Personality Traits: Type A/Type B, Mentally Ill, and Substance Abuser

Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters is a great tool for writers to create believable characters. I’m in the section of the book called the PERSONALITY TRAITS INVENTORY. Today’s traits are Type A/Type B, Mentally Ill, and Substance Abuser. Here’s what McCutcheon has to say:

TYPE A/TYPE B are two separate traits, but I want to deal with them together. The Type A person is hard-driving, impatient, cynical, aggressive, hates being late, restless, and hyper. They can also be cynical, hot-headed, frustrated, irritable, aggravated, belligerent, and short-fused (but not always, and not all Type A’s are like this). Type A’s are fun to write because they’re so driven and goal-oriented, which is perfect for a protagonist who must Get Something Done. Type A’s can be obnoxious, especially to non-Type A’s. I grew up with a Type A (my dad) and it was fun to watch him interact with other Type A’s. Sometimes they admire each other. Sometimes they compete with each other. Sometimes they become bitter enemies. To a Type A personality, life is a race, a competition, an opportunity to get stuff done. The Type B, on  the other hand, is laid back, easygoing, long-fused, patient, cool-headed, mild, even-tempered, unaggressive, carefree, and calm. They’re generally nice people. My mom is a Type B, and I think she’s the perfect match for her Type A husband. You could have a lot of fun writing couples who are this opposite. Then again, putting two Type A people in a relationship could be fun, too! Play around with this one, as there’s a lot of flexibility in both these personalities.
I was going to skip the MENTALLY ILL personality because it’s entirely too broad to deal with, but McCutcheon mentioned it here, so I’ll put it in. This personality could include some of these traits: delusional, hallucinatory, irrational, manic, hyper, depressed, neurotic, obsessive, compulsive, insanely jealous, phobic, unstable, homicidal, sociopathic, or suicidal. They could have unrealistic believes (he’s the savior, he’s being followed, he’s being bugged by the CIA, he’s receiving messages from fill-in-the-blank, he’s an alien). This personality type is extremely hard to write because you’ve got to be close to an expert to not make the character seem unrealistic or comedic. A protagonist who’s mentally ill could be highly unsympathetic, or worse, pitiable. Steven King pulls this off in his horror novels fabulously, so it can be done well. 
(This photo of Jack Nicholson from the movie The Shining courtesy of wikipedia)
The last personality I’ll cover today is the ALCOHOLIC/SUBSTANCE ABUSER. They are usually (but not always) in denial about their abuse. Their thoughts center around their substance of choice, they try to hide it, and sometimes they’re ashamed of their problem (other times they flaunt it). They appear sickly, dysfunctional, and irresponsible. They fight with those closest to them. They usually steal to fuel their habit. The alcoholic/substance abuser has been done and overdone, so if you want to create a protagonist with this problem, take care to make him unique and sympathetic. 
Any comments on these personality traits? Can you think of ways to make them work as a protagonist? Share your thoughts, please. I love hearing from you.

2 thoughts on “Personality Traits: Type A/Type B, Mentally Ill, and Substance Abuser

  1. Mental illness can be a great way to round out a protagonist who might be ‘too perfect’ otherwise, especially if you go for a non-clinical degree. Most people don’t realize that mental illnesses come in degrees and variations. Just like one person with a cold will only have sniffles while a different person with a cold will be lying on the couch half-dead all day (ahemMENahem), one person with depression will be unable to get themselves dressed half the time, while another person with depression will be completely functioning and seem normal, but never can quite seem to be happy, even when doing things that should make them feel happy. It’s hard to make a protagonist with a clinical disorder (symptoms severe enough to prevent them from living daily life) unless the point of the story is the person’s journey through mental illness, but a protagonist could easily suffer from a more mild form of a disorder.

    I’ve got a protagonist who would perhaps be a little too perfect, but she’s got a significant anxiety disorder that she keeps at bay with meds. A character might not have OCD like the TV character Monk, but might have a hard time leaving the house without checking to be sure all the doors and windows are locked. Trying to leave without doing that check results in anxiety – tightness in the chest, a powerful feeling that something is WRONG, VERY VERY WRONG HERE that will not go away until the proper check is performed.

    Even if you don’t have training or experience with a specific disorder, you can still write a lesser degree of the disorder into a character through your own experiences. A majority of us know what it feels like to be incredibly angry, or incredibly sad, or incredibly anxious about something. Some of us even know what it’s like to have those feelings without any tangible, external cause (PMS can cause some crazy whack to go down, yo). That’s often what a mild form of mental illness can feel like, only it hits more days than not, and perhaps a bit more acute. Pair that with a rational brain that KNOWS there’s no good reason to feel this way, and a society that likes to shame people who experience negative emotions with no external reason… you’ve got a solid portrayal of what it’s like to have a mental illness while still operating at a functional level.

    For the substance abuser – obviously it’s relatively easy to work that into a protagonist, seeing that many action heroes apparently possess the livers of elephants. The one thing I’d caution against is taking it too far (a protag who has an issue that might interfere with his/her goals is good; a protag who ends up blacked out in the gutter on a nightly basis is not so much, unless the entire point of the story is overcoming addiction).

    Also, don’t be cheesy with it. Please.

    I’ve noticed something in TV shows that never fails to amuse me. It can happen in any TV show, but it’s most common to action/sci-fi. It looks like this: a character develops a substance addiction. Sometimes the show writers are good enough to let it develop over the course of many episodes, but usually it will only be lightly hinted at before or appear out of nowhere in the episode just before the ‘addiction episode.’ In the ‘addiction episode,’ the character is confronted by friends, but denies having a problem. The character comes into a situation where their substance use almost causes LASTING CONSEQUENCES – someone they care about nearly dies, or they almost lose something extremely important, or they almost lose their job, etc. The character repents, throws out the substance, and declares that they are on the road to recovery – it’s going to be hard, but with the help of their friends, they will make it.

    The substance disorder never comes up again.

    That, or it appears out of nowhere a long ways down the road (most likely when the ratings dipped or something).

    Double bonus points if the entire thing happens (character is introduced to substance, becomes addicted, blows off confrontations, is faced with near LASTING CONSEQUENCES, repents) all in the course of a single episode. I’ve seen it done before. I couldn’t stop laughing the whole way through. It’s terrible and hilarious and beyond ridiculous all at once.

    So don’t be cheesy. Don’t make it appear out of nowhere. Don’t turn it into an after-school PSA about the perils of substance abuse. Recognize that all humans have the capacity for addiction, and some of us are addicted without ever realizing it because our ‘addictions’ are to things which are not considered a negative in our culture. The brain mechanisms, the neurotransmitter release, is identical whether you’re addicted to acknowledgement at work or addicted to video games or addicted to repairing objects or addicted to alcohol. An addict is not ‘weak-willed’ or ‘lazy.’

    And addiction cannot be cured in a day or after a single, magical ‘wake up’ moment. Don’t have them acknowledge that it will be a hard process that they’ll need the help of their friends to get through and then show them as a perfectly functioning person the next time they appear. There will be low times, there will be moments of weakness, there may even be backsliding. Keep it real.

    • Aggeloi, your comments are excellent! As you have an advanced degree in this stuff, I really should be making you write these posts, but I’ll be content with your comments. I love how you brought mental illness to a sphere we can all relate to. I’m not OCD, but I have my moments (straight stuff up, do things in a certain order) and these are the types of things that really bring a character to life. I once created a character who had an overwhelming fear of strangers and strange places. She was so much fun to write, and I kept throwing her into situations where she had to face her fears. That makes for powerfully emotional scenes, and that’s our goal as writers.

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