Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Looking For The Six Fingered Man

So, what if your character is really insane? In my last post I tackled the fact that “then the character went mad.” This “clever plot twist” annoys me so much that it’s garanteed to send the book against the wall.

So, what if your character is insane? Can’t a character be insane? Is there some rule against insanity in characters?

No, my darlings, no. I am not going to exclude people like writers from being characters in books. Oh, don’t quirk eyebrow at me. We are, most of us, certifiable. We spend countless hours playing games in our minds, for a nominal payment that – for 99.9% of us is well below minimum wage. We fret and fume to make things better, even though we know most of our sales are dependent on things we don’t control: cover, shelf placement, printing.

Face it, we completely understand insane, and we completely understand obsession. Or at least, we’d better, or we have no business working in this field.

So, that’s a form of mental illness. The obsessed character. The obsessed character, to the point that his goal obscures all his thoughts, distorts his life, turns everything inside out can not only be eminently writeable but an interesting character. Most of the time, if you’re playing it for laughs, your obsessive will be the hero. Or you can not play it for laughs and make him a truly tragic hero. Or a villain. Or you can give your hero and/or your villain a minor obsession, which is either played for laughs or straight up.

But, you say, isn’t that “And then he went insane?” No. Of course not. PROVIDED you give the character a motive and one we can understand/empathize with. Take Inigo Montoya (please. He’s looking for the six fingered man in my head.) He wants to avenge his father’s death. His father was killed in front of him when he was quite young. Is he insane? Oh yes. Certifiable. But we UNDERSTAND him. Hamlet’s motive is not so much different. After all, he could have lived with the fact his father was probably killed, bided his time and taken over from his uncle. But his father’s death and his mother’s re-marriage obsessed him to the point of mental illness.

What other types of mental illness can you have and still make sense? ANY of them. Provided we still understand the character’s motives, even in the depth of his insanity. Provided it still feels “logical” to us. Provided we can empathize. Obsession is probably the most common and easiest form of insanity to write. But paranoia can work just as well. It could be argued Vimes in Pratchett’s novels is paranoid and a lot of Heinlein characters suffer from a mild form of it.

I’m not sure I could write a schizophrenic, but I’m sure someone else could and do it brilliantly. Who is your favorite insane character? What kind of insane character would you like to write/read?


C Kelsey said...

I'm very slowly developing an insane character in my urban fantasy universe. Her particular form of insanity is an inability to handle emotions well. She does not start out insane. In fact, she's a very well adjusted and very rich young woman who is a graduate in physics from MIT. It's events that transpire over a period of several weeks that leave her emotionally debilitated. By the time I'm done her only surviving parent will be obsessed with monster hunting and she'll be the only human living with a group of were-lions. That is, until I cap it all off with making her a vampire and removing the chance for to see the sun ever again. Yeah, she's definitely insane.

Mike said...

Y'a know, I'm not sure that a graduate from MIT could avoid being insane...although we don't generally admit it. I mean, take the selected 1,000 best from across the world, put them into deliberate hard competition where they have to learn to accept not being able to complete everything, and run them ragged for four plus years -- and you want sanity, too? Ask the brass rats :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm playing with the insanity theme right now myself, though it's insanity for love more than anything else. Writing an MilSF novel wrapped around a love story is driving me insane, however... not that I really had any semblance of sanity in the first place.

C Kelsey said...

Similar to other discussions on creativity/sanity here... We need a character who is constantly saying, "I'm not insane, I'm just insanely creative!"

Anonymous said...

I looked into narcissism for a character. Scary stuff. I use bits and pieces of the self-centeredness, but haven't dared go for the whole syndrome. My main Antagonist can still feel flashes of empathy, but only for people both under her thumb and completely non-threatening.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, but is there a process and does it worsen?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


A lot of us had that experience, since most top or even close to top universities in their field or in my case a small university of no consequence (Sorry, Hughart) that you have to research hard and long to find listed anywhere in the US but which was at the time the only game in town for the middle class, and which took the top 0.001% of highschool students (for my college. The sciences had worse odds.)

However I'd like to point out my mental health is just fine and dand-- Oh, look, green jellow vulcano penguins! The doughnuts are attacking. Save the children and the mole rats!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Don't you talk to me about novels driving you insane. My current piece of work is... a ... uh... uh... piece of work, and also... uh... ah... eh... um... scary. I halfway expect my agent to run screaming into the night when she sees it. I have spent my spells under the sink braiding my hair.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


We should tell beginning writers that spending your entire day with imaginary people can be hazardous to your mental health, and that's before the editors get TO you, let alone get THROUGH with you. Oh, wait, we do. I think half of my talks with beginners start with "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." And yet, no one listens. I feel like the catch phrase from the movie Don Juan de Marco: It was already too late.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It would be very hard to be in the mind of a clinical narcissist, particularly if that's the only narrator you have. Their perspective is so distorted, it would take genius-level craft and ability to tell the story in a way the reader would understand.

C Kelsey said...


Yes there's a process. Yes, it gets worse. Of course this character may have serious mental issues, but she's not a villain. She's on the good guys side. In fact as it currently stands the universe does not have a specific bad guy, just numerous brainless vampire-zombie things running around. The reason there isn't a evil baddie running around is that after numerous attempts at writing such a story, I've come to the conclusion that it is how this insane character gets that way, and her relations with the other characters, that is the more interesting story at this point. Or at least it's the story that I have to get out of the way before the super-evil bad guy of DOOM can make his appearance.

Anonymous said...


Not that I've researched extensively, but as a chronic reader . . . A lot of insanity is genetic, but requires a trigger. You might read up and see if there are early symptoms, or if the character is on some medication and runs out over the course of the story. You might ramp up tension by having her cling desperately to the vial of pills through thick and thin, and as the supply runs low, start spacing them out.

C Kelsey said...


I'm classifying her "insanity" very much like Sarah is classifying Inigo Montoya as insane. He's really obsessed, but I would label him schitzoid. My character is much like that, only I do a heck of a lot more than just kill her father (actually mother in this case). The net result is that everything that was constant around her changes from "normal land" to "urban fantasy" land all while she remains human. Then I even take away the human part. She does, eventually, have a happy ending. I think... not sure yet.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between traumatized and insane, IMO. Or perhaps "insane" is much to general a concept.

One of my sisters adopted a teenager, and we got to learn all about the end result of abuse and abandonment in the form of attachment disorders and control issues. Insane? No, just dealing with a hostile world where adults changed according to their alcohol and drug dosage of the moment.

By Middle Class standards, this kid was (and as an adult, still is) barely meshing with society. By his own standards, he is doing quite well, highly adaptive, alert to both possibilities and dangers. But he's not insane.

C Kelsey said...

That was supposed to read "I wouldn't label him schitzoid..." ::sigh::

Anyhow, matapam, I rather agree that it's not really insanity - regardless of how many times the primary male figure in her life complains about her being batshiat crazy. :P

Really she's a very nuanced character with specific reasons for why she does what she does. In order to get her figured out I'm writing multiple shorts, none of which are from her viewpoint. By the time it all comes together and I write the short from *her* POV, I will have a bloody novel worth of short stories. Yes, I know the odds of a novel like that selling are nill. It's the though that counts. :)

Jo Thomas said...

You might want to have a look at this:

Also, as an Aspie, I've always had a problem handling emotions - which makes writing about them that much more challenging. I suspect there are similar reasons why the traditional, Golden Age sf writers who were also highly qualified scientist had difficulty writing the "icky" stuff.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


One of my closest friends is an aspie, so I understand this completely. Also, mental illness runs in the family. (G) Seriously. It's highly correlated with creativity.

Synova said...

He's not insane, exactly, and it's television, but what about Monk?

Synova said...

Also, I think there is a whole lot of space to occupy between perfect mental health and an inability to function.

This is a question I've actually never asked myself when I write. How are my characters messed up in their heads?

Kate said...

What is this "sanity" you speak of? I'm very familiar with its opposite, but since I've never been sane, I couldn't begin to guess what it's like.


Actually, most of my characters tend towards what you might call "differently sane". They're damaged, they're fractured, but they're doing their best to hold what they've got together because they really don't like the alternatives.

Even the really crazy ones tend to fit that line: they might be nucking futz by anyone else's standards, but it works for them.

Stephen Simmons said...

Funny you should ask ... I'm trying to discover whether or not I am capable of pulling this off, in my fantasy WIP. Kate offered to take a look at it, if and when the Life-Gone-Feral she's struggling with ever permits the time, and the part I sent her introduces one of the two "broken" characters. And the protagonist in the SF work that I'm devising queries for right now is a devoted sister who has spent her life caring for/protecting (and overprotecting) her older brother, who has Asperger's. (Inspired by my son, though not even remotely based on him.)

Favorite insane characters? Edmund Dantes, of The Count of Monte Cristo. Gollum. Batman (of the old Detective Comics). And Karl Cullinane, of Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series would count as obsessed to the point of insanity, I think.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


among the many, many holes in my education or perhaps my many deffects of character is the fact I hate television and rarely watch it. I've heard of Monk, and I understand he perfectly protraits an OCD character -- at least from what I heard -- but never having watched it cna't tell you if this serves the plot or drops, suddenly, upon the watchers with the grace and discretion of an elephant from a twenty foot ceiling.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


How sane your characters are, is not a question you need ask, but rather what limitations they have within themselves. Everyone has some, and it could be argued if you wish for a memorable character, the stronger and more self-realized, the stronger -- and perhaps more irrational -- his barriers, because that keeps him/her human.

Anonymous said...

Three comments:

A. I think David Brin noted that there's a difference between being average for this culture and being sane. We get into trouble when we conflate the two

2. Terry Pratchett is a better practitioner of comment #1 than Brin is, unfortunately.

III. Michael Harner (Way of the Shaman) had a great point about cognitive/perceptual diversity, which does apply here. I dislike the diagnosis of asperger's, simply because it demeans people who see the world differently.

That said, mental illness is an appropriate diagnosis when your differences get in the way of normal functioning. That's what illness is, and it deserves compassion and proper care.

But equally, I can make a case that we live in a society that promotes addictive and psychopathic behavior, as well as massive amounts of denial.

Chris McMahon said...

I find psychopaths intriguing. I always like getting into their heads and seeing the way they rationalise what they do - or in other cases struggle for emotional response to the world. I liked Dexter for that reason.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I don't view a diagnosis of aspergers as demeaning, and -- frankly -- when we could put a name to my friend's behavior it helped greatly. We realized there are limits and much as he makes an effort to overcome them, there are things that are WELL beyond his ability. It is like, say, if you're born without a leg, you can get an artificial one and learn to walk with it and live a functional life. However, unless science has advanced greatly while I was writing this novel, you can't GROW another one.
As for Brin -- since the seventies it has seemed to me there is a diservice done to the mentally ill in this country by conflating the USSR's "mental health" system and ours. Most people don't speak of people who "don't fit the norm" as being insane (unless they are back in time in the USSR.) Most people speak of people who are either harmful to themselves of others or unable to fit in society (and frankly, in any society in the last thousand years and even before that it would be more a matter of how tolerant the people they lived with were, and how distant from the next community) enough to live -- procure food, maintain a minimum of hygiene and body covering, not violate other's rights -- a "functional" (not even productive) life. Eric S. over at Classical Values blog discussed this sometime ago. IMHO confusing mental illness (by which I mean SERIOUS mental illness that impairs basic functions) with "a way of being in the world" leads to us allowing people to live and suffer in ways we wouldn't (as Eric put it) allow dogs to live and suffer. Now, given that humans have self determination, where do we draw the line between individual rights and care for the other? Damned if I know. It should never, IMO be a legal thing, but beyond that I'm at a loss. It's a difficult question that needs to be handled person by person, not a broad-based solution. A law is a blunt weapon and we need a scalpel. However, let's not confuse "mentally ill" with "eccentric."
As for smaller mental "glitches" aka what we could call "deffective sanity" or "impaired sanity" those could be considered ways of being different and again, so long as they don't impair your life or that of those around you (Okay, arguably writing impairs my life. This is me with fingers in ears going lalalalalalal) you're free to hold onto them until and unless you wish to be rid of them and seek help (supposing help exists.) And it's nobody's business. Unless, of course, the "body" is a writer and we only want to study it for purposes of writing it.
BTW as the friend and relative of mentally ill people I wouldn't say that saying someone suffers from mental illness is "demeaning" no more than saying someone is missing a limb is demeaning. The demeaning part comes with assuming such people can't function (even if it's only to some extent or with assistance) or don't have other abilities "normal" people lack -- see the co-relation between creativity and mental illness.

If this response seems strangely tied in knots, it's because in your comment, to my understanding, you conflated severe mental illness (i.e. 'insane') mental illness (i.e. impairment) and eccentricity (i.e. not fitting norm.) This confusion is common and drives me insane (G). First need CARE; second need support or not depending on severety. They almost always need understanding; third need to be left alone. Confusing them all means no one gets what he needs.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

psychopaths can be interesting once or twice, I think. Maybe it's my failing but I burned out on them sometime in the nineties. As characters, I mean. It's hard to do RIGHT, most writers write it wrong, and it just becomes too much of a muchness.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Check your email, please?

Mike said...

I'm not quite sure that this belongs in a discussion of insanity, as I don't think it can be found in DSM-IV-TR. However, if sanity is socially acceptable, or fitting into society's norms, then maybe...

The person who strives, the person who pushes for more than just good enough, the person who has their eyes on the stars and works to reach beyond today...

That's my favorite. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and the rest of her writings perhaps go too far with this, but Don Quixote, Citizen of the Galaxy, Double Star, and most of the competent men (and women) of Heinlein's imagination, heck, even Prometheus bringing fire... that's my kind of insanity, obsession, what-have-you.

Hallucinations? Hearing voices or seeing things without sensory input -- I suppose. Don Quixote certainly seems happy to at least enjoy illusions and sensory distortions, if not outright hallucinations. And most of these over-achievers seem to see something beyond what's in front of us.

Delusions? Of grandeur, or possibility, or what could be...

And those thought disorders. Imagine speech and writing that fires the imagination? Now that's disassociated from mundane life...

Anyway. Not sure if it's psychotic or what, but that's where I'd put my money. Into those dreamers, those schemers, those people who just won't quit. The ones that insist that we can do more than just enough, that we can be better than just acceptable, that we can be the best.

If this be insanity, lock me up.

Kate said...

A few extra thoughts here:

"Insane" is such a broad brush. Even "mental illness" is way broad - and that's partly a function of there not being much understanding of how it all works.

The primary mental illness diagnosis tool (the DSM-IV) is basically classification of behaviors, signs, and symptoms with the mostly subjective judgment of whether or not the behaviors, signs, and symptoms impair a person's life enough to consider them an illness.

An example: just about everyone has a few obsessive-compulsive traits. They don't become Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder until they're bad enough to interfere with the ability to get on with life.

Basically, "sane" is used to mean "can function without standing out too much". I should know - I've ranged the spectrum from completely debilitated by mental illness to able to pass for sane.

On top of that, you have multiple causes of mental disorders. There are the purely biological causes: brain injury would be the obvious one, but there's also the auto-immune spectrum when it hits the brain in things like multiple sclerosis and narcolepsy (I scored the latter, one of my sisters got the former). Strokes, too.

Then there's the misfires: ineffective or plain non-functioning receptors. Since the current best guess is that biologically speaking our sense of self and all our thoughts and so forth are an emergent property of an incredibly complex biochemical-electrical system, when something glitches, it's not going to be harmless.

Then there's the problems that go with pathological thought patterns. Note that I'm not condemning anything. Pathological thought patterns are and were effective for the person who has them in certain circumstances, but they don't play with "normal" life. This is one of the issues that abused kids have - they develop these thought patterns to survive, but once out of the abusive situation, those thought patterns are maladaptive.

Effectively, our knowledge of the brain is at the "put a bandage on it and pray" level. Which isn't surprising - we're talking a few pounds of stuff that's simultaneously controlling a robot with fine and gross motor functions (the muscular-skeletal systems), multiple input mechanisms (nervous system, eyes, nose, ears, tongue, skin etc), data output (mouth, posture, glands), energy input (mouth to digestive system) and waste disposal (digestive system again), oxygenation (mouth and nose to lungs and from there to the circulation system), as well as temperature regulation, interpretation of data, data storage (memory), and a whole bunch of extras like thought, self-awareness and the like.

The best we can do to fix things when something goes wrong is to try to correct the worst imbalances and cross our fingers behind our backs, not least because damn near everything in there is multipurposed out the wazoo. The same chemicals that control mood regulation are involved in metabolism regulation and sleep management. And so forth.

This is why I usually don't use "insane" except in a kind of facetious way or as a character would use it. And why I don't refer to my characters as insane even when by most standards they obviously are. What they do works for them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Odd, I wouldn't consider Montecristo insane. Though I think I've made it plenty obvious I consider Athos loony -- though in a fascinating way. Which just goes to show...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

my characters drive me insane (G). Other than that, I agree with what you say. OTOH one comment here -- there are also a range of perceptory/sensory illnesses/deffects that even twenty years ago would get classed as "insanity" or "mental disorder." Take my younger kid's processing of sounds (and vision) which consigns him to this hellish world where every sound comes in at the same level and from an omnidirection. There's nothing wrong with his ears -- we checked -- but only with the brain's processing of the sounds. Tested by an expert in this, it was clear the poor kid -- who actually hears very well -- can hear a pin dropping across the room at the same level and frequency and the teacher RIGHT next to him. Suddenly everything was explained.
However, before this, we were faced with behaviors such as complaining he couldn't hear the teacher because the girls behind him were BREATHING too loudly. And he -- more importantly -- had no idea other people were different from him, so he thought they were doing these things on purpose. The end result was a spectrum of behaviors that people tended to assign random tags to (his pre-school teacher kept insisting he was autistic and trust me, the kid is almost anti-autistic. She was, of course, an expert on autistic kids, so it was hammer, meet nail)and his carrying around a lot of low-grade anger because he thought people were deliberately making sounds to drive him nuts.
Again, even twenty five years ago, we'd think he was "crazy" and "antisocial" even though the problem is all physical.

Teddy said...

OK, so I came late to the party...

There are two functional definitions of insanity as taught in clinical classes - the first is based on psychosis, a person who *acts* on the basis that the external world that they perceive is not the same as the external world the rest of us perceive. Thus, all manner of eccentric behavior - as long as the subject is *aware* of the difference between reality and fantasy and act accordingly - would not be considered insanity.

The second functional definition of insanity is a person who is *aware* of the real world and societal norms, and cannot alter their own behavior to conform to those norms - I'm not saying *will* not, but *can* not.

So, by the first definition, Monk is not insane, by the second, he is. Generally speaking (and yes, only generally) the fist definition is the one used by MDs because of the need to be most conservative in diagnosis.

As for writing these characters? The first definition is *much* easier to write, because the line between real and fantasy is within us all the time. We *know* the difference in reality, but with just a brief flip of the switch, fantasy can become insanity (without damaging our own).

Jo Thomas said...

And something else that may be of interest (although slightly off-topic):
"Time to Rethink Causes, Possible Treatments of Mental Disorders, Experts Say"

WangZheng259 said...

Some things that I don't have been gone over enough:

Fitness of adaptation is relative to the environment and circumstances. Some people are flexible and can adapt to a wide variety of circumstances, and some are narrow. A character who is a Mary Sue who can do no wrong in one environment, may be very dysfunctional in another. Put characters where they are dysfunctional, but not so dysfunctional that they sit in a corner being scenery. There should also be enough functioning across the cast that it is plausible for everything to not grind to a stop. (My favorite example of this is Sousuke Sagara in Full Metal Panic, who is a sixteen year old well adapted to the battlefield, and is stuck in a high school he is poorly adapted to. It doesn't work for me as humor, which was the intent, but I like it anyway.)

Humans are self assembling, self wiring, and self programming machines. Being physical, the process varies, causing all sorts of variation. Some of these variations fall into statistical distributions. The APA's diagnostic criteria are an attempt to classify and organize the most significantly impairing variations found in the context of American culture.

I do not consider diagnoses that I fit to be demeaning. Rather, like blood type and so forth, they are tools. They save time, ease communication, and let me better use the situations of others as an example to help myself. Absent the wealth of data generated by this process, I might never have learned enough about helping myself to function to tie my shoes.

That the APA's diagnoses had to be normed against culture suggests that cultural differences can be difficult to distinguish from insanity. I tend to assume this means that culture is in itself a form of insanity, for some definition of insane. (As I don't believe it is possible to have no culture, this is a way of saying that, even if there were not other universal sources of something that could be called insanity, and I think there are, everyone is a little mad.)

Mike said...

WangZheng? I think there was a book where they tried raising a group of children with zero adult input -- isolating them from the insanity of society, so to speak, to see what happened. As I recollect, that particular novel fell into what I consider the "noble savage" genre -- the kids spontaneously developed language and society, and at the end said something like "We have gone so far beyond you. Thank you." and stepped off the planet or some such. I.e., society was viewed as holding us back from achieving what was possible. No hint as to title or author, though, sorry.