives until the panic kicks in. When people with Panic Disorder are anxious, it is usually because of a particular fear of another panic attack rather than anything general.
Mass Panic Disorder is not a condition in the DSM, but the author might still like to use the phenomenon in their creative fiction. A contagious panic attack might be the event that leads to mass destruction of part of your story world, leading to the disruption of the life of one of your characters. An explosion might cause a mob reaction that a character gets caught up in.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a condition characterised by extreme emotional instability and sensitivity to criticism. This means that characters with the condition are naturally well suited to dramatic fiction. This article looks at how to write interesting and believable characters with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Originally named because it was the label given to those on the border between diagnoses (in particular psychosis and neurosis), BPD has taken on a somewhat different meaning in recent editions of the DSM. Indeed, some believe the name is no longer accurate, and the condition ought to be renamed as something like “Emotional Disregulation Disorder”.
People with BPD tend to have extremely strong reactions to criticism. This is believed to stem ultimately from a weak sense of self, which makes them prone to being heavily impacted by what other people say about them. It’s as if they don’t have the same defences that most people have when it comes to accepting criticism and resisting bullying.
They also tend to have problems when it comes to interpersonal empathy. A character with BPD might seem a bit narcissistic or psychopathic to other characters because of their apparent refusal to take other people’s feelings into account when making decisions. Alternatively, they might perceive someone to be angry at them when they really are not.
If the protagonist of your story has BPD, it might be that they experience even mild criticism as brutal, sharp and denigrating. This could make them seem extremely sensitive, or even narcissistic, to other characters. The difference between BPD and narcissism in this sense is that a person with BPD can be reassured that the criticism was not intended to be wounding, whereas a narcissist would likely bear a grudge.
People with BPD also tend to have a very strong fear of abandonment. It is uncommon for them to feel secure in romantic relationships. A protagonist with this condition will probably experience a lot of thoughts of jealousy and suspicion going through their minds. They will frequently perceive their partner as flirting with others when they really aren’t.
A protagonist that gets involved in a romantic relationship with another character who has BPD is probably in for a rocky time. People with BPD tend to treat their lovers like a demigod one minute and dogshit the next. This is often very difficult for those lovers, who then don’t really know where they stand. The line between this kind of behaviour and narcissistic abuse is not obvious.
On the other hand, a character with BPD might be more than memorable in bed. The combination of emotional intensity, need for reassurance, and lack of inhibition can make for an incredible sexual experience – perhaps even enough to make up for all the insanity otherwise endured. A psychologist can tell you that this kind of treatment is liable to become addictive, which makes for a tumultuous time.
Realistically, an experience with BPD is more likely to be deeply unpleasant than it is to result in legendary erotic achievements. Self harm is common among people with the condition, and could be considered characteristic of it. If the protagonist of your story encounters someone with scars on their forearms, this could foreshadow some intensely emotional scenes.
If your protagonist encounters a character with BPD, they might realise something is amiss on account of that that character has dysfunctional life goals. The borderline character might seem to drift from one meaningless activity to another, with little awareness paid to the fact that they’re getting older and that time is passing them by. This might manifest as a nihilistic streak.
A character with BPD might be disliked by other characters, sometimes intensely, if they don’t have sympathy for the condition. Because people with it tend to be deeply wounded by criticism, they can develop a tendency to lash out hard at minor insults. This can make them antagonistic and grudge-keeping. Other characters might get the perception that they have to walk on eggshells around the borderline or else run the risk of being attacked.
BPD is around three times more common in women than it is in men (this is likely one of the main reasons why women are often seen as less emotionally stable than men). This can add to the difficulty of having the condition. If you’re writing a female character with BPD, that character might discover that other people don’t take their condition seriously, because their prejudice leads them to put it down to being a woman etc.
In the eyes of a protagonist who is encountering a character with BPD, the borderline character might just seem like a loose cannon, akin to certain other conditions like Schizophrenia and Histrionic Personality Disorder. Much as with those conditions, the risk of self-harm and suicide is often present with BPD. This is partially a result of the disinhibition that comes with the disorder but it is also the result of the fact that people with BPD tend to have difficult lives.
All in all, a character with Borderline Personality Disorder is a good choice if your dramatic fiction needs some more drama. Things are unlikely to remain stable for long with such a character around. However, care will have to be taken to portray such a character with compassion, and not make them seem like an arsehole.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an unusual condition in that almost everyone has it to a greater or lesser degree, but few realise the impact that it has had on their lives. As the name implies, the condition describes when a person’s stress levels or reactions don’t go back to normal after a major traumatic experience. This article looks at how to write believable characters and situations involving PTSD.
PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic event, usually one in which a person thinks they are going to die. The classic examples are exposure to warfare, traffic accidents, sexual assault or physical assault. Experiences like these cause the brain to flood with fear, which can form long-term associations with the other stimuli present. This means that future exposure to those stimuli can trigger that deep fear again.
The classic symptom of PTSD is becoming full of adrenaline and going into combat mode when exposed to a loud noise or a touch to the head. In the former case, the loud noise might remind a character of the explosions of grenades and shellfire in combat; in the latter case, the touch to the head might remind of early childhood abuse at the hands of a parent. In either case, powerful memories of immense fear can quickly come flooding back.
The effects of PTSD are what could be expected from a close brush with gruesome physical death: adrenaline and cortisol prime the character for either combat or running. A character with the condition might easily become stirred into fight-or-flight mode as a response to the trauma. Here it can be seen that PTSD has considerable overlap with other psychiatric disorders, in particular Panic Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
Other effects are an increased propensity for self-harm. After all, one of the natural consequences of having a massively traumatic experience is that a person comes to realise that the world is much nastier or more dangerous than they thought it was. Some people with PTSD might decide that this world is actually pretty shit and not worth living in, given the horrors it contains.
In the case of violent crime or rape, a person might also come to lose all trust in a major societal demographic, which entails everyday difficulties. If a woman comes to distrust all men or a robbery victim comes to distrust all blacks, their life might become a lot harder and quickly, for no real fault of their own. Like children who have had bad experiences with dogs, a person with PTSD might come to dislike anything associated with their initial trauma.
Because PTSD is frequently portrayed in dramatic fiction, care must be taken not to write in cliches. The example of a nightmare leading to someone waking up in the middle of the night screaming, only to realise that the object of their terror is no longer present, is a striking one but also very heavily used. So too is the man staring into the distance, reliving a traumatic experience, not hearing someone calling to them.
A protagonist who suffers from PTSD might be aware of their condition or unaware.
If they are aware that they have PTSD, they might be a deep and sensitive character. They could be directly aware that a particular early life event has damaged them irreparably. This might be the reason for their unusual levels of compassion – the character knows what it feels like to be scared to death and commiserates with others who also do.
A story featuring such a character might be one about how they overcame their psychic damage and managed to find a way to engage joyfully with life. Often this involves healing oneself, the shamanic path. An extremely wise character may have attained their insight through having overcome an equally extreme trauma earlier in their life. Perhaps this experience caused them to understand what another character is going through.
It’s common to have PTSD and to be unaware of it. This is especially plausible on account of that people who incur severe psychological trauma might not show signs of it until many years later. A person might grow into early adulthood with a particularly surly or nasty character because of some heavy trauma incurred while a child. They might also show other signs of being strongly emotional, reckless or impulsive.
Just because a character with PTSD is not aware that they have PTSD, doesn’t mean that other characters will not be aware. In some cases it will be very obvious, because they will observe the first character go into kill mode for what seems like an insufficiently grave provocation. The character with PTSD might soon find that their condition is part of their reputation – they seem “damaged” in the eyes of others.
A combination of the two can also tell a story, such as the case of a protagonist who gradually becomes aware that they have PTSD or something like it. Perhaps they are perceptive enough to realise that a prior event has damaged their psyche – for example, they observe that they feel intense anxiety when presented with a stimulus that reminds them of a particular traumatic event.
If your protagonist encounters a character with PTSD, how that protagonist behaves might depend on their naivety and openness. A naive character might think that simply by being nice to someone with PTSD they can get them to behave normally. Although this is sometimes true up to a point, the reality is that PTSD often carries with it sinister undertones of bitterness and resentment.
It’s common for people who have PTSD for similar reasons to bond strongly over the fact. This is especially true in the case of soldiers, emergency personnel and survivors of abusive relationships. For one thing, misery loves company, but for another, severe trauma is often the kind of experience that deeply shapes a person and their conception of life and reality, so people who share the trauma often share an entire worldview that’s based on it.
C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) isn’t actually in the DSM-V, but it’s worth covering here for the sake of completeness. Essentially it’s a similar condition, only brought about by repeated exposure to a traumatic person or stimulus, as opposed to one single, horrifying event as is usually the case with regular PTSD.
The major difference with C-PTSD is the loss of a sense of self. One’s boundaries are violated with such consistency that it becomes hard to say where one ends and the outside world begins. This can be related to Depersonalisation Disorder and frequently coincides with a deep sense of distrust about other people.
Best known as the condition that causes Grandpa Simpson to fall asleep at a moment’s notice, narcolepsy is an uncommon disorder linked to sleep patterns. This article looks at how to write believable characters with narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a decreased ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. The overwhelming problem with narcolepsy, and its most characteristic feature, is that people with it can feel extremely tired during the day. The most notable symptom is recurring bouts of extreme daytime sleepiness, which can result in falling asleep in unexpected and inappropriate places.
Because being properly awake during the day is virtually a necessity for normal life function, narcolepsy can be a crippling condition for those afflicted. If it’s bad enough, driving a car will be impossible because of the risk of crashing (similar to epileptics). Taking public transport might not be possible either, which means that the life of the a narcoleptic character in your story might have to be a restricted one.
The author should pay close heed to what’s known as the “tetrad of narcolepsy”: cataplexy, sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations and being extremely tired during the day.
Cataplexy is a strange condition that involves the sudden weakening of large muscle groups. A bout of cataplexy can involve a weakening at the knees, or in the neck and head (similar to nodding off to sleep). This is one symptom that can truly wreck the life of a narcoleptic. It isn’t just that the physical debilitation is a problem, it’s that the narcolepsy sufferer learns to fear the social occasions that pose a risk of provoking one.
Sleep paralysis is the experience, often terrifying, of not being able to move one’s body when awakening or falling asleep. The experience of a character undergoing sleep paralysis might be similar to one undergoing night terrors. They may feel as if they have died.
Hypnagogic hallucinations are felt by narcoleptics when falling asleep. These are intense, vivid and dreamlike experiences that usually manifest as sights and sounds. These experiences can feel much like salvia divinorum experiences in that they are surreal and cause one to feel like one is present in another world. These hypnagogic experiences are sometimes disturbing enough to cause a person to get out of bed again.
The excessive daytime sleepiness is probably the most striking and obvious symptom. This manifests as powerful “sleepiness attacks” that overcome the narcoleptic, no matter how much sleep they have had the previous night. These attacks may be irresistible, so much so that the narcoleptic can literally fall on the ground asleep.
Narcolepsy might be more useful as a plot device than as something to afflict a character with. It could be that someone’s narcolepsy in the past led to a car accident, which then had far-reaching consequences for the protagonist of your story. Or it could be that, as a small minority of narcoleptics are “supertasters” with heightened olfactory awareness, your protagonist has a special use in forensic science or perfumery.
It might even be that a character’s narcolepsy has led to them waking up and rearranging their environment during the night. This could be combined with more interesting sleep disorders, like somnambulism.
Another curious point about narcolepsy is that it’s easy to confuse with an addiction to heroin or some other drugs. After all, it need not be immediately obvious to a close observer if a given person nodding off is doing so because of narcolepsy or heroin, drunkenness or something else. A character with narcolepsy might then feel that they are hard done by on account of being treated like something they’re not.
Unlike most of the other psychiatric conditions in this book, narcolepsy is not caused by early childhood abuse or neglect. So a character with it is unlikely to demonstrate signs of being damaged. Possibly they are an entirely normal person by most apparent measures apart from the narcolepsy.
Many stories about mental illnesses are tragedies because of the exposure to violence, neglect or abuse that caused the trauma underlying the illness. In this sense, a story about narcolepsy is probably different. The trauma might be ongoing, on account of that the coming of narcolepsy can ruin the life of an otherwise entirely normal person who had previously given no indication that they might be mentally unusual.
Alternatively, the narcoleptic could be a good choice of character to place at the centre of a comedy. A problem with suddenly falling asleep all the time could make it very hard to get things done. If a band of characters had to achieve some set goal, and one of their number was a narcoleptic, that character might constantly be letting the others down by falling asleep at inopportune times.
Likewise, a narcoleptic guard, surgeon or helicopter pilot might be considered inherently funny, on account of that their condition makes them exceptionally unsuited for that particular job, in a fish out of water sense. The author will have to take care to find the right balance between comic and ridiculous here.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
Unlike most of the conditions in this book, Conduct Disorder (CD) is only diagnosed in children and adolescents. As the name implies, people who get diagnosed with it conduct themselves in ways that the clinician considers disorderly, in particular when it comes to respecting the rights of other people. This article looks at how to write believable and interesting characters with the condition.
The most important thing is to distinguish CD from Antisocial Personality Disorder. CD is the developmental precursor to Antisocial Personality Disorder – it can only be diagnosed in those too young to have a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder (i.e. 18 years of age). It is therefore a developmental condition.
One of the key symptoms of CD is a lower level of fear. This will express itself in a wide variety of ways.
The most notable way that a lower level of fear expresses itself in young people is when it comes to transgressions. A young person has not yet had time to internalise knowledge about the effects that their actions have on other people. They therefore have to learn to be afraid of punishment. This corresponds to Level 1 of Kohlberg’s Scale of Moral Reasoning.
A young person with CD will have a hard time internalising rules about those transgressions, in part because they don’t feel much fear, and so don’t have as much inhibition when primitive impulses towards violence and destruction start playing up on them. Because of this, they regularly violate boundaries relating to other people’s personal space and property.
Another way low levels of fear find expression is in transgressions against one’s own health. Young people already play fast and loose with their health when it comes to having a good time; young people with Conduct Disorder are nihilistically reckless. If the protagonist of your story has Conduct Disorder, chances are that they will be into the booze, weed and pills from their early teenage years.
A character with CD will likely be something of a daredevil. If they are male, they might find themselves drawn to racing motor vehicles or street fighting; if female, to shoplifting and starting trouble between men.
A story with a protagonist who has Conduct Disorder might read like J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Care must be taken here, therefore, not to sound cliched. Anti-hero stories mostly appeal to the same young audience, because they will most readily identify with the spirit of rebellion expressed by such a character. People with Conduct Disorder push the boundaries, for good or ill.
Punk stories, in particular cyberpunk, often feature protagonists who would appear (at least from the authorities’ perspective) to have Conduct Disorder. Young men like John Case of Neuromancer or Jonty Gillespie of The Verity Key are unrepentant criminals, usually because they have to be in order to make a living in the cracks of the edifice of respectable society.
After all, one man’s Conduct Disorder is another man’s righteous rebellion against a tyrannical oppressor. So a character with the condition might be the perfect choice of protagonist if your story involves going up against a large, faceless, totalitarian entity. After all, most of us have a point which, if pushed beyond, we will no longer behave in a co-operative manner.
If a character with CD is pitted against a malicious, evil entity (corporation or government), much of the difficulty in writing your story will come from making that entity unsympathetic enough that the reader readily comes to identify with that character. The more credibly this can be done, the less that character will look like a CD sufferer and more like a righteous hardarse.
Unsurprisingly, Conduct Disorder is highly correlated with all forms of early childhood abuse. A character with the condition might have learned by way of mimicry of their parents that violence and cruelty are perfectly acceptable ways to advance one’s interests, and that fear is for the weak and an invitation to be destroyed.
So if you are writing a character with CD they might not necessarily be a cool, daring and adventurous antihero. Realistically they are more likely to be somewhat brutal. If your protagonist encounters such a character, they might find them intimidating – the class bully, or local street thug.
If your protagonist encounters a character with CD, they could respond in a wide variety of ways, depending on how they themselves are (and their decision will be very revealing to the reader). They might consider that character a cool rebel to be befriended, they might consider them a danger to be avoided, or they might consider them a little brat to be corrected.
Conduct Disorder often occurs at the same time as Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s likely, therefore, that any character with it will have extreme difficulty at school, at work, or with either friends of family. Their life will probably be very chaotic, and will considerable Police or social worker involvement.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
Avoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) is characterised by extreme action taken to avoid certain feared stimuli, usually social. Social anxiety, feelings of unworthiness, timidity and sensitivity lead to a pattern of avoiding situations that involve interacting or socialising with others. This article looks at how to write engaging and realistic characters with the condition.
AVPD is a Cluster C personality disorder, which means that it’s primarily an anxious condition. The essential characteristic of it is an inability to form social bonds brought about by an extreme desire to avoid particular feared stimuli. For example, people with AVPD tend to be very sensitive to social rejection or humiliation.
It is believed to be caused by abusive or neglectful parenting patterns. In particular, rejection by one or both parents is thought to correlate highly with the condition. It can be observed in other mammals that rejection by one or both parents sharply reduces the ensuing life expectancy for that creature. No doubt the trauma from such treatment makes an impact on the behaviour of human survivors.
If your protagonist has AVDP, it might be that they experience loss and social rejection so strongly that they are simply devastated by it. They might have an internal monologue that heavily plays on fears of social encounters going wrong. A story featuring them might read very strangely as it involved a number of events that ended up not happening or not being attended by the protagonist, who felt too anxious to participate.
This can easily lead to a darker, resentful pattern of behaviour, especially if a protagonist with AVDP comes to feel a malicious desire for revenge as a consequence of their rejection. Social rejection need not lead to learned helplessness and submission in every case – it can lead to violent reprisals, especially if the rejected person feels that they have been treated unjustly.
Someone with AVDP might make a convincing villain if the author can convincingly portray a character who has become nasty as a result of their pride. It might be that the villain received some mild slight or insult and their massive ego was punctured, leading to narcissistic rage. They could be the sort of person who never forgives an insult, leading to complicated revenge schemes.
To many outside observers, AVPD looks very similar to just having low self-esteem. People with the condition tend to believe that their social presence is unwanted, and that they are unworthy of the time and attention that they are given in their social relationships. In cases of parental rejection it’s obvious how such thinking might come about, but it can be caused by other things, such as a generalised perception of social rejection.
In the mind of a character with AVPD, the everyday experience might be one plagued by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness, in much the same way that it can be for a depressed person. Indeed, one particular strain of AVPD has a number of depressive features, in particular the casting away of, and refusing to deal with, certain traumatic memories.
A protagonist with the condition is likely to consider themselves socially inept. There might be a lot of blame directed at the self in their internal monologue. It’s possible that there is a personal quality of their own that they fixate on as an explanation for their lack of social success. As mentioned above, this can easily become projected outwards onto society.
People with AVPD can be difficult socially because they can be very needy and very resentful. There is a particular strain of the condition that is hypersensitive in a way that is not dissimilar to those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This type can become easily wounded by jokes or banter, to the extent that others might call them “precious”.
Feedback loops are an unfortunate common effect of this condition. Anxiety about being socially rejected often leads to a range of behaviours that themselves increase the likelihood of social rejection. Anxious eye contact often appears shifty to other people, who then come to distrust the person with AVPD. Because these people trust the person with AVPD less, they speak to them in a less friendly manner, which validates the initial feelings of anxiety and strengthens the avoidant behaviours.
A protagonist with AVPD might find their everyday experience tormenting, because people with the condition have a normal need for social interaction and intimacy – they just fear it. Because of this fear, and sometimes because of resentments, a protagonist with the condition might find their everyday experience tormenting. It might be a relentless march of anxiety, blame, missed opportunities, guilt and rejection.
AVPD sounds, and is, similar to Schizoid Personality Disorder, but there are crucial differences. For one, a character with AVPD will like be more anxious than a schizoid. For another thing, schizoids don’t generally care about other people, whereas people with AVPD will still desire positive social contact.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.
People with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) are colloquially known as “drama queens” or “shit-stirrers”. Fundamental to the disorder is a desire for attention that borders on the narcissistic, as well as strong, shallow, rapidly-changing emotions. This article looks at how to write realistic and believable characters with HPD.
As is the case with many of the conditions in this book (and especially the personality disorders), people with HPD are often high-functioning in several ways. As with most of the conditions in this book, people with HPD can often be entirely competent and effective in their niche. For instance, they excel at screen and theatre acting.
A simple (if crude) way of conceptualising HPD is that, for people with it, drama is like a drug. They get hooked on it, they seek it out compulsively, they try to get bigger and bigger doses of it. The more attention they can draw to themselves the better. A cynic might call them a “psychic vampire” because dealing with them frequently leaves a person tired.
For these reasons, HPD is a fitting and excellent choice for some of the characters in your fiction. A character with HPD will naturally liven things up – even if they end up causing chaos. Because they seek drama out, it is never far from them. Not only do they like drama, but they tend to have just enough narcissism to bring some truly dark emotions out of others.
From the perspective of other characters who might encounter a character with HPD, one of the most difficult things about them is their apparent need to be overly emotional and dramatic all the time. Because emotional reactions are contagious to some extent, a person with HPD will tend to trigger those around them – a great quality in a bartender perhaps, but if there is a need for calmness and order this is usually unhelpful.
Other characters might also find the constant self-aggrandisement extremely tiresome. People with HPD like to use elaborate and flowery speech when unnecessary or even unhelpful, and love to tell stories that feature themselves looking good or being heroic. Such typically unsubtle attempts to draw praise are sometimes described as “needy”. Indeed, it is common for people with HPD to display symptoms typical of Dependent Personality Disorder.
Several common characteristics of HPD overlap with common characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of these in particular is the usual reaction to criticism. For the histrionic, any and all criticism is a brutal personal attack, an act of the utmost cruelty. It is so bad that any retaliatory measures are justified (although a character with HPD will tend toward passive-aggressive revenge tactics).
Related to this is the constant seeking of reassurance or approval. A protagonist with HPD might have compulsive thoughts about not being a good enough person and so seeks out ways of being told that they’re worthwhile. If a character has HPD, there might also be very clear ways that this can be shown through their clothing choice: “Loud and proud” would sum up their dress style.
Other characters might find it very stressful to be around a character with HPD, partially because of the narcissism but mostly because they don’t leave other people in peace. Because of their need to be the centre of attention, a character with HPD might continually butt into other people’s conversations, or make it all about them. They’re also generally happy to spread rumours around, especially if they think that doing so will make someone angry.
A character with HPD might strike other characters as superficial or false. After all, their emotions might strongly rise, but they also strongly fall and quickly transform into other ones. A second character might come to feel that they can’t really trust the histrionic one. It’s hard to know whether they’re acting or genuine.
One area in which the lives of people with HPD tend to be in particular disarray is romantically. They commonly perceive sexual interest where none exists. This makes their own lives difficult, as they often end up misreading the signals and making a move on someone who then rejects them. It can also make other people’s lives difficult, as people with HPD tend to perceive sexual infidelity where it doesn’t exist. This jealousy can fuel untold dramas.
On a darker note, people with HPD are well-known for hitting on people who are already in established relationships. This is partly because of the aforementioned tendency to perceive sexual interest where none exists, but this can also be influenced by a narcissistic refusal to respect other people’s boundaries and an inability to delay gratification.
Having said that, people with HPD are often very engaging to make love to. Excessive sensitivity and dependence on other people’s approval can make for a powerful contribution to the bedroom magic.
Adding a character with HPD to your story, or adding aspects of it to a character in your story, has the potential to liven things up but there is a risk that it can also make things more trivial. Because histrionic characters can get upset over small things, they can be hard for the reader to relate to, and therefore are often better as a foil to another character or as comic relief.
Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD) is a condition characterised by extreme distrust and suspicion of other people and their motives. Characters with PPD are well-suited to serving fictional roles as fiendish adversaries or challenging social obstacles. This article gives some useful tips for writing a believable and engaging character with Paranoid Personality Disorder.
People with PPD are generally very low on the agreeableness scale. Characteristic of the condition is an extreme suspicion of other people’s motives. To be paranoid is to be distrusting, and without a significant element of mutual trust it’s impossible to have any kind of social organisation.
A diagnosis of PPD comes when paranoia has led to a level of disruption that has caused significant disruption in the life of that person or others. It’s not hard to see how this can easily happen in the case of extreme paranoia, for the aforementioned social reasons. A person with PPD is unlikely to trust their employer or supplier to not be ripping them off, and nor are they likely to trust a professor or a doctor.
A protagonist with PPD might live in a world of perceived malevolence. They might see schemes, tricks and traps around every corner. No-one ever approaches them with good news, or with a good offer: all human contact represents merely just another attempt to cheat them. In this regard, the life of a character with PPD might be socially impoverished in a similar fashion to someone suffering from Schizoid Personality Disorder, only with distrust replacing indifference.
If the protagonist of your story encounters another character with PPD, chances are high that they won’t like them very much. It isn’t a pleasant experience to be spoken to as if one is a liar, especially when one had never considered actually lying. It also becomes quickly apparent that investing time and emotional energy in a friendship with a paranoid person is unlikely to be reciprocated, because their constant suspicion will quickly lead to them discounting the value of any favours or friendship offered.
This could make for an interesting story if the protagonist was tasked with winning the trust of a character with PPD. Such a story might mean that the protagonist has to find a way to tease out the few remaining trusting elements in that person and making sure that they get rewarded.
It might also mean that your protagonist ends up learning exactly how someone can end up with PPD in the first place. Perhaps the character they are interacting with did genuinely get cheated, on multiple occasions, by liars who they once trusted: parents, teachers, lovers, bosses. There could be a further twist, if the character with PPD brought all this upon themselves owing to their own malignant personality.
It’s common for individuals with PPD to have what appears to be a “fragile” personality. Ambiguous comments are frequently interpreted as personal attacks, and jokes are often taken in bad humour. Even worse, these reactions are often permanent, because individuals with PPD do not readily forgive slights and insults. For obvious reasons, such behaviour tends to attract enemies, which only serves to fuel the paranoia and mistrust.
A commonly related phenomenon to PPD is that of projection. People who are paranoid are often narcissistic in the sense that they think everything is about them. For this reason, they tend to project their own selfishness and malevolence onto other people. Many cases of paranoia are based on the fact that the paranoid person is themselves not worth trusting.
Some theorists have delineated a variety of subtypes of PPD. Some people with it are particularly stubborn, obsessed with order and regularity and consumed by a fear that someone is trying to cheat them out of something. Others are insular, and lead hermit-like lives far away from the crowds of crooks and criminals that make up society. A third type is malignant – their distrust of other people comes from from suspicion but from hatred.
It’s unlikely that a character in your story will see it as a good thing to encounter a person with PPD, but it is possible. After all, paranoia is an extremely useful aptitude in a variety of security and surveillance-related roles. So if you’re writing about a spy, for example, you might use touches of PPD to flesh out their personality. A character who was once an intelligence officer, but who was let go because they became too paranoid, would be a fitting example.
An interesting twist on a story featuring a character with PPD is if they were actually correct. What if the PPD character was correct in their suspicions of everyone else, and there was, in fact, a great conspiracy or scheme going on?
An important distinction to make is the one between PPD and paranoid schizophrenia (note that paranoid schizophrenia is not in the DSM-V). Paranoid people don’t hallucinate from paranoia alone, and the paranoia involved in PPD is not ludicrously delusional. In other words, a person with PPD may have a twisted conception of reality, but they will not have lost touch with it.
Illness Anxiety Disorder is more commonly known as hypochondria. Most people are familiar with the concept of someone who worries so much about imagined illnesses that they cause themselves actual ones, and everyone can relate to feeling fear when faced with uncertainty about a personal medical condition, but despite the familiarity it’s easy to get it wrong. This article looks at believable and realistic ways to portray a character with Illness Anxiety Disorder.
Hypochondria is one of the most common of psychiatric conditions, probably because humans have evolved to be concerned about their health. Getting alarmed about someone you know getting sick makes a lot of sense if you live in a small tribe of about 150 people, while contagious diseases can decimate society. Getting alarmed because you saw something about cancer on television doesn’t make sense, and if this gets bad enough it can become a real problem. .
The disorder is really a gross exaggeration of what would normally be a healthy level of anxiety over one’s physical condition. Instead of maintaining a moderate level of awareness about one’s body, ready to take appropriate measures when necessary, a person with Illness Anxiety Disorder will compulsively check and re-check spots and bumps and marks, and will intently track all rumblings and pains.
Hypochondriasis is believed to be ultimately caused by depression and anxiety, which manifests as an obsession with illness. As with many anxiety-based illnesses, dysregulated stress responsivity as a consequence of early childhood abuse is frequently a factor, although this also commonly arises from a single traumatic shock.
If the protagonist of your story has Illness Anxiety Disorder, this might manifest in ways that are similar to the other anxiety-based and obsessive conditions. They might go to considerable lengths to avoid triggering their condition, such as refusing to visit sick friends or family members. This can quickly cause conflict with the people closest to them, especially if those people think that the hypochondriac is shirking their duties.
A character with Illness Anxiety Disorder is likely to fixate on a particular set of symptoms that they have come to believe is indicative of a medical condition. In fact, they are likely to identify a condition and name it. As could be expected, the availability of Dr. Google to everyone’s home has been tempting for those inclined towards Illness Anxiety Disorder. Many hypochondriacs obsessively research their self-diagnosed condition online.
It’s easy for other characters to become frustrated with a protagonist who has Illness Anxiety Disorder, especially if the hypochondria starts to have an impact on their punctuality or ability to hold an ordinary conversation. It quickly becomes tiresome to listen to a litany of medical complaints every time you see a person, and once other characters start to dread such a thing then they are likely to leave the protagonist on their own.
A protagonist who encounters another character with Illness Anxiety Disorder might find it a great challenge to keep the conversation away from that character’s morbid pre-occupation with death and disease. They might have to make a great effort of will to keep their patience and not become angry. It might also be hard not to tell the hypochondriac to “harden up” or to “get over it”.
As with most of the other conditions in this book, Illness Anxiety Disorder has to cause significant disruption to the life of the character with it before it can qualify as a clinical condition. However, there is a wide range of subclinical forms of hypochondria, such as a preoccupation with various symptoms like everyday pains in the chest, stomach, head or gut. These might be symptomatic of a deeper problem.
Most of the disruption caused by this condition is a consequence of the heavy anxiety it is linked with. This anxiety makes hypochondriacs difficult to get along with, because they are always checking their body functions or fidgeting. The constant need for reassurance that hypochondriacs have is apt to drive their doctor up the wall, let along their partner or caregiver.
Usually, a character with hypochondria will not realise it, at least not initially. Most people are not aware of the extent of physical symptoms that can be produced by simple anxiety and depression, and it’s common to attribute these symptoms to a severe disease instead of psychological origins. It’s possible, then, to use physical symptoms – even if psychosomatic – to foreshadow a general decline in health .
At the end of the day, most of your readers will already know about hypochondria and will have met someone with the condition, even if it was at a subclinical level. It won’t take very many hints for them to realise that a particular character in your story is a hypochondriac. The real challenge, from the perspective of the writer, is to depict such a character realistically and not as a stereotype.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be anxious. The clammy hands, the tightness in the gut, the dizziness, the sudden need to urinate. Where anxiety becomes a psychiatric problem is when this anxiety gets out of control, causing suffering and an inability to get through everyday life. This article looks at how to write engaging and believable characters who suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
One cluster of problems that people with GAD tend to have relates to restlessness and irritability. They think too much about what might go wrong. A number of small problems can then have the tendency to build up and to provoke an outburst over something small. Often a person with GAD will hit their limit and explode, to the astonishment of others around them who didn’t appreciate the underlying anxiety.
Other characters might see the usual signs of anxiety, only writ large. They might notice the signs of despair in the face – tight lips or a pallid look. The character with GAD might tap their feet a lot, fidget or stammer. Other characters might be able to detect and increase in the tension level of the room when someone with GAD is present.
The author might prefer to be more subtle, however. A character with GAD might to prone to explosive anger or hysteria, but the other characters might not be able to perceive the anxiety that underlies the fractiousness. They might also be prone to mind blanks from the anxiety. The other characters might only perceive the surface expression of the GAD, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusion.
For instance, people with GAD tend to smoke a lot of tobacco. If the protagonist of your story has GAD, it might be that they’re reaching for the cigarette packet every time the telephone rings. If the protagonist of your story encounters someone with GAD, it may be that the constant presence of tobacco smoke or smell causes them them to realise that that character has an anxiety disorder.
Insomnia is another common sign. If the protagonist of your story is an insomniac because of GAD, this might be something close to a living hell; a nightly torment that they are forced to endure. Other characters will be able to pick it in their face as well – they will look tired, with puffy eyes and a downcast look. They will look every bit like someone for who life is difficult.
People with GAD, like many people with mental disorders, have a tendency to suffer low self-esteem. As with many other conditions, it’s not easy to tell where the border between the mental disorder and personal weakness is. A character with GAD might frequently be asking themselves if they’re a coward, or if they’re really cut out for the challenges of life. Naturally such an attitude will eat away at their self-confidence.
Intertwined with this is the reality that people with GAD will often not be treated too well by other people. For one thing, anxiety tends to be contagious. If another person is anxious it’s hard to properly relax around them because of the chance that they might blow their top any moment. For another thing, anxiety tends to make people selfish, because the focus is on the desires of the self and not the needs of others. This selfishness tends to be reciprocated.
GAD can cause some of the same thought-loops and obsessional thinking as other psychiatric conditions. With generalised anxiety it’s easy to become anxious about being anxious, especially once one has become conditioned by unpleasant physical side-effects of worry. A character with the condition might feel highly anxious every time they feel a slight gut disturbance or chest pain, fearing that death has finally come.
Although there’s a shared component of extreme anxiety, GAD is distinct from phobias. Phobias (as discussed at length here) are fears of specific things that are hard to escape. GAD is also distinct from social anxiety. People with social anxiety tend to only feel anxious in anticipation of the risk of social judgment, whereas people with GAD tend to be anxious all the time.
GAD is also distinct from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but several patterns of thinking overlap between the two. In particular, people with GAD are prone to worrying about things like whether or not they left the stove on when they left the house. Because anxiety is always present in such people, and because the risk of burning down one’s house is (reasonably) something that many people are cautious of, people with GAD are frequently triggered into panic by such common concerns.
The best thing about GAD from an author’s point of view is that virtually all of the readership will be able to identify with it. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to feel unpleasantly high levels of anxiety, so GAD will also be reasonably easy to identify with. Probably they also are aware of how unpleasant it is to be around highly anxious people, so they can identify with that also.
Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) is an uncommon condition that arises as a consequence of permanent perceptual changes brought on by use of hallucinogens. There is almost no data on the prevalence of this condition, and some don’t even believe it exists. Nevertheless, this article will discuss how to believably portray characters with HPPD.
HPPD usually causes a problem because of visual disturbances that are akin to those that accompany a hallucinogenic experience. It’s common to see glowing halos around various objects, or visual trails that linger behind moving objects. It’s also possible to perceive objects as being much larger than they actually are, or much smaller. Some people even see a kind of “visual snow” between objects, like the static on a television set. Auditory hallucinations are also possible.
A character who has HPPD might appear kind of ‘spaced out’ to the other characters. Those other characters might suspect that the one with HPPD is, or has been, on a heavy drug of some kind. Because their perceptions are so vivid, a character with HPPD might be too distracted to pay proper attention to what’s going on around them. This could create a number of social difficulties for that character.
The author might decide that writing a character with HPPD is not very interesting if focus is placed solely on visual and perhaps auditory disturbances. It might be possible to tell a far richer and more engaging story by showing the reader some of the other lingering psychological effects of psychedelics, especially the deeper emotional and spiritual ones.
The problem with this approach is that one soon steps outside the bounds of the clinical – which is perfectly fine for the sake of literature, but it has to be kept in mind that the strictures of the DSM are distantly removed from what follows here.
Many psychedelic drugs have the capacity to break down a person’s existing perception of reality and replace it with something entirely different. This means that some of the persisting perceptions that arise from hallucinogenic drugs use are not so much sensual, but intuitive.
A common persisting perception from using hallucinogens is a belief that the material world isn’t real. Our culture is materialist; we take for granted that the material world is real and that the human brain generates consciousness. For the vast majority of us, it seems intuitively true that the material world genuinely exists and that the brain gives rise to consciousness, and this perception is so common that it’s taken for granted by most.
People who have HPPD might no longer believe in materialism. They may feel that, in the course of a hallucinogenic trip, they were granted a particular insight into the way the cosmos truly functions. Maybe they now believe that the world is a dream in the mind of God. A character who has had a change in perceptions relating to cosmic attitudes might find themselves coming into conflict with some of the other characters around them. Theirs could be a story of how easy it is to get ostracised from a community for having unique beliefs.
In practice, it doesn’t actually matter whether materialism is correct or not; a character who becomes a non-materialist as a result of a hallucinogenic experience will have extreme difficulty fitting into society in any case. They will frequently be rejected and mocking for being mentally ill. In particular, it will be impossible for them to convince a psychiatrist that their new belief is anything other than a mental illness. A character who thinks like this will therefore likely be an outsider to some degree.
Another common change in perception relates to the presence of a light at the end of the tunnel. Dovetailing with materialism is atheism – the two seem to follow each other closely. The vast majority of people who were raised atheist do not believe in the presence of a benevolent force that watches over their life with a desire to end their suffering. The cosmos is indifferent to human suffering and misery.
A person who has a strong experience with a hallucinogen can easily come to change their opinion on this subject. It might be that your protagonist has suddenly decided to believe in God – not the God of Abraham, but the benevolent, all-pervading force that gives rise and motion to the world. This might not be received well by the other characters in your story, especially if they are materialists, or if they believe in a dead God such as the Abrahamic one. They will probably think your protagonist is mad or evil.
This can make for an interesting story because of the contrast between the good feelings that arise naturally inside a person who has spiritual satisfaction, and the bad feelings that comes from the outside world as a consequence. Their social life might become much more difficult than before, on account of pressure to go back to the socially-approved way of thinking. This could push them into the arms of a new group of people, such as those who have also seen beyond.
These persisting changes in perception are much more subtle than the visual and auditory ones, but they might have just as large an impact on a person’s ability to live a normal life, primarily because of the social disruption just mentioned. In extreme cases, these changes in perception might make employment also impossible, leading to radical life changes that could lead anywhere.
Writing a character with HPPD is no easy task, because it is likely that most of the readers are not intimately familiar with the effects of hallucinogens and so will have difficulty relating to the often bizarre and surreal perceptual changes that accompany the condition. However, if executed skillfully, a tale with a character who has HPPD could be highly entertaining, insightful or even edifying.
Most people are familiar with the idea of phobias – the term refers to intense and persistent fears of things, to the point that a person with a phobia will take extraordinary measures to avoid triggering it. Although most people have mild, subclinical phobias of some things and manage okay, for others a phobia can cause immense disruption to everyday life. This article looks at how to believably write characters who suffer from phobias.
The degree of fear caused by a phobia is enough to cause chaos in a person’s life. Instead of merely feeling alarm, a person presented with the object of their fear (or even the threat of it), will often break out in sweats, heart palpitations, dizziness and shaking. They will go to great lengths to avoid being exposed to the triggering stimulus, even if doing so has a heavy impact on their day-to-day social functioning.
Generally speaking, there are three major kinds of phobia.
The first kind of phobia is called a specific phobia – it’s a phobia of something specific, such as spiders, heights or dogs. This sort of phobia is usually a reaction to situations that occurred frequently in the biological past. For this reason, there’s nothing really unnatural about them – it’s just that the fear has been exaggerated to a point where it causes more harm through disrupting a person’s life than it helps avoid harm from danger.
Many phobias begin with an incident in which the object of the phobia caused intense fear in a person. For instance, a person walking through a field and being stopped in their path by an angry dog might develop a phobia of dogs. A phobia of spiders might develop from a childhood in an unclean house that was full of spiderwebs.
Readers who have never experienced living with a phobia could well be interested in reading about the sort of thoughts that go through the head of a character with one, or how they behave (or feel themselves forced to behave) on account of having the phobia. Few who have never had a phobia can imagine how intrusive the fear can be, and how greatly it can impact the ability of a person to live a normal life.
Social phobia is different to a specific phobia in the sense that the phobia reflects a general fear that follows the person with it. Social phobia relates to an intense fear of being judged. In particular, it tends to revolve around a fear of being humiliated in public by means of some judgment being levelled. People with it tend to feel very uncomfortable around authority figures, and would never raise their hand in class to answer a question from the professor.
Most people have a degree of self-consciousness that modifies their actions, but for a person with social phobia this will be exaggerated well beyond mere shyness. For instance, someone with social phobia may be unable to get a driver’s licence on account of being unwilling to sit with the traffic control officer and risk being judged as unfit to drive a motor vehicle.
A character with social phobia might be more interesting if their phobia was ultimately grounded in narcissism. It might be that they were only afraid of being judged on account of having an enormous ego that could not handle even the faintest criticism. This might lead them to becoming vicious in defence of that ego, or to adopting an exaggerated ‘cool’ affectation intended to mask their extreme fragility in the face of judgment.
The third major kind of phobia is agoraphobia. This relates particularly to a fear of finding oneself in an environment that offers no easy means for escape. These environments are common ones such as trains, elevators or open spaces, which naturally leads to a significant impact on ordinary life function. Being caught in such a space with no easy avenue of escape can easily cause a panic attack in an agoraphobic.
Much like social phobia, a character that has agoraphobia might live a particularly lonely and unhappy life. Having agoraphobia makes it much harder for a person to get out of their house, because their house becomes a kind of safe zone from the horrors of society. Stressful and traumatic events can trigger agoraphobia, and central to it is the fear of loss of control. Going outside comes to feel like stepping into the maelstrom.
Generally speaking, it’s easy to include a character with a phobia in your story because almost all of your readers will understand fear, and so they will be able to relate to that character. Having a character with a phobia might be an easy way to create a strong sense of fear and dread in your reader, especially if the phobia is a common one.
Phobias are not generally believed to arise as a result of a moral failing or of any personal weakness. It will therefore be easy to write a character with a phobia who comes across sympathetically to the reader. Portraying a character who struggles valiantly to live a normal life despite a crippling phobia might read as heroic, but if emphasis is put in the wrong places the character might come across as a milksop.
Anorexia nervosa (usually just called anorexia) is an eating disorder characterised by an overpowering fear of being fat or of gaining weight. This fear is so all-consuming that it can lead to illness from self-starvation. This article looks at how to write engaging and believable characters with the condition.
The basis of the psychopathology of anorexia is believed to be valuing of thinness. People with anorexia feel that being thin is extremely important, to the extent of it being an obsession. For this reason, anorexia is much more common among women compared to men, and more common among women exposed to fashion media or who have an interest in sport and fitness compared to other women.
More specifically, thinness is considered important because it’s where a person’s sense of self-worth derives from. Thinness is seen as a virtue by anorexics, which is why the condition is so hard to understand for people who don’t have it.
Some might be surprised to hear that anorexia is one of the most deadly of all psychiatric conditions, up there with schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. An unusually low body weight is linked to a wide range of physical ailments, as many elementary bodily functions cannot operate past a certain level of starvation. Even without intending to, it’s common for anorexics to become sick and die as a consequence of lengthy periods of starvation.
If you are writing about a protagonist that suffers from anorexia, their internal dialogue might have a lot of anxiety based around a need to be in control of their body weight. Sometimes such a person will have a ruthless, almost sadistic approach towards their own body. This explains why there is a high degree of comorbidity with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. A person with anorexia often becomes extremely particular and fussy about their food and their calorie intake.
Then again, the approach might be more feminine. Instead of a desire to control, having a meal might conjure feelings of fear, almost panic. The sight or smell of food might trigger a reaction similar to that of a person with a phobia encountering their object of fear. It might be enough to also trigger powerful feelings of self-loathing.
Much like psychosis, anorexia tends to come and go in ’bouts’. An episode of anorexia is often triggered by a traumatic life event. It may be that sudden high levels of stress and anxiety result in a desire to compensate for a perceived loss of control.
Anorexia is not a psychotic disorder. A person with it will generally know that they have something amiss about them – but therein lies the difficulty. This reasonable part of the mind struggles incessantly against the part of the mind that commands that one must be thinner no matter what. It might be that the part of the mind that desires thinness above everything is somehow stronger, or more able to assert itself.
The effect that this might have on a protagonist of your story is therefore similar, in many ways, to that of one with depression. Constant feelings of having undermined oneself lead to guilt, personal recrimination, and a loss of confidence in one’s own intelligence, one’s competence or even one’s will to live. As is true of most of the conditions in this book, anorexics tend to have damaged self-esteem.
Like many of the other conditions in this book, it’s believed that anorexia nervosa frequently has an origin in childhood abuse. It might be that this is the reason for why it goes in bouts: dysregulated stress responsivity arising from the trauma leads to extremes of anxiety, and when one of those extremes is reached, a sudden desire for extreme control appears.
The experience of other characters who have a friend or family member suffering from anorexia is usually a difficult one. In many ways, watching someone waste away through anorexia is similar to watching them waste away through a heroin addiction.
This often brings with it a range of feelings that might profoundly affect that character, in particular frustration at not being able to get through to the anorexic about how dangerous their condition is, and guilt about not being able to “do more” for them. Although it’s true that it’s hard to reason with people who have mental illnesses – by definition – it’s still very common for friends and family of people with them to feel guilt about not being able to do more to get them to live a healthy, normal life.
A more distant character who encountered someone with anorexia might get the feeling that the anorexic is uptight and rigid. Anorexia is often associated with a sensitivity to insults and disrespect, as as perfectionism, and a character that demonstrated any of these traits could plausibly develop anorexia or have a past history of it.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterised by the compulsive and repetitive performing of ritualistic behaviours intended to reduce anxiety. It’s a relatively common condition, and may not be as distressing as some of the others in this book, but a character with it will still be a striking one. This article looks at how to write believable and engaging characters with this condition.
An obsession is a pattern of thoughts that persists despite a conscious effort to get rid of it. These obsessions frequently cause anxiety, especially when they relate to lurid sexual or violent content, as they often do. Some other obsessions can border on the schizophrenic. God and the Devil are frequent subjects for obsessions, especially as pertains to future punishment for some misdeed.
These sort of thoughts can become highly intrusive and maddening in their persistence and the degree they distract from a normal life. If your protagonist has OCD, they might have a distressing interior monologue where anxiety and thoughts of decay and contamination are commonplace. Intrusive thoughts can be just as unpleasant as physical intrusions, especially when they come into the head when you’re trying to sleep or relax.
Compulsions are similar, only they relate to behaviours instead of thoughts. The classic example is compulsive hand washing. Others are compulsively checking that a door is locked, or that a stove is turned off. The person with OCD tends to worry about whether or not something is in correct order and this anxiety increases until that thing can be checked.
A person with OCD will usually be aware that they have a problem. This makes them different to psychotics, narcissists and psychopaths. A character with OCD might not necessarily be an outcast (or at least, not a true outcast), in contrast to the vast majority of characters inspired by this book.
Psychologists talk about a four-factor theory for understanding people with OCD. Essentially this is based on four groups of behaviours. There is a “symmetry” factor, a “forbidden thoughts” factor, a “cleaning” factor and a “hoarding” factor. If the protagonist of your story is or encounters a character with OCD, they will quickly notice one of these groups of behaviours.
The symmetry factor relates to an anxiety-driven compulsion to make everything balance in terms of symmetry. For instance, they might make sure that they take exactly the same number of steps to cross each segment of a repeating pattern of cobblestones. They might also be very fussy about books on a shelf or paintings on the wall lining up perfectly. Every left needs a right and vice-versa.
The forbidden thoughts factor relates to compulsively thinking about things only because one knows one isn’t supposed to. A character with OCD might start having frequently, intrusive, obsessive thoughts about a particular sexual fetish or situation, despite not finding it arousing (more the contrary). Thoughts of incest, pedophilia and homosexuality are all very common here.
Cleaning is probably the best-known of the common symptoms of OCD. The cleaning factor refers to how people with OCD are prone to quickly decide that something is contaminated and needs to be cleaned. For instance, just touching the ground might cause immense anxiety until the OCD sufferer washes their hands. Because there are thousands of potential contamination vectors, people with OCD often end up washing their hands dozens of times a day.
Hoarding is common but not often understood to be a symptom of OCD. Underlying this is often an anxiety about information being lost, and so the hoarder might hoard, for instance, a daily newspaper. The really clinical OCD comes into play when that person doesn’t want to get rid of what they’ve hoarded, even when it becomes a hygiene or fire risk.
It will be easy, if desired, to write sympathetically about a character with OCD. Usually people with the condition are regarded as eccentric rather than malicious. People with OCD don’t tend to take their suffering out on other people, although they can do if those other people prevent them from acting out their compulsions. Hoarding can, of course, lead to malicious behaviour, especially if the space in which the hoarding occurs is contested.
OCD can certainly feel malicious to a person with it, however, especially if the impulsive thoughts don’t give the person any peace. It’s common for impulsive thoughts to come at times that feel especially intrusive, like when trying to sleep or when making love. When this happens for long enough it’s possible to consider that a malevolent demon or entity might be causing them, although this is uncommon.
In contrast to most of the conditions in this book, OCD is not believed to be caused by trauma. The most generally accepted belief is that people with OCD have likely inherited an unusually high genetic propensity towards certain behaviours that were associated with survival in the past, such as checking for dangers and being meticulous about hygiene. A person with OCD is, by this reckoning, usually just hyper-vigilant.
For this reason, a character with OCD is likely to be doing considerably better than the a character with most other conditions described in the book. They might even be in a form of gainful employment where an extremely unusual level of meticulousness and cleanliness were advantages, such as surgeon. Certainly it is more likely that they will have a circle of compassionate friends than people with most other psychiatric conditions.
Depersonalisation Disorder is a brutally surreal experience. Also known as Derealisation Disorder, this condition is characterised by feeling like an outside observer of one’s own body despite being in it, and feeling like one isn’t actually in control of that body’s actions. Also common are feelings about reality being vague, dream-like, or less real than usual. This article gives some hints for how writers can handle characters with Depersonalisation Disorder.
This condition is almost always the result of stress, but a distinction needs to be made between a person who is temporarily dissociating in the moment because of an intensely traumatic event that has just happened, a person who has an established pattern of dissociating when exposed to certain stimuli that should not themselves be distressing, and a person who has a tendency to dissociate under small amounts of stress owing to psychological damage from past trauma.
It has to be made clear that Depersonalisation Disorder is not the same thing as psychosis. A person in a dissociated state will be aware that their perceptions are altered (or, at the very least, that something is wrong). In other words, they will not have lost touch with reality, which is a necessary quality of a psychotic experience. They will just have dissociation.
Dissociation is when one starts to feel emotions and sensations that aren’t usually associated with the environment that one is in. For example, one might be in an extremely stressful situation but not actually feel any stress: one simply watches everything from the perspective of consciousness, as if floating outside the body. Things feel unreal, surreal, so that sometimes one feels as if one is watching a film with one’s life on it instead of actually living it.
This lack of connection with the body is the strangest and most difficult thing about the condition. A person with depersonalisation can look at their own hand and not feel like they’re looking at their own body, which is a highly disconcerting experience. It’s also disconcerting to look at yourself in the mirror and not really understand who it is or that it’s you, or to recall a past memory and feel as if it really happened to someone else.
If written from a first person perspective, and written well, the experience of a character with Depersonalisation Disorder might be terrifying to the reader. Dissociation is often terrifying to experience personally, especially for the first time, and may be difficult to distinguish from a panic attack. However, often it is more weird than frightening, especially when the alternative is genuine suffering.
If the dissociation is occurring in a character being observed by the protagonist, that character might seem distant, vacant and “spaced-out”. The protagonist might get emotionless, zombie-like responses from the character undergoing dissociation, which might be a problem if there is something that has to be done quickly. It’s very possible that the protagonist mistakes the person dissociating for being under the influence of a psychoactive substance.
Most readers don’t do a lot of drugs. If they do, they might find the experience amusing to read about. After all, dissociation is a common effect of many recreational drugs. For such an audience, a character’s bout of dissociation might come across as highly comical, and doubly so when paired with another character who is perfectly straight in all regards.
Like most psychiatric conditions, Depersonalisation Disorder is believed to have an origin in psychological trauma. It’s very possible that a character with the condition will have experienced repeated trauma in childhood (usually emotional) that was so relentless it caused the mind to dissociate with reality in order to protect itself. This could be abuse, or a witnessed tragedy, or even simply a realisation about the true nature of things.
The case of Depersonalisation Disorder might then be an ego protection response to extreme trauma so that the person suffering the trauma doesn’t become cruel as a consequence of the suffering. Essentially one goes mad, when under inhumane stresses, in preference to becoming evil. This might be a way of showing the inherent goodness of a character, or their inherent naivety, depending on one’s approach.
Writing about a character who has dissociation might not be very interesting if the story revolves around the dissociation itself. The story might be more interesting if your character is an otherwise mentally healthy person who becomes dissociated as a result of extreme circumstances. This might be a one-time event or it could be part of a pattern.
If it’s a one-time event, it might be a reaction to a grisly sight like a car accident or something seen on a battlefield. This need not, then, be the central role in the story, but might rather be something that befalls the protagonist at a particular juncture, possibly transforming them or causing them to grow.
If part of a pattern, it might play a more central role in the story. It may be that the sight of a certain thing triggers an episode of dissociation on account of being associated with what caused the initial trauma, or it could be that relatively small amounts of stress or uncertainty are enough to tip a character over the edge.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder is characterised by repeated temper tantrums, pointless arguing, vicious outbursts and rulebreaking for the sake of rulebreaking. It’s what used to be known as “being a little shit.” The name comes from how a person with it sets themselves up defiantly in opposition to authority figures or anyone else trying to impose rules upon them.
If it is the protagonist of your story who is the character with ODD, they are extremely unlikely to think that the problem lies with them – but this is where their story gets interesting. If your protagonist has ODD you will be able to show someone whose thoughts twist through all manner of justifications for their behaviour, but who will not willingly take the blame themselves.
After all, your protagonist might actually have a point. Unlike the pure malice exhibited by a psychopath, someone with ODD might have a legitimate grievance against an asphyxiating rule-obsessed bureaucracy, or a surveillance state. This might make for an interesting story about an antihero who came into conflict with authority for the sake of his people or family (or for great justice).
For other characters in your story, a protagonist with ODD might appeal to them as a lovable rogue, or as a troubled soul with a heart of gold. The protagonist likely has a like-minded group of friends, as people with ODD often share the same grievance. This group of friends might have made a mission out of their shared grievance – and then you have a story ready to go.
In this sense, characters with diagnoses of ODD are especially well suited to fiction that appeals to the outsider, such as cyberpunk. Kris Smashtonati of The Verity Key is probably one such character. After all, any person with this condition is going to have some difficulty adjusting to live as a gainfully employed citizen, and that will put them on the margins, where life is more precarious (and dramatic). A properly integrated character with ODD might be better suited to comedy than to drama.
For the antagonists of your story (who are inevitably authority figures of some kind) ‘vindictive’ is a word they might describe the ODD character with. They would say that this character has difficulty regulating emotions or tolerating frustration. Such antagonists would dismiss the protests of the ODD character that the rules were too onerous – the rules are there for everyone’s good, like it or not.
In many ways, telling the story of ODD is really telling a story of an environment. There are believed to be biological factors involved, such as unusual neurotransmitter function or amygdala damage, but a person with ODD rarely develops it in the total absence of family or environmental factors.
Mood disorders are extremely common among the children of parents who have ODD, which gives a major clue about the etiology of the condition. If the protagonist of your story had ODD, it’s possible that his father was a real unpredictable sonofabitch, and the mother likewise. Inconsistent punishment is usually found among the childhoods of people with ODD.
ODD is capable of manifesting in a variety of different settings. Generally speaking, the broader the range of settings in which it manifests, the worse the ODD is. The most common is for oppositional and defiant behaviours to begin in the family home, so that the damage is done long before their first classroom experience.
This generalisation, or one like it, might be the key to understanding your ODD character. Usually the condition arises in response to the perception of unfair treatment from a parent, which may generalise into a belief that any and all authority figures are likewise unfair (and so to be defied). We can then predict that a character with this condition might have conflict with any other character that metaphorically represented a parent (teacher, policeman, bureaucrat etc.).
There is a sense in which ODD is on a spectrum that continues onto Conduct Disorder and, in the worst case, Antisocial Personality Disorder. In this regard, someone with ODD is likely to be much easier to get along with than someone with either of the latter two disorders. They might even be surrounded by such people so that they seem calm and reasonable by comparison.
Esoterically speaking, a character with ODD could be considered a chaotic element. It is unlikely that such a character will contribute to the good order of your story world, and their entrance might even be the spark that gets your story going. Indeed, it’s well possible that the ODD character has taken exception to a particular manifestation of order, and has resolved to break it up at any cost.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterised by problems paying attention, hence “attention deficit”. For whatever reasons, people with ADHD tend to flit like butterflies from one focus of obsession to the next, usually fidgeting the whole time. It might not be one of the most severe mental illnesses, but it’s still capable of severely degrading a person’s quality of life.
People with ADHD often do things without remembering. The cliche is of a person with ADHD hearing their phone ring from the fridge, where they mistakenly put it because they thought it was a carton of milk or similar. This is common because attention has to be paid to something before it can be remembered, and a person with ADHD might have been paying attention to the thoughts in their head instead of the phone in their hands.
Also common for people with ADHD is struggling to complete tasks owing to having difficulty sustaining attention. They might start to complete a task, only to get distracted by something they noticed, and then to get sidetracked from that by a particularly unusual thought (the potential comedy value of such a thing should not be overlooked!).
The experience of having ADHD is, much like many other conditions, one of having too much chaos in one’s life. A character who has it will tend to be very disorganised, for the reason that paying attention to a task long enough to get it done is difficult (and rare).
Writing about this from a first-person perspective will be exhausting. Not only will it be hard to sustain for long, but it will seldom be necessary, for the reader should get the idea very quickly. For this reason, it’s hard to write from a stream of consciousness perspective here. Subtlety will have to be employed to describe an environment that reflects the impact of a person with ADHD.
As with many mental disorders, it’s easy to confuse ADHD with other conditions on account of apparently shared symptoms. A character with ADHD might appear psychotic to another because of a rambling conversational style that leaps from subject to subject. They might also seem dull-witted to someone who’s trying to teach them something that isn’t very interesting.
It’s also distressing to have ADHD (in most cases), and so many symptoms of it are those that are common to other mental disorders and which are ultimately stress-based: insomnia, anxiety, irritability, nausea, low self-esteem etc.
A lot of ADHD-induced behaviour can be mistaken for being on drugs. A lack of apparent ability to pay attention might be explained by another character as drug influence that is forcing the character with ADHD to pay attention to their inner world. The stereotypical caffeine high of jittery behaviour and staccato speech can also be hard to distinguish from a bout of attention deficit. It doesn’t help that use of drugs is common among people with ADHD.
For a variety of reasons, the personal experience of ADHD is frequently one of frustration. The condition itself is frustrating, because it’s hard to get things done and so chores and errands tend to build up and become stressful, but also the world, and its responses to ADHD, are frustrating – and often cruel.
Part of the story of a character with ADHD, then, might be about their experience as an outsider, for two major reasons.
The first is rejection by their peers. People with ADHD, especially as children, tend to behave in ways that lead to low social status. They are often not fun to be around because the fast talking and constant fidgeting puts others on edge. Worse, their attentional deficits can lead to a failure to process speech and body language cues as efficiently as someone without ADHD, degrading the social value of communicating with them.
Someone with ADHD might have trouble finding a friend who has the patience to listen to their machine-gun conversational style. On the other hand, if they do, it is more likely to be a genuine friend. There’s a good chance that the friends of people with ADHD have bonded with them by way of a shared experience of being an outsider.
The second is rejection by society. Society expects its charges to conform to a certain pattern: a pattern of passive, obedient consumerism. A character with ADHD might have trouble fitting into this pattern, because they find it boring as all hell (for good reason). Modern life is experienced by many as a cage, and few people feel this more keenly than those with ADHD.
This can lead to a kind of outsiderhood that brings with it bitterness, but it can also lead to characters who live highly unconventional lives owing to being unable to fit in with the demands placed on them by the standard work place. A character with ADHD could easily be a hero (or anti-hero) who rejected the excessive sobriety and mindless strictures of society in favour of a psychonautic life of consciousness exploration.
It’s easy for a person with an ADHD diagnosis to believe that the problem isn’t with them but rather with the world. After all, the demands of modern schooling are extremely unnatural if one considers that the human child has evolved to suit an environment that contains infinitely more novelty than a school classroom.
Indeed, there is some debate over whether ADHD is a mental disorder at all, or if it’s just a label given to those who have a high desire for stimulation and novelty. The biological past was a far more dangerous, violent, unpredictable – and therefore, exciting – place than the modern classroom or workplace, and it’s not realistic to expect all people to be easily able to make the transition.
It might be that your character is capable of distinguishing themselves from the majority of people with their condition by overcoming it and mastering an area of particular interest. People with ADHD sometimes are better at paying attention than the average person, as long as the subject matter appeals enough.
All of us know what it feels like to be sad, but few truly appreciate how it is to be clinically depressed. There’s something about wandering ghost-like through an ashen world of dead feelings that is a challenge to express to those who are full of healthy, natural vigour. This article shares some tips for writing realistic characters who suffer from depression.
Depression (in the sense of a mental illness) is otherwise known as major depressive disorder. To be diagnosed with it, a patient has to meet certain criteria. 21% of the French population have been diagnosed with the condition at some point in their lives, which speaks to its prevalence in the modern world.
There are two obvious approaches here.
The first is to use thoughts. Conveying the innermost thoughts of a character is, in many ways, the ultimate power of the literary medium.
The kind of thoughts that go through the mind of a depressed person tend to be anxiety, sadness and fear. Life not only seems to have no meaning, but seems completely hollow and empty. Even thirty seconds is a sufficiently long time in which to experience some genuine psychological torment, and it seems all-pervasive and never ending.
It’s important to distinguish depression from sadness. Depression is a mental illness, and as such it causes irrational thinking. A bereaved person can tell you that they expect to feel happy again at some point in the future once the shock has worn off; no such expectation exists for the depressive. It seems like it’s going to last forever.
Of those people who have never been depressed, few understand the ways that guilt can eat away at the minds of someone who is. Depression is not like a physical ailment in the sense that one can easily justify taking time off from regular duties to recover. It’s rare that a depressed person has the ability to think clearly enough about their condition to realise that they need a break.
It’s far more common for a depression sufferer to end up consumed by guilt in their every waking moment, thinking about the things they should be doing in the time they are convalescing, and how they are letting people down by being weak. This reveals one of the worst things about depression: the way in which it feels like one is persecuting oneself.
The second obvious approach is to use the reactions of other characters to the depressed one. All mental illnesses have a marked social impact, and depression is no exception.
Depression is a sinister, insidious illness. In many cases, a person with it will not realise that they have it. The protagonist of your story might end up arguing and fighting with people all day because of sourness or irritability caused by the condition, all the while assuming that the fractiousness that caused it was natural and normal.
Some well-meaning friend might tell them that they have depression only to be told to piss off. To a depressed person, a friendly suggestion to “Cheer up” might well be taken as an insult. Constant irritability is as much a part of depression as sadness is, and a story might be best able to evoke this through the social side.
In other cases a person can’t avoid realising they have depression, because other people will continually remind them of that fact. The protagonist of your story might be smarting from constantly being called a “miserable prick”, and this might make them even more depressed. It might cause them to withdraw and plot revenge (or even to seek help – who knows?).
The fear of the loss of social bonds can be evoked here. This is a very powerful, primal instinct that almost everyone can relate to. People don’t enjoy interacting with depressed people, and after a while the rejection may lead to the depressed person deciding that those others would be better off without them.
Note that stories featuring depressed characters don’t need to themselves be depressing. In a way, every story about a depressive is a happy one, because any depressive who is still alive must have been able to find some reason to keep going.
This might be the most interesting part of the entire character. After all, it’s objectively not clear why any of us should keep living, given the uncertain prospects for any happiness in front of us. A depressed person might exhibit a stronger will to live or a more beautiful nature than any other person who did not need to struggle through the condition.
Despite this, the reality of the depression experience is that it is one of the most terrifying and deadly of all illnesses, mental or otherwise. The temptation to take the ultimate step to end the suffering is always present, which makes the experience worse than a horror story in several regards.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.
Science fiction has generally been considered a left-wing preoccupation. Not only is the readership of science fiction stories younger than average, but the nature of science fiction lends itself towards progressivism. Female characters such as Lieutenant Ripley of Alien had great appeal among the generation that had cast off the moral strictures of the 1950s, but a right-wing yang has always existed within the dark yin of the milieu.
The political atmosphere of science fiction reflects an old-school leftism that’s almost entirely different to the identity politics of the social justice warriors who dominate the media of today. The leftism of science fiction was always more libertarian than today’s culture would prefer, and was written without the need to shoehorn a moral lecture into the story.
Philip K Dick wrote his science fiction works, to a large extent, out of inspiration drawn from his hatred of authoritarianism and authoritarian systems. This is why his protagonists, like Bob Childan in Man in The High Castle, were usually everymen who lacked any aristocratic pretenses. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War depicted a future world in which hedonistic homosexuality was standard practice and a kind of communism had taken over the resource distribution of the planet.
Realistically, it’s hard to imagine a high-tech society that hadn’t also managed to solve the vast majority of its social problems, for the simple reason that if a society has the resources to be high-tech it also has the resources to feed, clothe and house everyone. The essence of cyberpunk, however, is “high tech, low life”; Brave New World is not cyberpunk, and neither is 1984, for the reasons that these works deal with heroic and upstanding characters.
This essence lends itself to a conservative orientation for two reasons.
The first is that it suggests that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” which is a deeply conservative sentiment. It’s a break with the easy utopias envisioned in atomic era works like Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man or Aldous Huxley’s The Island. These works portray future societies which, although they have their problems, have generally solved all the major survival challenges (although The Demolished Man has a cyberpunk vibe in that the protagonist is also the antagonist).
In cyberpunk, by contrast, it’s common that society has either collapsed or become dystopic. The America of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash has disintegrated into a patchwork of city states, fiefdoms, armed enclaves and chaos zones, which goes against the common narrative of an easy ascent into becoming a space-faring civilisation common to most earlier science fiction.
Likewise in William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, where society has rotted out from the inside, meaning that people have been forced to take on a hard edge to their personality and behaviour in order to survive. In Gibson’s stories, crime exists for the same reasons it exists in our own world; greed, fear, stupidity and cruelty cast their shadows on every chapter.
This is a conservative sentiment because it directly opposes the common leftist belief that it’s possible to build a utopia. Cyberpunk works warn us of the terrible possibilities that are likely to result from attempts to build a perfect world – Akira could be considered the modern Frankenstein.
The second reason is that “high tech, low life” reflects a cynical interpretation of human nature. The protagonist of the Altered Carbon series, Lieutenant Kovacs, never gets fooled or manipulated on account of automatically assuming the worst of everyone he encounters. He is particularly cynical, verging on paranoid, and this quality serves him well as it keeps him one step ahead of the criminals trying to kill him. Cyberpunk heroes are often like this – more antihero than good old boy.
Much like the first reason, this low-life element of cyberpunk reminds us that ideas of utopias are just dreams. Life finds a way, and so does crime. This is essentially conservative because it asserts that human nature cannot fundamentally be changed.
Humans have not been intrinsically good at any point in the past, and so there’s no reason to think they should be in the future. Therefore, we can assume that humans (especially young men) will aggressively push the boundaries just as much in times to come. As is the case today, these people will often go too far in asserting their wills, and this can lead to reprisals, and thereby the whole dark side of the human drama that cyberpunk is known for.
It is not the contention of this essay that this paradox detracts from the power of cyberpunk media. To the contrary, cyberpunk draws its power from the tension inherent in the juxtaposition between the desire for order and the desire for freedom.
Many of the protagonists in cyberpunk stories just want to be left alone to enjoy their lives, but violence and trouble finds them anyway, and they have to learn to become hard in order to cope. The protagonist of Metrophage is an everyman who could have been a protagonist in a Philip K Dick story, but instead of the mind-bending confusion of a PKD story he gets dragged into the noir of a cyberpunk one.
This sentiment of escaping an oppressive, totalitarian force is also a common sentiment for many intelligent, free-thinking people nowadays, who just want to be left alone to experiment with consciousness in the form of psychoactive substances without being attacked by law enforcement officers.
In this balance, cyberpunk appeals to a more intelligent kind of reader. The resolution of the cyberpunk paradox might be found in that punk is an expression of rebellion against those same human forces that create political dystopias and faceless corporate juggernauts. In this rebellion it is an affirmation of the human spirit, more libertarian than either left of right, and this is perhaps where cyberpunk gets most of its appeal.
Vince McLeod is the author of ANZAC cyberpunk work The Verity Key. If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of his and other VJMP essays in the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis).
By most measures, the world seems to have become a more empathetic place since the Stone Age. The average person’s chances of meeting a violent end are far lower today than back then, and one’s exposure to grossly traumatic events are also far lower. This has had some interesting effects for a species that may have adapted to a certain level of environmental violence.
In many ways, this increasing empathy is becoming standardised and expected. We are more empathetic than ever before by a number of measures: we share more of our wealth than ever, we commit fewer crimes against each other than ever, we have a much better understanding of mental illness than ever. We debate social issues – like bringing refugees into the country to be supported out of general taxation – that would have been unthinkable even a century ago.
The question arises: where does this process end? In my upcoming cyberpunk novel, The Man With A Thousand Fathers, I explore this point in some detail. It is set in the 2080s, when the science of psychology is much more advanced than what it is today and when the confluence of virtual reality and psychoactive research chemicals has meant that the world on the flipside is often realer than this one.
In the Thailand of the story world, children who are discovered to have defective levels of empathy are put into a virtual reality environment instead of being allowed to go into real life, and then raised with exposure to a set of stimuli specifically calculated to condition them to be more civil. One of the story’s characters, an orphan named Suwat, spends over a decade in such a virtual environment before being released.
It’s entirely possible that such a thing may eventuate, for utilitarian reasons. It’s not difficult to predict the kinds of children who are going to grow up to be criminals. They’re simply the kids that lack empathy for other kids. Any schoolteacher could tell you with high accuracy which children in their class are likely to grow up to cause problems and which children are not.
It’s also not difficult to predict why these kids lack empathy. The vast majority of the time it’s because they themselves aren’t shown empathy at home. Children are not born knowing what’s what; they learn to base their behaviour and moral values on what is demonstrated to them as normal. If a child’s parents don’t show empathy to each other or to that child, that child might well grow up to learn that not showing empathy is normal.
A child who has been exposed to really bad things might even come to learn that empathy is weakness that makes a person vulnerable. They might learn that showing empathy is a signal that one is soft, and that one dare not show it in case it invites aggression and exploitation.
With advancing virtual reality technology, we’re almost at the point where using a virtual environment for therapeutic purposes becomes mainstream. Virtual reality therapy has already shown promise in treating soldiers suffering from PTSD.
Extrapolating from this, it might become possible, if a virtual environment was engineered accurately enough, to use VR therapy to cure a wide range of psychiatric illnesses and disorders.
On the darker side, advancing technology might also make it possible for psychotechnicians to use machines to measure aspects of brain activity that the owner of the brain might not themselves be aware of. It has been possible to detect homosexuality in a subject for decades by exposing them to graphic homosexual images and measuring whether certain parts of the brain spark into life or not, and who knows where this sort of technology might lead.
It might happen that young children are exposed, en masse, to virtual reality examinations in which their brains are tricked into thinking that they’re in situations where empathy is required, and then their levels of empathy are measured. Anyone with too low a level is shipped off to VR therapy in the hope that they can learn to become more co-operative.
Vince McLeod is the author of ANZAC cyberpunk novel The Verity Key.
Every genre of speculative fiction has its own signature atmosphere: often a combination of fantastic, awesome, terrifying and bizarre. So do psychoactive drugs – and the two match up. This article looks at which drugs give a vibe that best matches the vibe from a genre of speculative fiction.
High fantasy fiction matches up to cannabis. Lord of the Rings contains a couple of sly allusions to cannabis use, most notably when Saruman admonishes Gandalf for his “love of the halfling’s weed” while explaining how Gandalf missed a clue that he should have noticed. The scene in the film Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf and Frodo sit above the drunken revellers and smoke some magical substance from a pipe is one familiar to most stoners.
Some of the experiences that Elric has in the Stormbringer series of novels by Michael Moorcock were also very likely to have been cannabis-inspired. There’s something about Elric’s experience of having an extremely powerful ally that couldn’t really be trusted that speaks to the paranoia that sometimes comes with the cannabis experience.
The sword and sorcery style of low fantasy matches up with psilocybin mushrooms. It’s unlikely that Robert E Howard took any magic mushrooms before writing any of the Conan the Cimmerian stories, but the protagonist’s many adventures in dark, subterranean caves and inside fantastic towers and castles are reminiscent of the depth and range of sometimes terrifying personal insight that often comes with mushrooms.
The Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons and Dragons adventures, with their massive, dark forests full of elves and goblins also relates closely to the vibe of the psilocybin mushrooms experience. The reason why magic mushrooms enthusiasts are encouraged to try taking five grams in silent darkness is because it leads to exploration of a fantastical inner world, and going down into the subterranean to arise wealthier at some later point is a regular theme.
Most of what sells as science fiction could have been inspired by LSD. Stories like The Demolished Man, with a very strong psychological content, harken to the disintegrative effect that psychedelics can have on the personality. The main character of The Demolished Man, somehow between protagonist and antagonist, ends up having his personality completely demolished (and then rebuilt) as punishment for his crimes, reminiscent of how the psychedelic experience can destroy a person and then build them back as something stronger than before.
This sense of twisted psychology comes through also in the writings of Philip K Dick, who had himself tried LSD. Psychedelics might have inspired the plot of Ubik, in which the character Glen Runciter experiences a believable but bizarre reality while his physical body is “on ice” in a cryogenic chamber. Wondering if you’re really dead or alive is the kind of thing that LSD can make happen to you.
The almost schizophrenic belief in a hidden real world outside of this merely simulated one is a mainstay of cyberpunk literature, and is similar to the impressions one gets on DMT or salvia divinorum. For thousands of years, human shamans have been having experiences of dying to the physical world and being reborn to the real one, like Neo did in The Matrix. In that regard, The Matrix is really a retelling of the ancient mystery school teaching of death and resurrection, reclothed in 21st-century technology.
A description of what might be the spirit of the DMT experience is given in the ANZAC cyberpunk novel The Verity Key. In the chapter Mindknife, the protagonist Jonty Gillespie has his perception altered by ingestion of a drug called Cinque Nuevo, which briefly blasts his consciousness out of his physical body and into an entirely external dimension that is occupied by beings that take the form of balls of light, while mechanical constructs that might be metaphors churn around him.
The datura experience is pretty similar to what befell many of the unfortunate researchers in the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. A disquieting sense of things not being quite as they should be grows into an intense paranoia that leaps at every shadow and from there to total psychological collapse at the raw horror of reality itself. Alien beings that seem to have come to Earth just to torment you is the kind of thing you’re dealing with in either case.
Datura is also the kind of drug that fits the background of weird horror stories such as those in His Master’s Wretched Organ. Talking to grotesquely deformed entities like Mr. Creamfeather and eating tobacco cakes are the sort of horror that, once experienced, leaves a person never quite the same again. The concept of ordeal rituals that leave you wiser for having suffered come to mind here.
Others are arguable. The steampunk of The Rocketeer might suit opium, the boo-yah aggression of Starship Troopers might suit mescaline, and the gritty military noir of the Altered Carbon series might be the old classics of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
It might be hard to read any speculative fiction on most of these drugs, because a person on them is more likely to be occupied with the inner theatre of the thoughts in their head than a book in the external world. However, it might be possible to have a richer experience of reading speculative fiction after having tried some of them, because they could open your awareness to realms of thought previously unimagined.
There are a tremendous number of misconceptions about schizophrenia – a combination of a cultural reluctance to confront the reality of mental illness and prior inaccurate portrayals in popular media. Avoiding these misconceptions and cliches is crucial to creating a believable and engaging schizophrenic character.
Perhaps the most glaring misconception is the belief that having schizophrenia means having multiple personality disorder. Many people still seem to believe that having schizophrenia is like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a powerfully suppressed evil nature sometimes breaks through to the surface and takes over the mind of the patient.
It’s certainly possible that a schizophrenic might have powerful struggles with inner demons, but they are not werewolves. A psychopathic alter ego is more characteristic of the psychopath. Powerful mood swings might make the schizophrenic seem like different people, and might make them difficult to deal with, but the characteristic of multiple personality disorder is that the personalities are not aware of each other, and schizophrenics are not afflicted by this.
It’s also not true that a schizophrenic will just babble nonsense all the time. Although psychological disorganisation is characteristic of schizophrenia, and although this disorganisation makes it more difficult to speak and converse coherently, speaking in word salad is more characteristic of an acute state of psychosis. This is a common state for a schizophrenic to fall into, but is different to schizophrenia itself.
Schizophrenics usually spend much more time in non-psychotic states than psychotic ones because it’s extremely difficult to maintain the state of acute agitation necessary to become psychotic. This state requires so much emotion and energy that in practical cases the sufferer either wears themselves out or ends up becoming convinced (or forced) to take medication.
So it’s relatively rare for a schizophrenic to act truly crazy all of the time.
What is characteristic of schizophrenia are what is called positive and negative symptoms. These don’t mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symptoms but whether the loss of touch with reality is the result of something being added to the “normal” experience of reality or something being taken away from it.
Dramatic visions, delusions and hallucinations, such as those portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind, fall under the rubric of positive symptoms. The most common form of positive symptom is that of hearing voices. This is very difficult to imagine for anyone who has not experienced it, but a character who suffers this symptom might think that someone is talking to them when no-one is really there.
Sometimes when a schizophrenic appears to be rambling, they are having a coherent conversation with someone who doesn’t appear to be there. This naturally sounds like rambling to an outside observer although the schizophrenic themselves might believe that they are having a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone right next to them.
Likewise, when a schizophrenic appears to be staring into space, it may be because they believe themselves to be in a part of the Great Fractal that is different to where the outside observer is. Much like in a dream, the material world might not be making much of an impact on the consciousness of the schizophrenic.
This means that writing a story from the perspective of the schizophrenic is likely to be a cross between surreal and terrifying. Because what other people take for granted as firm laws of reality do not seem to apply to the conscious experience of the schizophrenic, it’s very difficult for any other character to understand what the experience of a schizophrenic is like.
It’s also terrifying because having original ideas about the nature of reality brings out some powerful emotional responses in other people. It isn’t easy to have other people profoundly disagree with you about things that you take for granted. Experiences like this might go some way to explaining why a schizophrenic character would also suffer from negative symptoms.
Disengagement with society, flattened emotions and an inability to maintain routines are the characteristic negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and if you can present realistic positive symptoms to your reader then some of these negative symptoms should be easy to believe.
For example, the reader might understand why a schizophrenic character feels the need to disengage with society if they read about how frustrating and frightening is to constantly be told, by everyone that character meets, that reality is actually very different to how that character perceives it.
Likewise, they might understand why schizophrenics have flattened emotions when they read about how a schizophrenic character has to compensate for the apparent fact that many of the things they perceive to exist aren’t really there. There are good reasons to not react strongly to things, even when those things are extremely bizarre or unusual, if one ordinarily sees a series of bizarre things that aren’t really happening.
The experience of being unable to maintain routines is a natural consequence of having an unusual amount of chaos in the mind, and it could be the routines in a character’s life falling to pieces that gives the first sign to those around them that a mental illness is developing.
Generally speaking, schizophrenia is an extremely difficult condition to portray accurately because of its complexity and because the experience of a schizophrenic is often fundamentally different to the experience of other people. Often the schizophrenic character will react reasonably and logically to the impressions that come into their mind and it is how those impressions get there which is the truly strange thing.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.
Portraying believable narcissistic characters in your creative writing poses a set of challenges that are similar to those posed by writing psychopathic ones. This is because both types of characters are extremely selfish, but there are many differences nonetheless. This article looks at the typical qualities of the narcissist so that a creative writer can most realistically portray such a character.
In that the narcissist is arrogant, self-absorbed and exploitative they are similar to the psychopath. Where they are different is that the psychopath seems dead inside to those that really know them, whereas the narcissist is full of emotions and life.
For example, narcissists are highly prone to strong feelings of envy. If the protagonist of your story achieved a major personal milestone, and received adulation from all around them, this could be the plot point that drove a secondary narcissist character into action.
That character might feel so bitter about the positive attention received by your protagonist that they began to scheme to bring them down. This could result in anything from gossip, to spreading false rumours, to a false accusation or even to violence. The more likely it is that the narcissist would step into the shoes of the protagonist if they took them down, the more strongly the narcissist will be motivated.
Narcissists also have a marked tendency towards magical thinking. If the narcissist makes a mistake, or lets someone down, or has an embarrassing failure of some kind, they are likely to use all kinds of implausible and bizarre explanations to escape any feeling of shame. Often they will simply distort reality rather than admit to being at fault for anything, and distortions of reality can lead to all manner of problems.
They are also likely to project their failures onto others, as a way of dealing with the internal feeling of shame. They are extremely reluctant to admit to either failure or weakness, and experience admitting such things as very humiliating. An intelligent character will be able to use this tendency as a way of determining the narcissist’s secrets, because they tend to accuse other people of what they themselves are guilty of.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the narcissist is grandiosity, which manifests as a deep sense of superiority. This frequently becomes difficult for other characters in short order, because in the mind of the narcissist this sense of superiority gives them the right to treat others with contempt or disdain.
For this reason, narcissists tend to upset other characters. The more narcissistic those other characters are, the more they are likely to get upset – which is why it’s often dynamite when two narcissists meet. The coming together of two narcissist characters could make a fitting climax to any story or comedy.
Similar to the psychopath, the narcissist is capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in other characters. These other characters are bound to feel that the narcissistic character is arrogant and rude, and the narcissistic tendency to be completely oblivious to the damage they cause only makes it more aggravating.
The narcissist is also capable of engendering powerful feelings of hate in themselves. Not being the centre of attention and adulation can be extremely damaging to the self-esteem of the narcissist. They might find meeting someone like a famous politician or distinguished intellectual to be an extremely unpleasant and belittling experience, enough to cause them depression for a while.
A narcissistic character will not necessarily bring misery into your story world, and this is another major way they are different to the psychopath. They may have found a way to sublimate their narcissism into bringing a lot of joy to people, such as becoming an actor or professional sportsman. Such a character might struggle with the excesses of their narcissism at the same time as mostly succeeding in bringing people joy.
Usually, however, narcissists do bring misery to those they encounter. The nature of the narcissist demands that they try and get the most adulation possible, and this means that they are prone to aggressively seeking high-status positions, even when there is another candidate who is obviously better qualified (a narcissist is not likely to realise that someone else is better qualified).
The narcissistic character might have an unpleasant early history that partially explains why they themselves are not a pleasant person. Many theorists believe that narcissism in adults is frequently caused by a lack of empathy and respect towards them when they were children, leading them to overcompensate as adults.
Frequently the narcissist will have one, or both, parents who did not seem to treat them as valuable when they were children. This lack of a normal, healthy level of positive attention in childhood is what makes the narcissist so desperate to receive it in adulthood. The narcissist might reveal, in their behaviour and actions, the resentment they feel towards perceived neglect.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.
The psychopath, sociopath or person with Antisocial Personality Disorder has for centuries been one of the most interesting subjects for creative writers. Something about their nature reliably invokes a sense of horror in the reader – perhaps the ruthlessness, perhaps the callousness, perhaps the deep and smouldering hatred for life. This article looks at how you can believably portray a psychopathic character in your own creative fiction.
It’s important to note that ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychotic’ are two entirely different things. A psychopath is seldom a madman – there is usually a distinct logic and methodology to their actions, even if those actions are considered abhorrent by the majority of people around them.
Psychopaths are primarily characterised by a lack of shame or remorse. Essentially this means that they don’t feel bad about causing suffering to other sentient beings. If they do cause suffering to another person or animal they will rarely accept that they shouldn’t have done so, and even when they do they are never sincere.
A striking lack of remorse after the psychopath did something that harmed someone might be the clue that lets other characters realise that they’re dealing with someone who is a bit different up top. The psychopath might be unaware that they’re supposed to feel remorse (depending on their level of sophistication) and may appear to become confused when another character acts as if remorse would be expected.
Lying is another essential characteristic of the psychopath. From the perspective of the author, this presents an interesting challenge, because the characters that interact with the psychopath are unlikely to realise (at least, not initially) that they are being lied to.
This isn’t just a question of telling a lot of lies. Psychopaths are good at lying as well. They stay cool when telling lies – even if initially disbelieved, and this means that the microsignals that people subconsciously use to detect liars are present less often.
A character who encountered a psychopath might find themselves slowly figuring out that they’re being lied to. They might be so taken in by the glib charm of the psychopath character that they are reluctant to accept that that character has been misleading them, and only by thinking hard about the facts do they realise that something doesn’t add up.
These two traits combine as well, in remorseless lying. The psychopath does not care about the consequences of telling lies, neither when it comes to the suffering caused or the risk of being caught out. The lack of shame means that even if they are caught with indisputable proof that they are lying, they might continue to insist that their accuser must be mistaken, possibly mentally ill, or that they should just “get over it”.
These characteristics might be of more interest to psychological fiction than a psychopath who is just a remorseless killer. Although, if they are a remorseless killer, they no doubt will have developed a fantastic web of lies to divert attention from the fact. Keep in mind that some serial killers were even able to keep their streak of murders a secret from their own wives!
Another personality trait that typifies the psychopath is a constant need for stimulation. It seems that psychopaths do not derive the same satisfaction from everyday activities that non-psychopaths do, and this has leads to an increased incidence of risk-taking behaviours, such as sexual promiscuity, violence and drug use. The psychopath tends to be impulsive, on account of that they don’t have much in the way of inhibitions.
This means that a psychopath character will almost certainly not practice meditation, for example. Neither will they be fond of long walks on the beach, hiking, chess, Test cricket, gardening etc. They wouldn’t be able to sit still for long enough to partake in pastimes such as these.
A history of irresponsibility also characterises the psychopath. It’s common for psychopaths to be incapable of holding down a stable job or relationship because of the need for constant stimulation and because their lies and callous behaviour tends to limit social opportunities. Some other characters in your story might find this history a warning sign.
Another decision that the author will have to make is whether their character is a psychopath or a sociopath. Although both conditions generally fall under the rubric of Antisocial Personality Disorder, there is a distinction in that psychopathy is innate whereas sociopathy is a learned condition from the environment.
Depending on the needs of the story, the character might have been “born bad” or they might have lost their natural empathy as a consequence of massive physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The author will have to decide this once they decide what emotional reaction they want to reader to have, because a character who has had everything good beaten out of them in childhood will be more engaging to some readers, particular those with a higher demand for psychological realism.
Taking these considerations into account when writing a psychopathic character should allow the author to make an accurate portrayal of someone with the condition while avoiding the common cliche of mindless, uncalculating sadism.