February 11, 2014

Writing About: Personality and Psychological Disorders

Please read Writing About: A Disease or Disability, because some of the tips I gave on how to write about a character with a disease/disability can still apply for a character with a personality or psychological disorder. 

Definition: a personality disorder is a deeply ingrained and maladaptive pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behavior causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or in society.

*A personality disorder is not regarded as a mental disorder.

Examples: antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder. 
TIP: My advice is to already know which disorder you want your character to have, or to do research to find out which one you want to use in your book. 
I have done a lot of research in psychology, so I want to share with you some things I have learned:

·         We tend to blame our upbringing, childhoods, and life experiences for the good and bad traits we have. (This can help you in a story because your character could blame a dysfunctional family or a traumatic event from their past for their behavior.)

·         People raised in the same household and in the same family are as different as two random strangers. (Your character with a disorder can have a sibling who doesn’t have a disorder.)

·         Personality disorders appear during adolescence or early adulthood. (The first chapter or so of your book can be dedicated to your character’s youth when the signs of a personality disorder became evident.)

·         All diseases/disorders look the same despite race, religion, and culture.

·         Multiple Personality Disorder is now called Dissociate Identity Disorder.

·         Tumors in certain parts of the brain can cause violent behavior that appears to be a condition of a disorder. (Could your character have a brain tumor?) 
TIP: There are a lot more disorders than just personality disorders, such as: anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders (Alzheimer’s disease), eating disorders, mood disorders (depression or mania), psychotic disorders, sleep disorders, substance-related disorders (alcohol dependence or amphetamine withdrawal), and psychological disorders.
Definition: a psychological disorder (or mental disorder) is a pattern of behavioral or psychological symptoms that impacts a person's ability to live ordinary life and/or creates distress for the person experiencing these symptoms, affecting how a person feels, acts, thinks, and perceives.

Examples: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Kleptomania, and schizophrenia. 

Once again there are more, which leads me to my first tip:

Check out my sloppy handwriting. :P
1.    Research

Of course you will have to do a lot of research! You need to know what the signs are for the disorder that your character has, how it is treated, what it looks like, and how it affects the people diagnosed with it.

2.    Show the effects of the disorder.

Disorders are normally so severe that they interfere with a person’s life, sometimes in multiple ways. Make sure you show how your character’s disorder impacts their relationships, emotions, behavior, thoughts, and habits. How does the disorder hurt his/her performance at work? What does he/she have to do in order to live from day to day?

3.    What is your character’s feeling about the disorder he/she has?

Readers always want to know what a character is thinking and feeling. Is your character ashamed of his/her disorder? Is he/she angry that he/she has it? Or has he/she come to terms with it?

4.    How do the events that occur throughout the story affect the character?

Anything that happens in the story can heighten the symptoms of your character's disorder. Someone referring to him/her as “the schizo” or “an anorexic” can be damaging, so show how it hurts him/her. Also, a big event such as a death can lead him/her into a mental breakdown or to attempt suicide. Whatever happens in your story, show your character’s reaction.

5.    How do other characters look at him/her?

Having a disorder often becomes a label in society, and people tend to look at those with disorders as the disorder itself, not as a human being. Let your minor characters all react in different ways. Some can be critical, mean/rude, cautious, or sympathetic while others can treat him/her normally.

6.    Let your character speak to doctors and psychologists.

In therapy sessions, you can reveal possible causes for the disorder, and traumatic moments in their past. When your character is talking to doctors, let him/her be hopeful or angry depending on their view of the treatment or medication they are discussing.

7.    Fit the tone of the story to the disorder.

This especially works if you’re writing in first person, and can help you to show what it is really like to have a disorder. If your character is having a hallucination, use strange images and odd similes/metaphors to describe the hallucination as your character experiences it.

8.    Use your imagination

To write about hallucinations (both visual and auditory) it is best to use your imagination, unless you have experienced hallucinations before (I have because of medication for my heart and boy, were they weird!) then you can use those in your story.

9.    Use facts

Tell your readers things they don’t know such as statistics. For example: 3 million people in the U.S. have OCD, panic disorders run in families, and major depression affects 1 in 20 Americans every year.

10.  View your story as a way to bring awareness.

There is a lot about disorders that people don’t know. Writing a story about a character with a disorder can bring awareness to a lot of people who don’t understand it, and can also help those who have it. You can even shatter myths that come with the disorder you're writing about.
TIP: If you're writing a thriller, add a twist to the end. Maybe your character doesn't really have a disorder, but someone has been giving him/her drugs that causes side-effects much like the symptoms of a disorder.

QUESTIONS: Have you written a story about a character with a disorder? How did you do it? What did you learn along the way?

SHARE: If there is anything you think I should add to this post, please tell me in the comments. There is only so much I can think of (I don’t pretend to be an expert) and I may have forgotten something. Thank you!


  1. Thanks. For now I have no plans to write about someone who has a personality disorder, but now I know where to come for info when do.

  2. I can only imagine the research this would require. Luckily, I'm not planning to write a character with a disorder any time soon. ;)

    1. Oh yes, this would take a TON of research. I have an idea for a story about a character with a disorder but I may not start on it for many years.

  3. Great post! Someo f my characters have personality and mental disorders. I think I did a pretty good job of defining them with their related deficincies. But there is always room for improvement. I'm going to go deeper into this very sibject for the next book I've outlined.

    1. Characters with disorders can be so interesting and can offer us (the writers) so much more to work with than sane or healthy characters. And going deeper into this subject will make a great book! Good luck to you! I'd love to get to know those characters you mentioned. :)

  4. This is a post with so much insight into improving characterization. Sometimes I like to write about characters who have problems almost tipping them into personality or mental disorders, or desperately trying not to go there! I suppose it's difficult because each person may behave differently, especially in different circumstances.
    I'm certain there's still a great deal we don't know about the mind.

    1. I don't think we'd ever fully understand the mind.

      One of my characters tipped toward insanity and it was a lot of fun to write. People all do behave differently, even in the same circumstances so I think with knowledge, research, and our imaginations we can't really go wrong.

      Thank you for commenting, Fanny! :)

  5. One of my characters is BiPolar II. It took a lot of research with the DSM IV and many google searches for case studies to get his character right. Well, I hope I did the "show don't tell" character development correctly. He was sure a lot of fun to write.


    1. Case studies are a great idea to get extra information. I can only imagine how a character with Bipolar II would be fun to write. I'd be interested in reading about him!

  6. This is great info Chrys! Thank you. My protagonist is misdiagnosed but it's the 1930's so it was more common to incarcerate people. She undergoes treatment she doesn't need and we see how it weakens her and she begins to 'lose' her mind. Thus it is a story of her strength to get out of the situation. My research includes the treatments and atmosphere of mental hospitals in that era. Still, not sure if I can pull this off :) but it's interesting...

    1. You're welcome, Lisa! Yes, back-in-the-day many people were misdiagnosed and suffered greatly for it. A story around that would be so interesting! Good luck with it because I'd love to read it!

  7. I'm always up for a challenge so I think writing about a character with a disorder would be really interesting. The more research; the better! This is really great advice, Chrys!

    1. Thanks, Gina! In the future, I'll be writing about a character with a disorder, and it's going to be soo much fun! I can't wait! :)

  8. I haven't yet, but the crime shows I watch have given me a basic course (barely scratching the surface) in personality disorders. It'll be interesting to write about characters with disorders, though I imagine it'll be YA and beyond.

    1. Crime shows can offer some insight into killers/criminals with a disorder.

  9. As a person with a personality disorder, I still found this post really useful because it helped me figure out how to relate the disorder to the plot of the story. My character, like me, has BPD (write what you know, right?) and I have a better idea of the impact the character and plot will have on each other now. So thanks. :)

    1. I am very glad to hear that. Thank you for commenting!

  10. Hello i was wondering if you would need a writer to write about life experiences to help children to understand and coup with physical and mental abuse victims from my experiences from the age of 5 on up. I have helped many others by talking to them and helping them to coup with what was done to them in their past. I would like to help by sharing my own story of my own journey down that dark road I even wrote my life story down well on paper havent made it all to my laptop yet. Not sure how to go about turning it into a book to help children and adults all over so im looking into maybe making some money by freelancing my story with someone.