Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen

Know Your Nuts: Creating Convincing Demented Characters

I love crazy people.

Not to help them: just to observe the spectacular ways in which the human mind can malfunction.

When my wife watches Law and Order, she summons me to join her for certain episodes with the siren song, "It's got crazy people!" Is there anything about the human condition we cannot learn from forensic psychiatrist Emil Skoda?

I'm less a psychology junkie than a connoisseur. I enjoy a well-crafted wacko, not these slavering madmen hewn by lazy writers. Too many fail to capture the majesty of a good persistent delusion.

Because lunatics are common in our genre (not to mention among its writers), I'm offering tips on creating more believable ones. This isn't a public service for the benefit of literature; I just want better screwballs.

Before we begin, a disclaimer: Please do not sue me when you use this article to open a counseling practice and find yourself in jail. These are rules of thumb, not crib notes for the psychology GRE. They apply only to characters, not to Aunt Shirley.

With that out of the way, I now offer Will's Guidelines for Creating Crazy People at Least as Convincing as You Are.

1. Mental illness for our purposes is a persistent obsession or delusion that is consistent and internally logical.

Human beings, even the crazy ones, strive for consistency. We are all amateur philosophers and psychologists, creating myths of the universe. Your crazy characters should make their own idiosyncratic sense of the world, integrating weird ideas and chemical surges into a stable (but wonderfully wrong) theory of existence.

Think of lunacy as a stubbornly-held wrong idea, impervious to evidence.

  • "If I keep sending stories to magazines, someone will publish them."
  • "I'm not a successful landscape artist because the Jews won't let me."
  • "The only way to cure my anemia is to drink the blood of others."
  • "Every person I kill becomes my slave in the afterlife."

Even crazy people have reasons. They're just more compelling, both for them and for us.

2. The more interesting mentally ill are not aware of their illness.

There is no way that Khan Noonian Singh can look at himself in the mirror with his bare chest, erupting iron-gray hair, and seared Starfleet medallion without saying, "Holy cow. I'm crazy!" Ditto for Hannibal Lecter and almost every character Gary Oldman portrays. They're over the top.

Likewise, your serial killer character can't sit on the porch of his house sharpening an ax while listening to nursery rhyme records. The neighbors of real madman always say, "He seemed so gentle and normal, though a bit of a loner." So should yours.

Subtlety is the rule for a well-developed oddball.

3. Most mental illnesses have two components: a physiological propensity (diathesis, in the lingo), and a triggering event or situation (stress).

You may come from eight generations of schizophrenics, but you may never manifest symptoms without a provoking situation. Similarly, not everyone emerges from a prisoner of war camp ready to kill every neighbor named "Charley."

People wrestle with the question of whether mental illness results from physiology or development. The answer is yes, both.

Your characters need not only the physical symptoms of madness but some historical event that provoked it. We know all the usual ones: child abuse, witnessing a death, forced sexual identity, isolation. Using one of these for your character is better than nothing, but I challenge you to find something more creative.

A woman counts her steps each day after her mother dies, hoping to control her life in the face of chaos. A computer programmer fails in his job and retreats with his family to an idyllic wilderness existence, severing three fingers on each hand of his children so they'll never operate technology.

Human beings face their circumstances as best they can, but some choose stranger solutions than others.

4. Beware of diagnoses.

These look good on the insurance paperwork but tend to oversimplify human beings. The Diagnostical and Statistical Manual IV-TR (the bible of kooky) contains clumsy approximations better used to categorize large groups of people than to understand an individual.

These diagnoses also come with canned stereotypes and expectations. In our self-help society, readers think they know what "bipolar," "schizophrenic," and "dissociative" mean. They don't -- they just know what cliched behavior corresponds to each.

Portray your characters with actions, not with easily misunderstood categories. Pull your readers along by never naming a mental illness or even acknowledging one. Your goal? To make your reader wonder if he's crazier than the character.

5. The mentally ill don't have to be villains.

54 million Americans wrestle with mental illness. Few are killers. All are the heroes of an internal epic struggle, just like the rest of us. Only their demons are stranger.

The best heroes are reluctant and flawed. Their outer struggles are metaphors for their inner ones, and vice versa. Which victor is more noble: the hero with all of the advantages, or the one who also has to fight against himself? You know the answer, if only because you (like me) belong in the latter category.

Your protagonist doesn't have to be autistic or bipolar or schizoid. He or she just needs a mental pain that makes the struggle worth it. Why venture into a haunted house if you can't face some of your own ghosts? Why stake Dracula if you can't do the same to the mental echo of your abusive father?

We are all broken and injured, limping off the field of battle. What makes a story is when we limp back on again.

"Okay, Mr. Psycho-Snob. Why gets it right?"

I'm glad you asked. Here are just a few random examples of authors, stories, and novels that I enjoy specifically for their depictions of the mad.

  • Edgar Allan Poe created sophisticated madmen even before the advent of psychology. They are often too self-aware, but that is a weakness of using the first-person perspective to describe them.
  • J.D. Salinger depicted the subtle pain of hypersensitivity very well, especially in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."
  • Philip K. Dick created convincing characters with doubts about the nature of reality and their role in its creation. Are the characters living in The Man in the High Castle, or are we living in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy?
  • Shirley Jackson had a delightful talent for exposing the madness in the ordinary, and vice versa. She seemed to believe that we are all psychologically broken, but the less honest of us just hide it better. Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle depicts the honesty and integrity of a persistent and useful delusion.
  • Patricia Highsmith was the grand dame of crazy characters. Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley and several other novels, is a delightful nut: high-functioning, urbane, intelligent, almost completely unaware of his deficiencies, and ready to kill with a reflexive swiftness. Highsmith tells us of his adventures without a trace of moral alarm. Her novel This Sweet Sickness stars a character with one of the most subtly-drawn mental illnesses in all of literature. I've read thousands of horror books and stories, but only this nominal mystery has kept me awake staring at my ceiling.

I've started here with the old masters. I'm sure you have more modern examples, and you're welcome to point them out on my message board. I'd love to discover a new master of madness.

Maybe even you.

Will Ludwigsen's teachers placed even odds that he'd end up in a prison or mental hospital. He works for the federal government, thereby fulfilling both prophecies at once. When not writing horror non-fiction for them, he writes horror fiction for a variety of magazines including Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Horrorfind. If this column has provoked a curiosity about his own mental illnesses, you can find more about him at his website, His blog Acres of Perhaps includes many more rants similar to this one, and his writing site The Writing Gym offers more tips. You can even rant back at him via his message board.

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