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Mentally Unstable Characters

Joined
Jun 9, 2019
Messages
20
#1
I would like to discuss and share ideas on how to portray mentally unstable characters in a way that is unsettling and believable. Although I know they do exist, the looney bin variety we see in most hollywood movies is not what I'm aiming for.

I want something mote subtle, something more close to home. Not a blood drunk psychopath, but someone who is on the last leg of a protracted battle to maintain their sanity.

Any good pointers or resources I could use to help portray this well?
 

P Y R E

Love to hate me, praise me, shame me~
Welcoming Committee
Joined
Oct 21, 2018
Messages
376
#3
When I write mentally unstable characters I always focus more on their surroundings. In real life, those with disorders have a tendency to focus on items that either irritate them or drive them crazy. For instance let’s look at those who have issues with lights.

Those who have issues with lights will flick their eyes to them, and they can see the flickering of the bulb that others may not see.that highpit hed buzzing that can drive anyone mad or make ears bleed. They can hear the buzzing of the fly trapped in the shade or enclosure. Their eyes focus on that fly, the struggle, the sound of its anganizing flutter. Then something startles them, they look ahead their heart racing, pounding in their ears like erratic drums, the world is slightly more disoriented than it was before. And then they question their place in life or society, are they the fly? Or are they the container it’s trapped in.


When you analyze the situation, you can break it down into steps. It also helps to look up the disorders as well to see what the symptoms are and why it bothers those who have it. You can do the steps for any disorder. Find a disorder, a reason for it, how it feels, how it sounds, the aftermath.

My example:

Disorder: lights

Reason: bright, flickering, distracting

How it feels: flickering, the fly is a speck in the light separating it, frustrating

How it sounds: buzzing, fluttering, annoyingly highpitched

Aftermath: irregular heartbeat, questioning their place in society, disorientation.
 
Joined
Jun 29, 2019
Messages
53
Location
Behind you
#4
The way I tend to do it is to have a "every man" type who at his core tries to be good or wants to be good but is just pushed too far. Is haunted by demons etc. I like the idea of someone who is sympathetic and has various sides to them rather than just being a straight up sociopath. It depends of course on what type of mentally unstable you mean too though and what you hope to explore within that.

I have pissed off a few women over the years in RP because I play the character as being "sweet and sour" trying to be nice but of course when their female character pushes things he will smack them or put them in their place. But he wants them to be on his side of course so he switches back to sweet again. A lot of people just want the nastiness all the time with no interest in story or character development.
 
Joined
Jun 19, 2019
Messages
28
#5
^^ I have a few mental disorders. I think the core of being realistic is to understand, that the world of a person with a mental disorder is perfectly ok. If you were alone on this world... everything would be alright. It's the clash with other people that brings the problems.

The first step is to pick an instability you want to portray. A phobia? Autism spectrum disorder? Schiziphrenia? Paranoia? (Please don't say depression. Depression is... where's the fun in having a character without ANY motivation?), something more spectacular? DID? Some sociopathy or psychopathy?

When you picked one, go and research it. There's plenty of sites that provide information about mental disorders. You can find a relatively nice summary about mental disorders here. Research it in depth. And then try to imagine, how suffering from the conditions of the disorder would affect you in your everyday life.

Again: If i didn't have to interact with people, I'd be fine! It's interacting with the world around you that causes the thing to be a "disorder". MY world is just fine. ^^ As I said - I have a rather funny collection of disorders, but ever since I live with these since my birth, I have come to terms with most of them. I am a highly functional person in the real world. Some of my disorders come in pretty handy at times (You've got to love seeing patterns everywhere when you are working with lists!). A "normal" person with a mental disorder is going to do SHIT to show it to a stranger. You function as good as you can, day after day after day. And then there's the occasional "creepy" moment for others. Like... when you are HEAVILY overtriggered, everything is getting way too fucking much and you suddenly DO yell at the voice inside your head to shut the fuck up - while you are standing at the bus stop. And of the three people waiting there with you nobody said a single word.
 
Joined
Jun 29, 2019
Messages
53
Location
Behind you
#6
Again: If i didn't have to interact with people, I'd be fine! It's interacting with the world around you that causes the thing to be a "disorder". MY world is just fine. ^^
That's a really interesting point for me and I don't just mean from a "mental disorder" point of view. I work in a field where we deal with what our company call abusive customers or customers that require support in some way. One day I was listening to a voice recording of a customer who was reported as being abusive. From the outset of the call (the company called him) he told them that he was tired, stressed and seeing a doctor. He didn't want to deal with these calls. The genius of a operator told him that he would call back later!! Umm yeah.. so of course then the customer loses his shit and abuses the operator.

I see the same thing in a lot of situations, someone is pushed and loses it only then to be branded the bad guy.

Again, not related per se to mental disorders but it does highlight how interacting with people can bring about these situations, how there is always two sides to a story.
 

MisterKing

Super-Earth
Joined
Jan 21, 2015
Messages
136
Location
Under a bridge
#8
I'd say that Wildbow's narration in his works (Worm/Ward and especially Twig) does an excellent job of conveying mental instability, although the mental illness of his characters aren't 1:1 with reality since his characters aren't 1:1 with reality.

Last year he wrote the Eclipse arc, which while not standalone from Ward is detached enough to be accessible imo. Plus it's from the point of view of a character with an incredibly deadly power without much control, so when Wildbow describes her on the edge of a panic attack from her POV it's absolutely engrossing. The first part of the chapter is the most relevant to this, just an fyi.
 
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