I’ve had several in-narrative encounters and also questions regarding crazy, mad, off-their-rocker characters lately. I’ve also written one of my own. So I thought I’d talk about it a little. The reasoning can be anywhere from, “I thought it sounded fun,” to “I wanted them to be virtually unpredictable,” to “My plot needs them!”
But no matter your reasoning, your character is still a character. And even if you have fun writing crazy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your reader will enjoy reading it if the character isn’t still fleshed out, three-dimensional, and motivated.
First, there is a difference between a chaotic character and an insane character. They can sometimes look the same on the outside though, so the differences really come out once you get into the character’s head. And when you’re writing them–especially if they’re a POV character–then you need to know what’s making them tick: their moral compass or their lack of sanity.
Just like when creating any strong, believable character, your crazy characters need motivation. We don’t have to agree with the actions of a character to understand them or find them logical. A chaotic character has a moral compass, even if that compass is wildly skewed from our own.
A helpful visual when placing your character’s morality:
So let’s start with sane but chaotic.
Examples from the Chaotic Spectrum:
Things to remember when writing chaotic characters:
- They still have motivation and depth. Their motivations might not make a lick of sense to us, but they still exist. And their drive is rooted in something concrete. Their methodology can be totally whack, but there is a method.
- Chaos and “Random” aren’t the same thing. Not in mathematics and not in character. Random means indeterminable despite knowing all there is to know about a thing. Chaos is a state of disorder, but one that can be determined with the proper knowledge. A coin toss is random. Even if your flip a quarter a hundred times and record all the results, you’re still not any more or less likely to guess the result of the next flip. Weather, however, is chaos but determinable with enough knowledge.
- Some basic understanding of human psychology will help you in general when writing characters and their motivations, but can be especially useful when you’re writing a chaotic morality. How a character’s background, actions, and sense of empathy play into their course of action within a story can really help make them feel real.
- They might be disconnected from our version of what’s right or “real” but they are not necessarily clinically insane. Insane behavior is that which falls outside the scope of rational behavior. Behavior can be self-serving or evil and still be rational.
- Chaotic Stupid is the term deemed to encompass those characters who take their determination to do their own thing, to break the rules, to be random, to idiotic extremes. These characters can be funny and enjoyable in certain genres and with limited exposure…but too much of it can grow tiresome as they are difficult characters to give an arc or true depth because their rational is nonexistent.
Insane characters can be a lot of fun to read and write…but getting them correct can be difficult. Mostly because falling into the “random for the sake of random” trap is so easy for a writer when you’re distracted by plot, setting, and other characters.
Showing the descent into madness is a good way to start because a.) it’s an almost automatic character arc and b.) it gives the insanity more punch because the readers knew the character before madness set in. Your readers will feel the loss of a character’s personality and morality with more sting than even they feel it themselves.
Things consider when writing insane characters:
- They are their own source of conflict. You will be writing a Man vs. Self conflict. This might be your main conflict, or a side-conflict, but it will be there nonetheless. They will likely have a hint that something isn’t right within themselves and struggle with the loss of control or understanding with which their madness plagues them.
- He will likely possess behavioral quirks or tics, or many other external symptoms of true mental illness. These can be used in narrative to hint at approaching problems (internal or external), as well as give great character visuals.
- Her character arc might hing on obsession, be it external or internal. She might be obsessively searching for someone she doesn’t believe is dead, or for her own memories. Psychosis can contribute to or result from this obsession. This mania will also likely block her need to meet her basic needs. She might stop sleeping or eating, feeling that she can’t let anything distract her from reaching her goal.
- RESEARCH. You can watch films and read books portraying insanity, but those are often mediocre representations at best. Do research into how true clinical insanity affects the brain and one’s actions. And if you’re ever going to explicitly portray a specific mental illness, do not do so lightly. Always make sure you do through research and even use sensitivity readers to make sure that you aren’t doing harm to anyone or adding to a negative stereotype.
On Writing Mentally Ill and Insane Characters – Springhole.net – Very good reference
Happy researching and writing!