Marc McCutcheon’s book Building Believable Characters has a wealth of information to absorb, and I’m doing my best to share some of it. Today I’m in the section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. It’s an alphabetical listing, so I’ll just go through it and hit the ones that stand out to me. (For a complete list, buy the book. It’s a handy tool.)
ACCIDENT-PRONE: This is “an unconscious need for attention that manifests itself through an unusual number of accidents and mishaps.” This is different that being clumsy or uncoordinated. A character with this problem will intentionally hurt themselves to draw attention. This could be a ton of fun to work with in a novel, but you’d have to be careful that your character doesn’t come across as pitiable, or worse, unsympathetic. Make sure that underlying need has a background that’s believable and sympathetic.
ALETHIA: It sounds like a girl’s name, but it’s really a “dwelling, to a neurotic degree, on the past.” This is more than just wishing for the good old days, or pining for someone who’s gone. This is an unhealthy fixation on the past. I can think of a ton of ways to use this in a novel. A woman who lives like a pioneer, avoiding all technology. A man who sees his dead wife’s face or smells her perfume or hears her voice wherever he goes. A woman who treats a doll as her own baby to replace the one she lost. These are getting kind of sad, but you can see the potential to use this in your novel. Even a minor case of alethia could be useful for a character.
ANOMIE: “Feelings of alienation and not belonging to society.” We’ve all seen this one taken to extremes on the TV where the guy thinks he’s an alien sent to probe the planet. That can be fun, but you can also dial this back a bit and use a mild form of it for your character’s flaw. A man who lives in the city but stays inside at all times. The woman who lives in the country and can’t abide visitors. The teenager who’s desperate to fit in but can’t find a friend. Play with it and see what you come up with.
ANXIETY: “Fear, nervousness or apprehension caused by a real or imagined source.” Most people feel this a time or two during life. It’s the feeling of not being in control, of things moving outside your sphere of influence when you’re certain you should be in charge. Magnify it in your character, remove any sense of control (locked in a mental institute against her will? held captive by kidnappers? child is dying of incurable disease?), and watch the conflict mount exponentially.
I’m not finished with the A’s yet, but I’ll stop now and continue next time. See anything here that sparks your imagination? How could you use one or more of these in a character? Please share.