Insanity: Creating a Pre-Maddened Character

Insanity is an interesting character trait, when done properly. It creates a little differentiation between the character and those otherwise like her, lets you explore a slightly different style of logic (particularly when you’re going for rational except for a few important details, or when the challenge is seeing what kinds of things you can internally justify), and comes in more flavors than almost any other common character trait. But the thing about it is that dealing with specific mental illnesses requires research, and even generalized break-from-reality insanity can be really difficult to do right. One thing I’ve found that helps is having a strong foundation for the character even before you figure out how the insanity manifests.

So the first question is, why do you want this character to be insane? Don’t worry about whether your reasons are good enough (okay, except for “so she can be eeeeeevil without requiring me to give a better explanation”, even I would call that not good enough) for now, just focus on what it is, since that’s going to give you some idea how you might want it to manifest, and whether you want it to be curable.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to determine whether there are any intercharacter dynamics you definitely want to have, since that’s going to limit the ways in which your character’s insanity is going to play out. If you want her to get along with a sensitive and/or uberempathic character, for instance, having her convinced of the sentience of every inanimate object of a certain type around her or prone to talking to nonexistent magical creatures is doable, but making her prone to deranged violence or convinced that she needs to bathe in virgin blood to retain her youth might not be such a good idea. Friendships, enmities, rivalries, love—you’ll want to try to find ways that insanity could reasonably conflict with it, and then avoid them.

Why is the character insane? That’s also likely to have an effect on the kinds of madness the character shows; or at least, in the case of acquired madness, allowing it to look like a logical cause and effect relationship (or at least, logical for the character’s value of logic) creates a little extra realism that the madness popping out of nowhere doesn’t. And one way or another, it’s going to have effects on the backstory, and those effects themselves could definitely be interesting.

What is the character besides being insane? It’s an easy question for a beginner to forget, but when you’re trying to play a character who’s gone off the deep end, it’s vital. And I don’t just mean who they were before they lost it, though that’s important too. “Insane” is not the be-all and end-all of a character; they need other traits as well, preferably multiple ones. Is there a secondary impression they’re supposed to give to the audience/other characters, or even a primary one before the madness becomes apparent? If the madness comes and goes, rather than being constant, do they have a viable occupation outside of it?

Is the character aware of her own insanity? Some, particularly the ones whose madness comes and goes, might be aware when lucid that there are times when they are not, to the point of knowing what their own triggers are—some might be aware that there’s a break between their perception of reality and reality itself, but not know what the break is (which can lead to mad enough behavior in and of itself). Others are unaware; they find themselves logical, even normal, and have to make sense of why these other people accuse them of being a few needles short of a haystack.

Yes, it works best to have at least a vague idea of all of these before getting down to figuring out how the character’s insanity manifests. Nobody ever said being mad was easy.


  1. Brickwall says:

    The character you will be meeting today in SoF was completed before this post went up, just so you know. Seriously, over a week ago.

  2. UZ says:

    Ha, made a few characters that were mentally ill, but not insane. It sounds so dramatic.

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