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Psychoanalyze Your Characters

As a psychologist/author (or psycho author), I'm starting a series of posts today about using psychological diagnosis to assist the development of your characters. The typical layperson is probably more familiar with diagnoses like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc. -- what mental health professionals refer to as "Axis I" disorders. However, I'll focus on personality disorders, known as "Axis II".

Personality disorders are clinical syndromes with enduring patterns of inner experience and interactions with the world, with a typical age of onset in late adolescence or adulthood. Because these patterns are inflexible and interwoven into an individual's personality, they are more difficult to treat. The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) lists ten personality disorders. I plan to cover a few of my favorites, starting with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as "a pattern of grandiosity (exaggerated claims of talents, importance, or specialness) in the patient's private fantasies or outward behavior; a need for constant admiration from others; and a lack of empathy for others."

The diagnosis refers to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter with unparalleled beauty and pride. When he scorned the love of others, the gods punished him. Narcissus became entranced by his reflection in a pool of water, so much so that he was unable to leave and slowly pined away by the water until his death.

The lack of reflection (aka empathy) is so important to the development of this disorder. As children, we need empathy from our parents/caregivers. Here are some examples of empathic parents:

Child: "This is so unfair!"
Parent: "You're disappointed about this (and it's still going to happen)."

Child: "I hate you."
Parent: "You're angry with me."

Child: "I can fly!"
Parent: "You're so happy you believe you can fly!" (hopefully the child's not close to a ledge at this point).

The reflection provided above can teach children to label and accept their emotions, and to connect with others through expressing their emotions. What happens when parents repeatedly fail to provide empathy? At its most severe (neglect and abuse), narcissim can develop.

Child: "This is so unfair!"
Parent: "This is perfectly fair, stupid. How dare you complain about this when I'm taking time out of my busy schedule to make this happen. You kids just take and take, and don't care at all about what I've got on my plate."

Child: (crying)
Parent: "Stop that crying this instant, you little baby! Put a smile on that face or you'll be in big trouble."

How can a child provide empathy for others when he's never received it himself? As an adult he will constantly search for what's missing--that reflection and validation from others. He will build a carefully constructed outer shell that is egotistical and entitled. He will demand that others admire him. Naturally, others will feel frustrated by his apparent egotism and lack of caring, and will eventually shun him. When this happens, the outer hard shell crumbles, revealing an extremely insecure core. The narcissist is quite vulnerable to deep depression at this point.

Narcissists might pursue careers like acting and professional sports. They are likely drawn to acting since it provides that mirror they so desperately seek. Some actors may only feel whole when the audience is cheering and the paparazzi are snapping photos. Likewise, fans adore elite athletes, giving them a pass on misbehavior, as long as the athletes continue performing well.

I'm currently writing a story featuring a narcissist. He's a highly demanding boss and his underlings fear him more than respect him, making fun of him behind his back. When he's angry, he expects everyone to cater to his needs, and he is physically abusive to his children. His wife tolerates this ridiculous behavior because she has some features of Dependent Personality Disorder herself. (It's even more stimulating to create a romance based on several personality disorders!)

Thinking of fictional narcissists, Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men comes to mind:

Eek! Do you have any characters with narcissistic traits? I hope this post is helpful to you in your characterization. What other psychological disorders would you like to learn about?

It's time for Meet an Author Monday Blog Hop! It's a great way for authors to network your blog.


LTM said…
very cool, and I imagine as a psyc, you get so many great ideas for characters! Thanks for sharing! :o)
oh great series! I have a question can any of these disorders be treated without therapy? and can you also talk about borderline personality disorder? my heroine has it and she is difficult to write or understand.
Anonymous said…
Psycho Author! I <3 you.
Jennifer Lane said…
LTM, psychology is an author's playland. I never base my characters on my clients as that would be disrespectful, but I do come up with ideas on my job all the time.

Joanna, ask and ye shall receive--I think I'll be covering Borderline PD next week. I want to hear more about your heroine!

Killian, hey debut novelist! I heart you too.
J E Fritz said…
Great post. I love putting elements of psychological disorders in my characters and it's really interesting to hear about them from a "psycho author." I can't wait to read what you write about BPD.
Anne R. Allen said…
Great idea for a series. I've just finished a novel with a narcissistic antagonist based on Jay Gatsby (I think all the characters in that novel are probably narcissists.) I'm not sure fiction could survive without them. Sometimes they're the protagonists, too. Look at Scarlett O'Hara. And all those romantic heroes like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.
Jennifer Lane said…
JE--I read on your blog how you like to analyze things to death, so it seems we are kindred spirits! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Anne, The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of narcissistic characters. Thanks for the literary examples. Your antagonist sounds interesting.
Elisa Dane said…
Awesome post, girlie!
The Sisterhood said…
I found this post incredibly interesting and helpful. As authors, sometimes we don't think about what we do to our characters and then realize we gave them an 'x' disorder without really thinking about it. I'm interested to see what other disorders you tackle!

♥ Mary Mary
Oh I'm going to love this series!!!
Jennifer Lane said…
Thanks Lisa!

Mary, Mary, I appreciate the feedback. I totally know what you're saying--sometimes we don't intentionally give characters a mental disorder but they wind up with one anyway. ;P
Jennifer Lane said…
Thanks Karen! You snuck in there as I was responding to other comments. I hope this series will be helpful.
Anonymous said…
Awesome idea for a series, Jen! :D
Kristin Miller said…
Great post! While I don't have any narcissistic characters in my WIP, it's always good to know how or why characters' emotions develop and it could very well be because of personality disorders like what you just described.
Jennifer Lane said…
Hey Kelsey, thanks for your comment.

Kristin, I'll be covering a few disorders so a piece of your characters will probably be covered. Good luck on your WIP.
Unknown said…
~ James! :) ~

What a fantastic idea for a blog series! Share your expertise. :)

I love reading your stories because you have really thought through each character beforehand -- what shaped them into becoming the person who they are today (commencing in childhood), and therefore how they would react to whatever crazy situations you throw them in!

A fascinating look into narcissistic personality disorder! I like the Colonel Jessop example. :)

I’ll be back for Part II of the series!

(Although it’s interesting to learn about various psychological disorders, part of me shuns labels - which can seem simultaneously simplistic and ‘final’. :/ )
Eeleen Lee said…
thanks for visiting my blog- I love the Very Demotivational Posters too!

There's a related article here
Jennifer Lane said…
Hi Shona Nie! :) Yep, James it is. What a nice compliment about my characters, thank you. I do like to torture my characters with nutty scenarios, hee hee. I agree with you about labels being potentially harmful, and most people don't fit easily into pre-packaged groupings because of their complexity. Colonel Jessup probably has a pinch of Antisocial Personality Disorder thrown in, as will my example for Borderline Personality Disorder.

Hey Eeleen! Thanks for the link to that article. The more I read about people struggling to publish with a large publisher, the more I love my little Ominific Publishing. *pets Omnific*
I can hardly wait, thanks!
Jennifer Lane said…
I think I'll post the next one on Monday, Joanna. :)
Amanda Hoving said…
This was really interesting! Writers have to be attuned to emotions and personality types to write realistic and engaging characters. After I took the course, Abnormal Psych, I felt my characters became far more well-developed.
Jennifer Lane said…
Thanks, Amanda! I was just watching an interview with Kevin Spacey (one of my fave actors) about how actors need to have an observation and an empathy, not judgment, for the characters they play, and I think it's like that for writers too.

I taught Abnormal Psych to undergrads when I was a grad student and that class is so fun! Did you watch videos of clients with particular disorders? I hope you didn't get "med student syndrome" and start diagnosing yourself with mental illnesses ha ha.
I loved this post! Thanks for sharing and explaining. I just learned about the personality disorders, and BOY, are they interesting. What about Boderline? My aunt was diagnosed with Borderline PD and PTSD. Ugh. The woman is in shambles and fear she will never be free of her inner demons.
Jennifer Lane said…
Hi Ash! Borderline will be coming up tomorrow. Borderline + PTSD = a LOT of therapy, methinks. Sounds like your aunt has been through the ringer, poor woman. Thanks for visiting my blog. :)
This is a fascinating post - I don't have any narcisstic characters, but I'll have to remember next time I want to invent a demented character to check with my mom (the psychologist) for a diagnosis! :)
Jennifer Lane said…
Thank you, Susan. I'm sure your mom would love to help her author daughter!
Nicki Elson said…
Oh, now I feel bad about calling narcissists jerks. :( How sad to think of someone not getting empathy from anyone else so they have to create it for themselves.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful, Beautiful, BEAUTIFUL post!

I can't say how helpful this post is for me! It's provided me with the information I needed to understand what may be the problem with a friend of mine. I always wondered why they lacked empathy. And now I know. I also traced the other characteristics of NPD with my friend's behavior and it is SPOT-ON!

THANKS for this Jennifer!

Gosh, you've helped me so much. THANKS!
Daisy Carter said…
This is such great info - definitely will work its way into my a character or two in my writing - thanks!

New follower!