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.



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