I’m digging through Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters. I’m still in the  section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS, but I’m closing in on the end if you’re getting bored. Check back in a day or two if that’s the case. I’m skipping paranoia, paranoid schizophrenia, and pedophilia because I don’t want to talk about them. That leaves PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY, PHANTOSMIA, and PHOBIAS for today’s discussion.

PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY: “a manipulative, immature personality charactered by hostility, petulance, and fault-finding. One suffering from the disorder may express power through passive means, such as by being chronically late or forgetting. They may also alternate between being overly dependent and overly independent. A passive-agressive person placed in a work setting frequently destroys morale through childish or antagonistic behavior.” This personality type is especially grating because no one wants to be around this guy. I can’t see a way to make a sympathetic protagonist from this one, or an effective antagonist (unless you’re writing chick-lit and you make the mother-in-law this personality type)  but this would make a great side-kick character or a lesser antagonist. Am I wrong? Can you think of any passive-agressive protagonists from literature that I’ve overlooked?
PHANTOSMIA: “Odor hallucinations.” I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of this one. I can think of a way to use it though: odors can be a strong trigger for memory, so I’m thinking of a character with a horrific past not worth remembering and a mild case of phantosmia that triggers these memories at the worst possible moments. A nice twist would be to bury a clue in those past memories that is necessary for overcoming/solving/reaching The Goal, therefore making the hallucinations a hated yet necessary thing. Any better ideas out there?
PHOBIAS: “an irrational fear of a particular person, place, or thing.” These are so much fun to play with, especially if the phobia you’ve chosen for your character MUST be overcome before they can reach The Goal. McCutcheon offers a fabulously long list of phobias (and the technical term for each), but I’m not going to type them all. Many of them are common or overdone in literature/TV/movies, so I’m going to pick out the most interesting ones:
Buried alive
Open spaces
Committing a sin
Being Touched
Do any of these stand out as something you could use? Share your idea with us in the comments section.

2 thoughts on “Psychological Problems: PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY, PHANTOSMIA, and PHOBIAS

  1. Passive-aggressive. Hoooboy. I am at the tail end of a lengthy and rich heritage of passive-aggressive women, and only managed to break my own pass-ag habits shortly after marriage (well into my twenties) with the help of a therapist (and even then, I sometimes slip during moments of high emotion). At its core, it was a fear of confrontation. I didn’t learn healthy ways to deal with my emotions and didn’t learn healthy ways to handle conflict within a relationship. Thus, I couldn’t outlet my emotions through other means, and I couldn’t directly address the problem. Thus, a passive-aggressive silent treatment was my usual method of dealing with problems. At the same time, I was immensely clingy and needy for approval. See, while it’s apparent that I was making others responsible for my emotions (by going silent and forcing others to pry and prod and dig to figure out what was wrong), the opposite was also true – I had internalized the concept that I was responsible for others’ emotions. If someone was angry, it was because of something I had done. If someone was quiet, I had done something horribly wrong to offend them. No, it couldn’t possibly be that they were tired or thinking or upset about something unrelated to me… LOL.

    My turnaround point came in therapy when I expressed my fear that I’d made my husband angry, and the therapist looked at me with a ‘shocked’ expression and said, “Wow, you’re so powerful you can MAKE other people have emotions?” That was when it clicked – I was taking responsibility for others’ emotions and expecting others to take responsibility for mine. I improved exponentially after that point. Which has also turned me into the worst possible person for a pass-ag to talk to, because I know what they’re doing and have no patience for it any longer. The worst thing a person can do to a pass-ag (from their perspective) is to believe their words over their body language, and that’s what I tend to do now, LOL. Now I have much more self-confidence and self-esteem, better tools for dealing with my own emotions, better tools for being able to address problems with others, and though sometimes I still have to take a moment away from the situation to calm myself down before I address the issue, I always come back to the issue and seek resolution rather than letting it fester.

    I was fortunate in all this – I have a deep-seated ‘people-pleaser’ need and can’t abide unresolved conflict in a relationship. Thus I was motivated not to let the silent treatment go on too long even when I was stuck in my pass-ag habits. (Though, to a certain degree, it was my people-pleasing personality that contributed, because I was afraid of upsetting the people I loved by telling them I was hurt by something they said or whatever the problem was.)

    Hopefully that gives some small perspective into the internal workings of a pass-ag. The manipulative nature of the approach isn’t necessarily malevolent. It could be an unintended side effect of a fear of confrontation or conflict. It could stem from lack of confidence or internal strength to handle a direct confrontation. In a completely different track, you might also see this develop from an abusive upbringing. Imagine a child who is screamed at or beaten every time he tries to defend or explain himself. He would grow up with an internalized sense that directly addressing problems is the worst thing he could do. He would have learned to stay silent as an adaptive behavior for survival, and learning to handle conflict directly would be insanely difficult for him. Others would be able to tell when something was wrong, but if they asked, his subconscious would refuse to let him speak directly about it.

    I used ‘he’ in that last example, though I believe pass-ag is more common among women. Men are usually encouraged in our culture to be direct in how they address problems – be a man, tackle it head-on, etc. Women tend to be discouraged from being direct. Don’t be bossy. Don’t be a b****. A teen girl who tries to handle a problem directly might be called aggressive while a boy who does the same might be applauded for taking charge. Also, since women tend to be more focused on the emotional aspect, it is easier for us to fall into the error of feeling responsible for others’ emotions – and in an insecure personality, you can end up with someone afraid of that felt responsibility and thus crippled from directly addressing conflict.

    As far as how it manifests, the way I see it, passive-aggressiveness at its core is a state where a person’s non-verbal message will not match their words in which the non-verbal message is more reflective of the truth of their feelings on a matter. Viewing it through this light, it’s fairly easy to see where this can come into play in characters, even primary characters. It’s the girl who says she’s okay with her friends going to the dance without her when her body language is screaming that she isn’t. It’s the boy who growls ‘please’ through clenched teeth while holding an aggressive posture. It’s the woman who says nothing’s wrong while stiffening every time her husband comes near.

    Antagonist – the Warden in Holes displayed some small degree of this in her way of correcting people simply by saying, “Excuse me?” She made it clear from her body language and tone of voice that the person she was speaking to had displeased her, but rather than directly correcting the issue, she instead made this passive threat and waited for them to backpedal and apologize and correct what they’d said.

    Mother Gothel from Tangled, Disney’s recent Rapunzel movie, was a flaming pass-ag. It’s a fantastic movie and she is an AMAZING villain. Rent it if you haven’t seen it.

    Protagonist – Womankind in general? Just kidding. There was a list that made its rounds on Facebook for a while claiming to translate female language – fine means something is wrong, okay means you should definitely NOT do what you’re asking to do, ‘do what you want’ is not permission but a challenge, etc. This is practically dictionary definition of pass-ag, and it’s becoming more and more accepted as the norm from women. It is common enough that you can let your protagonist blow up at her (or his) romantic other and shout, “Fine! I don’t care what you do, just do whatever you want!” and storm off – and you probably won’t lose reader respect for your character (aside from a few weirdos like me who have reached a point of low tolerance for pass-ag behavior). It will be strongest if you show her feeling bad for her explosion of temper and apologizing for her words later.

    YA would be a good place to have a pass-ag protagonist – there’s so much drama in that age range anyway, most of your readers won’t even blink twice at the maladaptive way of thinking. But do everyone a favor and let that be the target of the character arc – your protag comes to see how damaging her behavior is both to herself and everyone around her and is forced to learn how to deal with conflict directly. (Wouldn’t necessarily recommend making that the whole conflict of the book – lamesauce – but as the subplot/internal arc, it could be pulled off well.)

    In general fiction, you can have a pass-ag protagonist, but you’ll want to keep it low key. Maybe she’s struggling with confidence and often lets others walk over her, but there are a few people in her life she won’t let walk over her… but since she lacks confidence, that ‘won’t let’ comes out in pass-ag terms. Maybe he’s perfectly confident and self-assured, but when he goes to visit the great-aunt who raised him, the old patterns of childhood send that confidence right out the window, and suddenly he’s returning to old habits of sarcasm and cold silence rather than letting her know that he wish she wouldn’t criticize his life choices like that. (Double points for Great-Aunt being a flaming pass-ag, criticizing in just the right way so that if he DOES try to confront her about it, she can gasp in horror that he would think she was trying to say something negative – does he really have such a low opinion of her? She thought she taught him better than that, but obviously all the devotion she poured into him for all those years was for nothing. Then it’s even more obvious why these traits creep up in his personality when things get tense, and why he has a hard time addressing her directly.) He will probably regret the way he behaved, knowing it’s out of his normally confident and direct approach, after he’s left and calmed down from the visit. In any case, it could be a character flaw that your protag overcomes through the course of the story (again, make it a subplot/internal arc rather than the main conflict of the story, though it can contribute to the main conflict) – or it could just be a little bit of character flavor, one of their personal quirks. Up to you.

    Just one request – if you do decide to throw in a pass-ag character, please please please DO NOT celebrate their behavior. There have been a lot of Facebook images rabidly shared through the net which are downright supportive of passive-aggressive behaviors. “Sometimes silence is the only way to get them to listen.” “If they won’t understand your silence, then how can they expect to understand your words?” “If he truly loves you, then you shouldn’t have to tell him what’s wrong. He’ll want to find out on his own.” Gag, gag, gag. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could smack a person through the computer screen for spreading posts like that. So bring in pass-ag if you want – just make it painfully, obviously clear how maladaptive and harmful that sort of behavior is for the person and for those around them. Or at the very least, don’t portray it as a positive trait or an effective way to deal with conflict. PLEASE.

  2. Ran across your post. I have Phantosmia from a concussion. Lots of folks get it from head knocks and sinus infections. Sometimes it is caused by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, temporal lobe epilepsy, or schizophrenia. Most of us experience our smell disorders as debilitating. We experience a profound sense of loss. The phantom smells are most often burning smells. Some people smell death, garbage, or even feces constantly, which is a constant torment. I hope that helps with your character development, if you’re still interested in the disorder.

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