Psychological Problems: Accident-Prone, Alethia, Anomie, and Anxiety

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.

(photo courtesy of

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.


4 thoughts on “Psychological Problems: Accident-Prone, Alethia, Anomie, and Anxiety

  1. I’m sure this kind of information has its use, but it puts me off. I cannot create characters out of types, but rely on my intuition to tell me what a character thinks, says and does. Frankly, time spent reading such material to me is time that ought to be spent writing and revising one’s work, or reading good literature or literary approaches to writing like Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

    • I don’t often use this type of info, either. But it can help create a spark if one is missing. A boring character can be made more interesting, or more unpredictable, or more sympathetic with things like these. I don’t think every character in every book should have a psychological disorder, however mild. But the main character should have something that needs to be overcome, and authors who are stuck can get great ideas from books like this. Thanks for your comment, Peter.

  2. The description of ‘accident-prone’ struck me as odd. I have accident-prone people in my family who are most certainly NOT doing it to themselves deliberately, unconsciously or otherwise! I think the problem is the name – it needs a nice name like ‘anomie’ got (after all, we’ve all felt out of place at times, but ‘anomie’ specifically refers to a constant and severe case of that sense). Something to indicate this is more than just a person who happens to get hurt a lot but is someone who is unconsciously filling a psychological need by getting hurt. Like if a kid only ever got positive reactions from his mother when he was injured – later on in life, it might be the case that when things get stressful, he ends up tripping or slipping or hurting himself in some way.

    An even lesser (and more common) degree of Alethia would be someone who can’t move beyond a past hurt. They were cheated on in a past relationship and now can’t trust anyone they try to date. (This might even lead to some controlling traits – the need to check in constantly, check the significant others’ emails or texts for signs of cheating, etc.) They were awkward as a teen and now can’t move past the sense that everyone laughs at them to become a well-adjusted adult. One embarrassing moment colors their interactions with others for years – they accidentally call someone the wrong name and then never speak to that person again because, every time they see that person, all they can think about is that one moment of past embarrassment. There’s a lot of great directions this can be taken.

    The definition of anxiety makes it sound as if there will always be a target or cause of the anxiety, even if that cause isn’t real. But with anxiety disorders, a person can suddenly become anxious, feel the emotion and physical response of anxiety (for a lighter degree, a tightness in the chest with a sort of buzzing energy that feels like something is very wrong and needs to be fixed; at more severe degrees, this might include trouble breathing) completely at random with no reason at all. Their brain will then try to give them reasons to be anxious at that moment (it is my personal theory that the brain cannot stand emotions without cause and thus will attempt to create a cause to justify the emotions; this is why depressed people tend to constantly think sad thoughts – because the brain recognizes that the sad feelings exist for no reason and thus starts churning out sad thoughts to create a reason for the feelings). That anxious energy needs somewhere to go, so a realistic anxious character will have an outlet. Maybe it’s related to the ’cause’ of the anxiety (or whatever excuse the brain came up with, if the anxiety spike came on without direct cause) – checking door locks or stoves, double-checking on the kids to make sure they’re safe, etc. Or it might be some sort of self-soothing kinetic activity – tapping fingers, cracking knuckles, twirling hair, rubbing forefinger and thumb together, etc. The real tension comes when that person is thrown in a situation where their usual outlet is either unavailable for some reason or not quite enough to release the anxiety they’re currently feeling.

    • Thanks, Aggeloi. I’m sure the author meant the accident-prone to be a separate malady from someone who’s just clumsy–maybe it’s the name of the malady that’s throwing you off. And there’s also degrees to these, like you brought up, so you’re free to give your character as much or as little as needed for the story.

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