I’m sifting through Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters for character building goodness. I’m still in the  section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. Today’s problems include MISANTHROPY, MISOGYNY, NARCISSISM, and PANIC DISORDER. There were a few in the list I skipped, either because they’ve been done so many times they’re stale, or they’re too yucky to talk about. Buy the book if you’re interested.

MISANTHROPY: “A hatred for people.” This could be mild, where your character takes a solitary job so he doesn’t have to interact with people (and think of the tension when you thrust him into a position where he MUST interact with people!), or it could be severe. Think of Scrooge, Catwoman, or Iago from Othello. Misanthropy can be fun to play with for any character you create. Play around and see what you come up with.
MISOGYNY: “hatred of women.” adds to that definition: “…known for anti-female chauvinism, it can be physical or emotional abuse or it may be a deep-rooted prejudice against equal rights: a misogynist may see girls and women as evil, debased or even subhuman and mere objects. The level of misogyny can vary from a sexist attitude (chauvinism) to outright murder (some serial-killers).” While it’s easy to see how this could apply to a bad guy (Norman Bates from Psycho, Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones), do you think you could create a protagonist who has misogynistic tendencies and still make him sympathetic enough for readers to root for him? Might be tough…
NARCISSISM: “Excessive self-interest or self-love; self-centeredness.” Again, this is a good one for antagonists (the meathead Gaston from Beauty and the Beast comes to mind), but could you create a decent protagonist with this one? He’d have to be super-charming and witty to overcome that ego, I think.
PANIC DISORDER: “a thought disorder, sometimes aggravated by a heart rhythm defect or other physical problem, in which anxiety spirals out of control. Signs of a panic attack include hyperventilation, racing heart, oxygen hunger and a feeling of impending doom. Such attacks can often be subdued by breathing into a paper bag.” This could be a useful trait for a protagonist, especially if it’s the character flaw/fear they must overcome to reach The Goal. This also makes great comic relief in a secondary character, if it’s treated lightly or over-the-top.
Did any of these stand out and make you want to explore it further? Share your thoughts in the comment section, please.

2 responses to “Psychological Problems: MISANTHROPY, MISOGYNY, NARCISSISM, and PANIC DISORDER”

  1. Misanthropy – give your character a job in retail or fast food; they’ll develop this trait within a month or two. 😉 Seriously, though, people who have been in an environment where they are continuously exposed to abuse from strangers for whatever reason (retail, fast food, janitorial, any of the jobs viewed as ‘legitimate’ but ‘lesser,’ and jobs viewed as ‘illegitimate’ such as workers in the sex industry – strippers, prostitutes, etc) will develop an attitude of general dislike/distrust toward humans as a whole. This ‘lesser degree’ of misanthropy could fit very easily into a protag, and you’ll have a ton of readers who completely understand where he/she is coming from…

    Misogyny. This would be tricky in a protagonist, especially since there are heightened concerns about this sort of attitude in this day and age. I can see it working one of two ways. The first way would be a type of anti-hero – he’s kind of a jerk in general but is skilled in a remarkable way and gives just enough glimpses into a deeper, softer side to keep the audience’s love (think Dr. House from the TV show House). The misogyny would have to be fairly light (he simply believes that women don’t have the same capabilities as men in certain areas – he might even rely on certain scientific studies to support his point of view) and would be among the jerkier traits that we hate but ultimately forgive because of his other better qualities. It might be played for laughs, and it will work best if you show him ultimately demonstrating some degree of nobility when it comes to women – he trusts a woman to do something he’d earlier voiced that women are incapable of doing, for instance – though he might dismiss it later as, “Well, some women are more masculine than others” to keep the character consistent. (This aspect can also be played for over-the-top humor, like Michael Scott from the show The Office – he frequently demonstrates misogynistic attitudes along with his many other socially backward traits.)

    The other way to pull it off is if it’s one of the character flaws that the protagonist ultimately overcomes or changes in his character arc. Again, this is going to work best if you keep it mild. You’re going to have a hard time keeping the audience rooting for your protagonist if he’s a raving misogynist, but mildly misogynistic attitudes can be forgiven when balanced with potent positive qualities and high charisma. Throw in a character who is completely frustrated with his attitudes to give the audience a voice and acknowledge that yes, these attitudes are wrong and do not reflect the author’s beliefs! (That would also be good in the first type of misogynistic protagonist.) Then bring about a climactic point where your protagonist HAS to face these wrong attitudes and either fail at something meaningful to him or realize how wrong he’s been and change.

    Incidentally, I’ve been using ‘he’ in all my examples, but most people forget that women can be just as misogynistic as men. A female misogynistic would be a remarkably unique and attention-grabbing character, as this breaks the stereotype and makes the reader take notice.

    Narcissism is a fun one. YA is a great place to have narcissism in the protagonist because most teens are still transitioning out of the naturally self-centered viewpoint of childhood, and showing the protag overcoming that self-centered tendency to resolve the climax can be a powerful moment (as long as you don’t go over the top with it or play it in a stereotyped, cheesy way).

    Here’s food for thought: I watched a show called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in which the protagonist, a super villain named Dr. Horrible (played marvelously by the always-wonderful Neil Patrick Harris) seeks to take over the world. We learn that his motivation is that he sees how messed up the world is and feels that if he could just gain control, he could straighten everything out, resolve the issues of poverty and corruption, and make the world a better place. It occurred to me that this is a variation on narcissism – he accurately recognized the flaws in society but inaccurately assumed that the only way to fix them was HIS WAY. Consider this sort of attitude as a way to insert realistic narcissism into a protagonist without going full Gaston. Narcissism can appear to be outwardly focused rather than inwardly when it manifests in terms of believing that you have the ONLY RIGHT solution to a problem. Keep it subtle to avoid making your character overbearing or downright comedic (unless that’s what you’re going for). Most readers will be able to understand a protag who’s frustrated with something that’s going wrong and feels he/she KNOWS how to fix the problem if people would just LISTEN.

    Panic disorder. If you’re going to go with comic relief, then don’t identify it as panic disorder; just portray the character as high-strung and nervous in general. Anxiety disorders like this can be frustrating, painful, and terrifying to live with; you don’t want to come across like you’re treating a real mental disorder as a punchline. It could also work to give a protagonist or primary character this disorder and play the panic attacks for comedy as long as 1) the character him/herself treats the attacks with humor (“Whoops, there I went again… don’t mind me while I wheeze my lungs out! Now, what were we saying?”) and 2) the character is otherwise handled with respect. If they are portrayed in a negative light, it needs to be for choices they’ve made or some other negative trait, not for having a mental disorder.

    1. sonjadhutchinson Avatar

      I love your ideas, Aggeloi! Thanks for sharing.

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