Personality Disorders in Fiction
by Sean Ian O’Meidhir
“I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray…” So we were asked to write some blog posts and I’ll admit that I’m incredibly novice at this sort of thing – so as the song lyric goes…
Personality Disorders! I’ve opted to write to you good readers about something that I know well. For those of you who have not heard of a “personality disorder,” it is a diagnosable issue that causes problems in everyday life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th ed. gives the definition as:
The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.
In essence, it’s the way a person sees the world, but it’s skewed, flawed, and consequently causes the individual difficulty at work, socially, and/or with their family. The personality disorder is really just a means of survival that has gone array. It’s “ego syntonic” meaning that it doesn’t feel wrong to the person because it’s just the way they are in the world.
I describe the personality disorder to people like this: everyone has a wall around them that they started building in childhood. Things that we learn as kids help to add the layers to the wall. This protects us. Everyone’s wall is different. I often have clients or classes go through the exercise of closing their eyes and imagining their personal wall. What does it look like? Color? Shape? What does it feel like? Is it flexible or solid? How tall is it or does it surround you entirely? What smell does it have, if any? Sound?
I’ve yet to meet anyone who has been unable to picture their own wall. That’s can be considered our “ego defense” – i.e. what protects us. And some of us learned in childhood that the world is incredibly unpredictable and so we built solid walls made of brick and keep everyone out. Some of us learned that the world is a friendly place, and so our walls might be waist high with open gates.
Whatever your wall is, it’s your own. The only problem is when your wall is so rigid that it keeps you from being able to interact with others in a wholistic and healthy way. There are ten identified Personality Disorders: Dependent, Avoidant, and Obsessive Compulsive; Borderline, Antisocial Narcissistic, and Histrionic; Schizoid, Schizotypal, and Paranoid. These are grouped into the “anxious, fearful,” the “dramatic, emotional, erratic,” and the “odd, eccentric” presentations. It is my contention that everyone has some traits of one or more of these. However, some people whose wall is so rigid that it interferes with their lives have really gravitated to one of these and it’s become their entire outlook that is difficult to challenge.
Writers (usually unconsciously) often incorporate traits into their writing. We often have the cold and distant MC who finds love and melts for the person who has won their heart. This could be someone with avoidant traits. We find MCs that are cruel and hateful, keeping everyone out until that right person comes in and teaches them it’s safe. This may be someone with antisocial traits. As a psychologist, I have had a lot of fun writing about various personality traits in fiction and consciously including them in writing.
In our book Escape: Crossing Nuwa (book 1) you’ll find that MC Theo has a narcissistic personality trait. We had several readers complain about how pompous and arrogant he came off and this was purposeful! Though we toned it down a little so we didn’t upset too many readers. Theo was raised in an alcoholic home as an only child. He’s plus sized and while he always had a lot of friends, he often felt very much alone. To defend against his inner feelings of low self-esteem, he projects an air of confidence and strength which people gravitate to. But sometimes he overdoes it and pushes people away, which is actually something he prefers. In book 1, we meet him and he’s come to the conclusion (at 22 years old) that he is going to be alone forever and that he prefers it that way. Safe. That is… until Robbie.
I think that exploring various personality traits and even disorders is a great way to connect with readers who themselves may be experiencing these same traits. I also think that it adds to a character’s depth because it makes them more relatable, realistic, and interesting. If you’re interested in learning more about personality traits or disorders, I encourage you to look it up online. If you think you might actually meet criteria for a personality disorder – DO NOT SELF DIAGNOSE. This is also known as “medical student syndrome” where people with new knowledge suddenly think they have every illness in the book. I definitely encourage you to seek out a doctor of psychology. There are tests that real doctors can administer that will help you gain insight and answers (please avoid the online free tests for this…) But be warned, having a personality disorder is often very difficult to treat or work through because it is an outlook on life, a way of coping. That said, I believe that insight goes a long way with helping all of us to take a pause before re-acting to allow us to respond in healthier ways.