Friday, July 12, 2013

Characters Shrinks Love to Read

by Peg Brantley
Evocative Characters. Intriguing Crime. Compelling Stories.

I'm working on piecing together an antagonist or two for my next story. Since my characters always have a lot going on psychologically, I thought I'd get some help from a good friend who happens to be a psychologist. She's been helpful in the past, but usually after the fact—helping me bend a few things to make everything possible. (It might be fiction, but it needs to be plausible fiction.) This time I've decided to pull things a little tighter a little earlier.

When I ran my first rough character concept by her, she mentioned something about antisocial and narcissistic personality disorder clusters (which sounded good to me in a maladaptive behaviorally intrigued kind of way), and ended with saying, "But they would generally just be criminals, rather than psychologically interesting cases."

You can guess my next question to her.

Here then, are some characters a shrink-type might find intriguing:

  • Fallen angel types who are trying to climb back up the ladder to reach redemption. They will inevitably slip on a rung and seal their fate.
  • People with strong positive traits who can also be charming. And who find their Achilles' heel due to their unremitting hubris or unremitting ambition they simply can't control.
  • Similar to the mad dog analogy ("just criminals"), people who you don't really want to have to shoot, but they either can't or won't stop themselves from doing bad things. The good guys have to reluctantly put an end to them for the good of the whole.
  • True dissociative personalities (multiples), though rare, are fascinating when real. However, most of them would do no harm, so there might not be too much in the way of thriller fodder here. The same with people who have more severe forms of PTSD. They tend to be more self-destructive, and according to my shrink-friend, don't need the bad PR.
  • Types along the lines of Bonfire of the Vanities, when someone makes a small mistake that anyone could make, but then reacts in an overly defensive or cover-up manner due to pride. One inexorable step at a time, he or she moves toward being truly evil without any kind of awareness that's what they're doing.

When you read about a deeply wounded character who has gone over to the dark side, what is it about them that fascinates you? What causes you to want to know more about them? Are there some character types who aren't on my list? 

As writers, what psychological profiles have you used?


  1. These are my favorite types of characters! Especially those who obsess over ambition or pride.

  2. It's definitely more interesting to read psychologically complex characters with real motives than some of the cardboard ones we see, even in big name books. And you do a great job of that, Peg!

  3. Someone mentioned Hannibal Lecter. I sort of line him up in the mad dog category.

  4. I thought Lecter was brilliantly done in both Red Dragon (my personal Harris favorite) and SOTL. I thought Harris' trolley left the tracks when he decided to go ever-nuttier. I only have so much gross I can take.

    I think that we all prefer psychologically-complex characters, whether it's Sandford's Virgil Flowers, Crais' Pike (you guys can see I have a thing for competence porn male heroes), or even the original Scarpettas (first four or so, not much after that). But as authors increasingly seek "new" material, new plots, new characters, they have a tendency to try to go "out there" in character creation, and I, as a reader, start having suspension-of-disbelief issues. Or, as in the case of Harris, gross-out issues. I'm not a softie, but...a girl's gotta have some standards.

    P.S.: I've known a true MPD. It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone who is in near the end-stage of merging, as they'll switch from one persona to the next from sentence to sentence, basically jumping back in time paragraphs (essentially) to the last part of the conversation you were having with Jane, before she was Georgie, etc. Very weird. I cannot imagine the true form being well-written, although I can see a lot of latitude for drama by making it more overt and less confusing for the reader. It's very NOT overt, and confusing for the actual conversation participant, FWIW.

    1. HItch, you always have something interesting to add. And to actually know someone with MPD. Rare, indeed.

    2. Hey, Peg: I don't know if it was really interesting, but it is very different to know a true MPD, and I can only claim a passing acquaintanceship. She was lovely and warm, but conversing (with the aforementioned "time loops" in the discussion) was extremely taxing. Hopefully, that will help someone here when crafting an MPD character, should they ever do so.

  5. Hmm. When I "read about a deeply wounded character who has gone over to the dark side," I either want to seem them redeemed or destroyed. (The latter if they refuse to or cannot reverse their behavior.) If the flaw is not a source of growth and realization - or at least potentially so - I'm not interested.

    Your categories probably match Shakespearian or classic antagonists, and it would be interesting to line them up and consider reactions. Is Macbeth (or Lady Macbeth) the paradigm of the second type you list (charming with ambition as the fatal flaw)? If so, how do we react to him? How are we "supposed" to react to him? What does that reveal about us as writers - or readers?

    Thanks, Peg. More things to think about!

    1. You have an amazing way of taking something interesting in one element of thought and applying it to something else entirely.

      Thanks, David, for your intriguing insight.


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