Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters has a section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS that I’m mining for useful stuff. Today’s psychological problems include manic-depressive, martyrdom, masochism, and megalomania. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The definition for MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSIS offered by McCutcheon reads like this: “a disease characterized by mood swings, from normal to depressed or from normal to euphoric, or a combination of both.” I’m having a hard time commenting on this one because I don’t know a lot about this condition, and it’s a serious problem with some scary side effects, especially if medication is involved (or missed doses, which is worse). Do your research on this one if you use it, because if portrayed incorrectly, it could be a mess. However, mood swings without the manic diagnosis can be fun to work with, because characters who do unexpected things are interesting. 
MARTYRDOM: “‘poor me syndrome,’ a neurotic behavior in which one takes on too much responsibility, or blames oneself for everything negative that happens, in order to elicit sympathy from others.” You’ve heard the saying, “no whining?” It applies nicely here. I can’t think of a way to make martyrdom a trait for a protagonist because you want your hero to be likable and sympathetic. The martyrdom problem could be used quite nicely in a secondary character or the antagonist, though, especially for comedic purposes. 
MASOCHISM: I almost skipped this one because of the ick factor, but I’ll include it because sometimes you need the ick factor in your book. McCutcheon offers this definition: “deriving sexual stimulation from being hit, dominated, or mistreated by another.” I can see the antagonist’s side-kick/minion suffering from this problem. Can you think of a way to make this one work for a protagonist? I’ll admit, I’m stumped.
MEGALOMANIA: “Delusions fo grandeur; false belief that one is greater, wealthier, or more powerful than one really is.” Again, I’ll take a serious problem and turn to it for comedic effect by pinning this on the antagonist (pairing it with a mania would be even more fun). I believe Vizzini from Princess Bride may have suffered from a mild form of this, and that just proves my point. 
Come back next time for more intriguing psychological problems you could use to create believable characters.


  1. Manic-depressive: at it’s core, it’s an issue where the hormones that regulate your emotions are out of whack. The ones that aren’t working change in cycles. Also, they aren’t constantly under the effects of a mood episode, just like someone with major depression disorder isn’t constantly depressed, but the episodes have to have a certain frequency and be significant enough to interfere with normal day-to-day living in order to be clinical. Depression is at least relatively familiar to public awareness by now – it’s the super-sad person who can’t get out of bed (though in men this sometimes registers more as anger or sulkiness than sadness, possibly because men are trained from an early age that crying isn’t masculine?). The mania side is ‘fun’ in a way – it’s the party girl who always wants to go out and do things, it’s the guy who is talking a mile a minute and cracking jokes all over the place. The problem is, mania is largely a high-speed thrill ride with no guard rails. If they decide they want to drink, they’re going to get passed-out drunk. If they decide they’re going shopping, say goodbye to the credit cards. Inhibitions and control can go out the window. And if they get angry… I’m sure you can see the danger in that. The ‘fun’ can disappear in a heartbeat. All these are generalizations, of course – sufferers exhibit a variety of symptoms with differing degrees – but in all cases, their behavior makes them unable to function properly at work, at school, in their relationships, and/or in matters of self-care.

    Martyrdom would not be too difficult in a protagonist as long as it isn’t overdone. The mopey ‘alas poor me’ person wouldn’t be a great protagonist, no, but the mom who feels that she isn’t fulfilling her proper role in society unless she’s on the PTA board, the church board, teaching Sunday School, running an arts-and-crafts group three times a week for the after-school program, coaching her kids’ sports teams, AND keeping a pristine house with healthy, balanced, all organic and natural home-cooked meals three times a day… We’ve all run into that person. While the description states that the person is doing it specifically to elicit sympathy, keep in mind that this might be a subconscious motivation. She might not even be aware of how intrinsically rewarding it is when her friends gasp and exclaim over what she’s doing. This angle could also be seen as ‘keeping up with the Jones’ syndrome. Moms in particular feel a lot of societal pressure to be involved in particular things or else they aren’t a good mom. They see other mothers who do all this without breaking a sweat and feel like they must be a failure unless they can keep pace – thus the aspect of blaming themselves when something goes wrong; if so-and-so can do all of this, then what’s wrong with me that I burned the cupcakes while gathering the arts-and-crafts supplies and then had nothing to bring to the bake sale? Our society also tends to reward this sort of behavior by elevating the people who present this sort of pace – look at Carrie, she is so DEVOTED to her children for being so involved in their lives. Look at Jim, he cares so much about his family that he bends over backwards and hardly gets a minute to himself. We applaud this sort of behavior without consideration of how destructive it can be. Thus, these people are getting both applauded when they succeed and kind, supportive sympathy when things don’t go quite right, reinforcing in their minds that this is how it SHOULD be, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, I just need to work harder and try harder and I’ll be able to keep up.

    Masochism – well, Fifty Shades of Grey certainly made a killing with this one, though from what I’ve heard it’s a rather inaccurate portrayal of the actual subculture (lesson: do your research, no matter how embarrassing the topic). If you’re working Christian fiction, doubtful this could be worked in anywhere unless it’s a SUPER subtle reference involving the antagonist or one of his henchmen, but it would have to be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it or you’ll have a VERY hard time finding a CBA publisher who will take it. Mainstream – I think that it’s been demonstrated quite nicely that utilizing stuff like this makes for an instant success, even if the writing is terrible… LOL. But just like everything else, there are degrees to be worked within. There’s a world of difference between a character who goes for the full-on leather and leashes play vs a character who feels like they might enjoy experimenting with a pair of handcuffs. Keep in mind, though, that the titillation factor of including this kind of stuff means that if you throw it into anything but a romance, it might stand out as ‘the writer is just throwing this in to draw in more readers with a little titillation,’ kind of like those nude scenes in action movies that make no sense at all and everyone KNOWS it’s only there to try to appeal to the lowest common denominator and make more money.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s