Do Writers Realize When They Write Crazy People?

Obsession is a form of madness. When obsession becomes the only thing in someone’s life, that person becomes at least temporarily insane.

When a fiction writer creates a portrait of a person whose quest or search for something or someone or some ideal becomes all-encompassing…they are creating a character who, as they inhabit the story at least, is for all intents and purposes…unhinged.

A writer should love something about every character they envision and inhabit, but to fully realize a character and to avoid sentimentality or what I can only call “falseness,” the writer has to recognize that insanity. If the writer doesn’t–can’t pull back enough to recognize it, no matter how close-in and personal the writer gets within the story–then you get the odd situation in which the writer clearly thinks they’re writing a story about a genuinely good, genuinely sane person when they’re not.

Just an interesting thing to observe, because although there are some subjective elements about characters and ambiguity, you can also say that if a character does certain things in certain contexts, most reasonable people would feel a certain way about that character after awhile.

19 comments on “Do Writers Realize When They Write Crazy People?

  1. This is quite true, but it’d difficult not to get caught up in the character. I didn’t realize one of my characters was bat-shit insane until well into my second rewrite.

  2. Yeah, me too. The guy I thought I was setting up as the “hero” of the Predator novel turns out to be loony-tunes.


  3. Larry says:

    I had a related thought earlier today that perhaps you can address, Jeff. I was thinking back over several novels that I had recently in many different genres and I couldn’t help but notice that hardly a single one was what one might call “well-adjusted.” Is there something in the character dynamics/plot tensions that almost necessitates characters being off-kilter in some form or fashion?

    Maybe this character insanity thing is a contagious matter.

  4. Good question. I know I tend to write about mal-adjusted people because I find them more interesting. I think genuinely good people are tough to write well because of the inherent lack of inner conflict there, perhaps. It’s also easier to get enmeshed in cliche when writing about well-adjusted people. On the other hand, Nabokov famously said that every unhappy family is the same, every happy family different, correcting either Tolstoi or the Big D. By which he meant that neurosis and mal-adjustment is all more or less the same, whereas achieving a happy dynamic is by its nature always different.

    I have now set myself the challenge of writing a genuinely well-adjusted, good person as the protagonist of my next novel, as a result.

    On the other hand, are any of us, underneath the surface, all that well-adjusted? Maybe that’s why.


  5. Sir Tessa says:

    Actually, yes. I know scads of very well-adjusted people who, on getting to know them better and sitting in their company for prolonged periods of time, failed to suddenly implode. The kind of weirds me out a bit. It’s like sitting with sitcoms.

    I like these people, but I can’t say I understand them, and that’s enough reason not to attempt a well-adjusted character.

  6. Transfiguring Roar says:

    A very interesting question. I think that ‘well-adjusted, good person’, is something thats needs to be defined. ie., we attribute a person with behavior we call good, but what is good if not merely a perspective? What is that behavior free of the perspective?

    The German philosoph Friedrich Nietzsche thought that good and evil was a false dichotomy by which to judge people. He approved of power and was contemptuous of the weak. In this context, is life merely a game of endurance, of outputting power/creativity and bearing the destruction that ensues, in a chain of cause and effect? Is a well-adjusted person someone who lives in such a way that s/he does not cause a strain (in any imaginable way) on themselves or their environment? Or do they take it as far as they safely can? Is one form of strain more socially acceptable than another, and why?

    Personally I like the idea of a mental state adjusted to not cause strain, but even in that I sense possible confusion and difficulties… The real problem seems to be that the things that make up a human are at war with each other, that a human is divided. And there is the question.

    (Man, I hope someone can follow this…)

  7. Yes, like you can be neurotic and mal-adjusted and still be a good person.

    I guess to define further the kinds of people I write about are ambiguous as to their goodness, usually. The best of them are deeply flawed but make the right decisions under pressure.

    I think also people are basically apes in clothes. We really still are ruled by emotion in almost everything–and we’re also very inconsistent. That’s why a consistent character often seems false, because on any given day, depending on other circumstances, perhaps even whether we got our coffee in the morning, we make decisions different than the ones we might expect we would make.


  8. Transfiguring Roar says:

    Okay, now I get you.

    What you say makes good sense. We are far from being robots despite our capacity for reason. Or maybe it is in spite? And you’re dead right – mal-adjusted people are much more interesting. A friend of mine read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and said the main character was a card-board cutout. He said it was still worth reading after I was put off by what he said.

    I like intolerance also.

    So, ah, you know how some writers stay sane by writing about horrible people and things? You’re not gonna lose the plot by writing about this good guy, are you? I guess you might be able to get away with the first…

  9. I think in this case, he’s a good man in an impossible situation. It’s the protagonist of the novel I’m working on now, Finch. Basically, he’s a detective and if he solves the case he’s working on, one group will kill him. And if he doesn’t, another group will kill him. So there’s the pressure, and the case is the plot.


  10. This is an interesting question, because I recently had the opposite experience in finishing my first novel. I thought the main character (a self-centered, spineless Incan male supermodel) was a total asshole. But by the end, he turned out to be the moral center of the story, and perhaps the only genuinely good character.
    I guess I have this theory that maybe the appearance of well-adjustedness is in and of itself a sort of sickness. Sir Tessa, I knew a guy in college who seemed like he stepped out of “Full House.” I mean, you couldn’t imagine a more wholesome, well-intentioned, understanding guy. In a way, he sort of scared me, the way wholesome, earnest people always kind of scare me. . .I can’t get past the idea that they’re hiding something, like pod people or aliens badly schooled in acting human. I guess I think there’s something basically honest in showing a little bit of maladjustment.

  11. Larry says:

    Interesting setup there for exploring that character, Jeff. One “good” character that occurred to me was the title character for Dostoyevky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin. His is an almost negative “goodness,” in that he’s constantly being taken advantage of by those who see his good nature as something to take advantage of rather than something to admire. Perhaps that’s one of the few good ways of having tension with such “wholesome” characters – having them be true to themselves despite the others around them. But of course that could also lead to a sort of polemical novel and those are often not well-done, I’ve found. Also, considering that there are quite a few internet readers bandying about terms like “Mary Sue” to describe all sorts of characters that they feel are “too perfect,” it makes me wonder if another reason why it’s difficult to have “well-adjusted” characters is that the audience is not too keen to read about them.

  12. Don’t be too sure that any of us know any well-adjusted people. Jeff’s character may have surprised him by being obsessively bat-shit, but that aspect was there all along. I don’t know much except myself but I can say that most of the people who think they know me the best have no freakin clue. Yeah, I’m generally kind and sympathetic, tend to find the best in others, etc ad nauseam. But I exhibit incredibly bad judgment in almost everything that matters, have always taken up with “tragic” women, tend to become impatient and unreasonable on a whim and have ‘secrets’ that no other human will ever know. Yet if you met me in person I’d put you to sleep.

    If I met you in person I’d smile warmly, give you a firm handshake and be deeply suspicious of you in every way. (Jeff managed to overcome my suspicion years ago by yanking my chain so hard I’m still laughing. :D Anyone who can, in half a dozen words, convince me I’ve somehow overlooked a whole “dolphin genre” is okay in my book.)

    All I’m suggesting, I guess, is that *nobody* is as well-adjusted as they’ve convinced you they are. We’re all a bunch of unpredictable freaks; that’s why we’re at the top of the food chain.

  13. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    A good example of the secretly mal-adjusted is the sociopath in modern society, especially the sociopath as found in corporations. I think this is a fascinating possibility for fiction, one that hasn’t been explored as much as it should be. I’ve met at least three people in various corporations who I was fairly sure were sociopaths, who appeared well-adjusted, whose words were charming, etc., but whose actions, when you really looked at them were chilling.


  14. Kathy Sedia says:

    Also it might be worth noting that someone well-adjusted to their particular situation will not be so if transferred into an alien environment, deprived of everything they love etc. Generally, novels deal with someone who is deprived of something they want/need — to give them a reason to not just happily sit on the couch playing with the cat.

  15. Very good point. Like mediocre businessmen turned into political candidates. Or pro wrestlers marooned on desert islands. Or mimes who have to work construction.


  16. Sir Tessa says:

    “All I’m suggesting, I guess, is that *nobody* is as well-adjusted as they’ve convinced you they are. We’re all a bunch of unpredictable freaks; that’s why we’re at the top of the food chain.”

    I ditto that, but still know the exception to the rule. My well-adjusted friends I’ve known for over 10 years, and they’ve never stopped weirding me out because of it. It runs in the family. There’s a whole tribe of happy, well-adjusted people.

    This probably means that one day the whole tribe will explode. Simultaneously. (Although I doubt it.)

    …what is well-adjusted anyway? Lacking in inner and outer conflict? What do they do in their heads, then?

  17. Josh S. says:

    Perhaps a bit late in the game, but this post reminded me of a presentation I caught a few months ago; Ian Horswill, from Northwestern Uni. gave a presentation called “Psychopathology, narrative, and cognitive architecture (or: why NPCs should be just as screwed up as we are)” [.pdf available on this page].

    Although his primarily interest is in creating better AI, he makes some interesting points (conjectures) about why batshit crazy tends to make a more interesting narrative than well adjusted folks — not the least of which, in the section “Men are dogs (no, really, I mean it; women too),” is that “for many purposes, humans basically act like dogs with large forebrains.”

    It’s a neat, accessible read, especially if you’re into the narrative theory thing.

  18. joseph says:

    this actualy happens too eminem diss is prety cool…the greates rapper is insane

  19. Frida says:

    I wrote a story just for fun once, a first person, and I started trailing off into monologues. I thought it was incredibly fun, so soon enough, my character started talking in detail about her dreams and taking the phrase “train of thought” literally, talking about conductors of thought-trains. After a while, it became all the more morbid, and I realized that she was utterly, completely, batshit insane. After that, I seem to always start of with “quirky” characters and up with characters that most definitely have an unnamed condition of some sort.

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