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Friday, May 27, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part VII

Back to the personality disorders. There are seven more of them and I’ll try to cover three today. In week-before-last’s blog, I discussed antisocial, histrionic and obsessive compulsive personality disorders. This week, I think I’ll focus on dependent, paranoid and schizoid, trying to see how each might fit into a fictional character.

Dependent personality disorders, as the name suggests, won’t make good protagonists because they’re so submissive, clingy and have a desperate need to be taken care of. They can make good supporting characters, though, since they tend to partner with the more dominant personality disorders like antisocial. These are the abused women (or men—less common, but it does happen) of the world, either overtly (physically abused) or in more subtle ways that include emotional putdowns and being made fun of. For those of you who read my post from May 13th, you’ll recall that the personality disorders are ego syntonic which is a fancy way of saying that they are a comfort zone for a person. So, from a treatment perspective, it’s very difficult to get a personality-disordered individual to make any significant changes. This is why a woman married to an abusive alcoholic may divorce that person only to go on to find someone else just like their first partner. They need to play the submissive, clingy role and there are only certain other personality disorders who will tolerate a spouse like that.

As an aside, yes the personality disorders do tend to be attracted to one another romantically. It’s rare to find someone with one of the personality disorders partnered up with someone who doesn’t have one of the other ones.

Paranoid personality disorders are just that: paranoid. This is a mental health problem that runs the gamut from mild paranoia that the individual enjoys (there’s that ego syntonic thing again) to a delusional disorder with paranoid features to paranoid schizophrenia. Well, what’s the difference? It’s a matter of degree. Paranoid personality disorders are able to function. It’s just that they interpret other’s motives as malevolent and lead out with suspicion. Paranoid schizophrenics who are not medicated have a very hard time functioning. For example, they can’t hold down a job or maintain interpersonal relationships because their distrust of others holds such a front-and-center place in their minds. Also, they tend to have carefully wrought delusional systems that include fanstastical elements like the Nazis being spirited out of Germany in space ships after World War II, taken to South America and they’re now in communication with the individual. (Someone actually told me that one.) Mild paranoids make great antagonists since they view the world in a skewed manner. Think the Dark King in Tolkien or Cersei in the Fire and Ice series, especially round about book four.

Schizoids are the night watchmen of the world. They have very low socialization needs. And, in fact, they prefer to be alone. They never have any relationships with someone who isn’t a first degree relative and those are generally limited to only one or two. They also are extremely restricted in their emotional responsivity. But, theirs is not the criminal detachment of the antisocial personality. They simply live in their own little worlds and prefer to be left alone…by everyone. Not surprisingly, this is a personality disorder that is hardly ever seen in psychotherapy. They would never want to come in on their own and they don’t have close friends/significant others dragging them in. Schizophrenics isolate as well, but they are delusional. Schizoids are not.

Hopefully, from the above, coupled with the blog post from two weeks ago, some patterns are emerging for you. The mental illnesses frequently have certain traits in common. It is how much of those traits and how they present in an individual that gives a clinician what they need to make an accurate diagnosis. Certainly dealing with story people is way different than dealing with psychotherapy clients. So, you have lots of latitude as an author to mix and match. Just make sure the process yields someone who feels real to you.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part VI

I was going to continue with the personality disorders this week, but I figure those will keep. Instead, I think I’ll blog about a couple of old-fashioned concepts like honor and integrity. It’s easy to behave in an honorable fashion when things are going well. Really it is. And, it’s also easy to hold up that integrity banner, smile pretty and pretend your principles are bulletproof.

How about when the going gets tough, though? Are you (or your characters) able to do the right thing in the face of unfavorable odds? When they don't do the right thing, have you built in enough by way of explanation for how they're operating in the world? Nothing grates quite so much as a one dimensional antagonist. 

I had an unsettling experience this week that’s driving this blog post. I suppose I’ve had such good luck soliciting services over the internet, I simply assumed everyone I found through that venue would be a decent sort. Ya know, truth, justice and the American way and all that tripe. Heh! I feel like a bit of a rube admitting that. But, yes, I’ve always tried to be honest and forthright. I do what I say I will, even if it inconveniences me and I expect the same from others.

Well, hey, I hired someone. I did my part. I paid them. Told them what I wanted. They promised me a sample of their work so I could have input along the way. Never got that sample. Nope. Got a finished product that was way off the mark. Not very close at all to what I’d requested. I asked for changes and was told I didn’t know what I wanted, that they knew better than I, etc. "No changes," I was told. "Take it or leave it."

My honor is intact. My trust in the universe is sorely shaken, however.

Shamelessly, I’ve been trying to see what sort of story person I could build out of the aggressive soul who took advantage of me. Since character is the name of the game here, the person was opportunistic. And, on top of that, I think they’ve been far more successful in years past than currently. However, they could be living off past glories and have an inflated—if not narcissistic—view of their skills and abilities. That’s why I got the “I know better than you lecture”, because they truly believe it.

All really good authors (and I’m certainly not saying I am one) are able to get inside their characters sufficiently to build convincing motives for how the characters behave. If I’m correct and the one who screwed me over really is captain of a wagon that’s rolling down the hill, that would explain a lot. Like how they thought because they gave me a “price break” I should bow down and be happy with whatever they gave me. If they’re used to commanding a much higher price for their work, they would feel that way.

All righty, then. We have the underpinnings for a credible story character. They’re maybe in their forties, or perhaps even fifties.. Old enough to have had a successful career. Unfortunately, that career was tied to an industry that’s fallen on hard times here of late. Since I just got back from a conference where I listened sadly while some of my favorite authors shared about how they can’t make a living anymore, I’m guessing that could be a key element in someone who’s turned into an angry, bitter curmudgeon. Anyway, without too much work here, I’ve managed to come up with a sketch for a character I’m sure I’ll use sometime. What makes your characters click? What’s the grit in the oyster that creates that pearl otherwise known as personality?

As an aside, men often tie their self worth to their careers, women to their families. Bottom line is our self concept needs to link to us. To who we are independent of families and careers. One exercise I’ve often had groups do is to turn to the person next door and describe oneself without mentioning anything about one’s family or what one does to earn a living. That tends to stop people cold. Who are you when you strip away wife, mother, son, engineer, doctor, lawyer, teacher? Go ahead, try it. See what you come up with.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part V

I started to write this segment about another fictional character, Katniss Everdeen, from Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, but it was looking more like a book review, so I hit delete and switched gears.

What I think I’d like to do is start looking at the various personality disorders. All good antagonists are personality disordered in some way. And, it’s important to understand each of these disorders to be able to build a story-person who’s characterized by one of them. Unlike the primary mental health disorders that are ego dystonic (in other words, they create discomfort within the person experiencing the symptoms), personality disorders are ego syntonic. You guessed it. Just the opposite. The traits are a comfort zone, so there’s little motivation for change.

Guess I’ll start rolling with our old friend, the antisocial personality disorder (ASP). These are the people who torture animals as children, set fires, steal, and even murder. All without much emotional reactivity. The DSM calls it “blatant disregard for the rights of others”. This character type has seen a lot of play in novels. Most antagonists who kill willy-nilly and race off into the night howling with glee are caricatures of ASPs. The part that usually gets left out is that this personality disorder almost always had a childhood right out of Little Shop of Horrors. As kids, they were beaten, molested, starved, burned and neglected. There’s the odd exception, but ninety-nine percent of ASPs had perfectly wretched childhoods, so they grow up without the ability to feel remorse as a result of their actions. That’s something an author can use to parlay sympathy for even the most hardened antagonist. There’s scarcely an early life scenario that you might dream up that wouldn’t fit the bill. They might have been forced to take part in the Bataan Death March, or sold into slavery as a child prostitute. Virtually any grisly set of circumstances will fit the bill.

Moving right along to my next favorite: obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). These guys can actually make fairly decent protags as well. Though it shares most of the name, this is nothing like the obsessive compulsive disorder that’s characterized by repetitive hand washing (think Lady MacBeth), cleaning and other rituals like hoarding. OCPD is a preoccupation with perfectionism, orderliness and control at the expense of any flexibility. These are the guys who alphabetize the canned goods and have their drawers and closets arranged in neat little rows with all the same colored clothes next to one another. Any time an item is moved out of order is cause for significant anxiety and concern until the item is “properly” replaced. I saw a T-shirt at a conference I was at recently that said something like, I have CDO. That’s OCD with the letters arranged in alphabetical order like they should be.  That's something someone with OCPD would say. It would never occur to someone with OCD, which is one of the, ah, problems with pop psychology. Everybody fancies themselves an expert. An author can have a lot of fun with this personality disorder. It makes for some intriguing characters.

Let’s do one more and then that will be it for this week’s blog. Let’s look at histrionic personality disorder (HPD). Again, antagonist or protagonist, your choice. This disorder is hyper-emotional with lots of attention-seeking behavior. Frequent major appearance shifts are common like new hair color, plastic surgery and a wide-ranging seductive wardrobe. Think the fourteen year old who dresses like Lady Gaga with lots of exposed skin and thick make-up. Except they’re forty and never quite got over that phase. HPDs really need to be the center of attention all of the time. No matter where they are. If attention slides away from them, they just keep on upping the ante until they get it back. They’ll tell outrageous lies, engage in excessive public displays of emotion and seem as if they’re always on stage. You can see how much fun they’d be to be in a relationship with. These guys would drain the patience of a saint. But, if you’ve got a protag who’s into high drama, this just might fit the bill.

Remember, all personality traits exist on a continuum. You can borrow heavily from the personality disorders, tone them done just a shred and have a flamboyant, but interesting story character.


Friday, May 6, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part IV

Today I thought I’d do a bit of compare and contrast between two fictional characters: Jacqueline Carey’s Imriel de la Courcel and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kote/Kvothe. Granted I have a lot more material on Imriel, having followed him through the six books of the “Kushiel” series, but I think some of the things I have to say will generalize.
When we first meet Imriel, he is a child; and a child subjected to very adult torture at that. Through Carey’s skillful storytelling, we get to follow him through young adulthood amidst many trials and tribulations that shape the development of his character. Stigmatized as the son of Terre D’Ange’s greatest traitor, he manages to prove his worth beyond measure and is rewarded with marriage to his one true love, the Dauphine of the realm. Carey’s story is part romance, part adventure, part fantasy. Throughout all of it, Imriel’s personality shines through. We watch him morph from a brooding child into an uncertain adolescent turning away from others’ scorn. The journey from there to becoming a self-possessed adult, sure of himself and the power of his love for Sidonie, is a long one. Imriel is challenged again and again. His response to those challenges is both poignant and totally congruent. He never did anything where I sat back, scratched my head and asked myself, “He did that??? Why?”

In contrast, we have Kvothe, the main character in Rothfuss’s books. At the beginning of book one, Kvothe is a long-past-grown-up innkeeper, rather dull and just a bit mysterious. As he tells his life’s tale to a scribe, we see him as a child and youth in a very long flashback that makes up the bulk of the book. Well, Kvothe as a child and adolescent is interesting! He has a personality that shines through. He is bright, enterprising, and quite the risk-taker. The problem, at least in my opinion, is a lack of consistency between the protagonist as a youth and as an adult. They seem like two different people. I really liked the adolescent, but found the adult somewhat less-than-engaging. If more of book one had focussed on Kvothe as an adult, I'd never have bought book two.

To be honest, I have not finished book two. In fact, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Chapter One had a badly misplaced comma; but far worse than that, it had a description of bread making that made me feel very sure the author has not only never made bread in his life, but hadn’t bothered to go to the trouble to look up a recipe for how one might go about such a simple endeavor. That’s not exactly high level research. Flour, sugar, salt and a chunk of starter won’t buy you much if you don’t bother to add water. And, you don’t make loaves, then punch them down. You leave the dough in a single round, let it rise, punch it down and then form it into loaves… Maybe book two gets better. I assume, since it started with almost exactly the same prologue as book one (yes, nearly word for word; another nitpick), it will be a rehash that will pick up the threads of Kvothe’s young life where book one left off. I further assume (and I hope I’m wrong since I paid Amazon $14.99 for the Kindle version) that since the adult Kvothe is the same at the beginning of the novel, there will be the same discrepancy between the old and young versions of this primary character.

In a number of ways, I suppose writing has not exactly ruined reading for me; but it’s sure made me a whole lot pickier about details. I want characters who feel like they could live next door. Okay, okay, so I live in a fantasy world part of the time. But, I’d welcome a witch or a Sidhe if they happened to move in. Or any of the Celtic or Greco-Roman gods or goddesses. Really, I would. It would be fascinating to have a touch of the old magic in the neighborhood.

This has been way more of a rant than I meant it to be. Guess I'm feeling gypped since I finally ponied up the money to buy the Rothfuss book and Chapter One was just such a disappointment. Undaunted, I shall try to get my beak into Chapter Two tonight.