Presentation of Madness, Axes of Insanity

For me, the toughest part of presenting insane characters has always been their portrayal. There’s a lot to balance: making the character different without making her obnoxious. Not turning her into a one-note character, nor offending/triggering people who have had to deal with real live mental disorders (one of the reasons why I tend not to actually use such disorders, or at least things that are identified in-story as such). Letting the insanity hamper the character without letting it hamper everyone’s enjoyment. Balancing act? Yep. Worth it? I think so.

To make this work, one of the concepts I use are two axes on which to measure the degrees of insanity.

The first axis of insanity is the in-character axis: the degree to which the character is, well, insane. Some characters’ insanity is pretty mild; they’re fully functional, just a bit… odd. For others, it’s downright debilitating, to the point where they’re a danger to themselves and others. And everyone else stretches out on a long scale between them. I find it’s important to vary up the levels to which my insane characters are affected.

The second axis is the out of character axis. This isn’t about how mad the character is, it’s about how much that character’s madness is emphasized. Some people mostly gloss over it, unless it’s really important, or it’s a trait that really doesn’t burst in on the narrative that often, so it can just be treated matter-of-factly (for instance, I have a number of characters who would probably be diagnosed with a spectacular range of psychological disorders, but I didn’t really design them with those, it just happened that something in their mental process probably matches up). On the other hand, you’ve got extreme emphasis of the traits, to the point where it can sound like the character is constantly saying, “Did I tell you I am off my rocker today? ‘cuz I am!”

I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is not to let the intensity on the out of character axis get higher than the intensity of the in-character axis. This accounts for the differing degrees of character madness; a nonfunctionally insane character’s insanity is going to break into the storyline and assert itself with greater frequency and intensity than a functional-but-odd character’s will, after all. On the other hand, it also leaves room for characters who are better at hiding it, or trying to play it up, or otherwise affected to a different degree than they show. (Note also that it’s a guideline; one situation in which I would encourage breaking it is when you’ve got a character who is pretending to be barking mad.)

One thing I’ve found to try to avoid extremes on the second axis is to look carefully at which words you’re using. Remember when I started talking about implying qualities, like beauty or intelligence or sympathy, without actually stating them? If there’s anywhere when this is important, insanity qualifies. As far as I’m concerned, no amount of mad gleams to one’s eye, insane grins or manic giggles can have near the impact that a character cheerfully waving hi to the corpses populating what was once a bustling metropolis or overwhelmed in reacting to a situation that has long since been and gone can when just described as one would see it.

Since it’s got such real-world resonance, insanity can be a dangerous thing to portray without sympathy, moderation, and research.


  1. UZ says:

    Hm… I mentioned a dark priest long ago (again, from the current novel). The imagery surrounding him was intended to make him seem weird, but the only thing that was really wrong with him was that he wasn’t afraid of anything. Actually sort of anti-afraid, tended to approach scary things by habit.

    But the trouble is, in fantasy and science fiction we often write about opposing or complementary frames of reference, and in some cases these points of view are so far apart that the concept of insanity is made kind of pedestrian by the scope of what can make perfect sense under the right circumstances.

    I mean, just in my personal internet ramblings I’ve written about:
    - How death might be solely a change in the conception of time
    - How the world would change if time was driven by death
    - How morality is changed by economy
    - How the right combination of personal contempt and disgust with patrilineal inheritance might lead a relatively sane woman to dress up like a monster and kill her family with a chainsaw
    - How lying is a fundamental part of the intelligent being’s ability to simulate, and removing the capacity to fabricate basically undermines the structure of intelligence as a whole
    - How going back in time to molest dinosaurs might be scientifically laudable

    and that’s just a few highlights. These are just setting concepts, ontologically true within their own context without judgement from characters. What we call sanity depends heavily on point of view, and when even popular fiction involves STDs that give supernatural powers, or hell, a kid who wards off soul-sucking monsters with a glowing antelope, we have to cast what is insane within the context of what we consider normal. At that point in the story. According to that character.

    That’s why I usually have trouble, I get a bit literal with this stuff.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Point. I should probably have made it more clear that this was in relation to world standard rather than reader standard.

  3. Shinali says:

    re: Comment conversation

    I’d narrow it even further to not “world standard” but culture standard. Take for example schizophrenia (this is an example we use a lot in my anthropology class): If person A lived in our culture and started to hear beings that were not actually there talking to them, in our culture we would get them medical help and probably put them on powerful medicines to stop the delusions. Now imagine that Person A was born in a real-world equivalent to Samar’s hometown – a culture very certain that there are spirits all around and only certain people can talk to them (shamans/priests, depending on if part-time/full-time, or possibly a medium) at certain times (rituals) or places (temples, etc.). Person A would not be “insane” in the second culture, rather they would be a shaman/priest or a medium, and actually have a bit of power in their culture (though probably not actual authority).

    However, it has to be a mixture of both setting-culture-insane and reader’s-culture-insane. If i showed a scene of Samar talking to the least god of her sword from an objective perspective, the reader would think she was insane. It’s a delicate balancing act at times. Mind you, if I showed it from the perspective of Samar, the least god, or anyone else who could see the least god, she would now seem sane and possibly specially gifted/empowered.

  4. UZ says:

    There have been several cases of characters who acted in audience-culture-insane ways with no indication from the setting-culture that they weren’t insane, but who still somehow come off as logical.

    An early (and maybe not that great) example would be Sherlock Holmes, the man who can look at someone’s hat and tell you their life’s story. It sounds like he’s just running his mouth until he goes back and itemizes it all. Doctor Who is actually a bit similar in this respect, a person who operates in a larger context than is exposited by the story – in fact, he’s usually the one who exposits the larger context. (Sometimes after the fact <_<).

    One of the minor epiphanies the main character has in the novel I'm working on relates to the dark priest – basically, said creepy guy witnesses a cataclysmic event and reacts with creepily enthusiastic curiosity. The MC wonders whether this is because his belief in his (related to the event) god is so strong that he literally believes that everything is going as it should, or whether it's because he's crazy. And then realizes that there isn't any way to tell the difference.

  5. Ravyn says:

    Shinali: Yeah, that’s going to make a huge difference too. I was mostly trying to focus in these riffs on characters mad from the point of view of their creator, at least at the beginning, but I think I went sideways somewhere in the process.

    UZ: Oooooo, interesting!

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