Who could forget the character of Alex Forrest from the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction?” Actress Glenn Close’s ability to maintain a seemingly normal façade whilst exhibiting some of the most bizarre behavior is a testament to her power as an actress, but the part of Alex was also very well written. While most might sum her up as being “psycho,” more astute observers have noted that Alex displayed many of the characteristic traits of Borderline Personality Disorder. Since the character was never officially “diagnosed” in the film, it left her behavior and motivations – not to mention her mental health – open to interpretation.
So you want one of your characters to have a personality disorder? Great! Let’s start by defining the term. Go-to source Wikipedia describes it as: “a class of mental disorders characterized by enduring maladaptive patterns of behavior, cognition and inner experience, exhibited across many contexts and deviating markedly from those accepted by the individual’s culture. These patterns develop early, are inflexible and are associated with significant distress or disability.” In layman’s terms, these folks aren’t likely to be cured, fixed, or healed … and in most cases, medication only dulls the symptoms.
Your next step is choosing the right disorder to fit your character’s personality, motivations, and function within your work. Mental health experts have identified a total of 10 of these conditions and they fall into three clusters: A, B, and C. Familiarize yourself with each disorder, paying special attention to its traits and characteristics that people with these conditions display, particularly when placed in stressful situations. To best illustrate the point, let’s once again look at Alex from “Fatal Attraction” against the backdrop of Borderline Personality Disorder’s most common traits:
Excessive efforts to avoid abandonment: While Dan is trying to leave, Alex first becomes inappropriately angry (another BPD trait) before cutting herself to get him to stay with her, which is yet another BPD trait: recurrent threats or acts of self-harm. Yet another classic BPD trait that Alex displays repeatedly throughout the film is impulsive behavior. (Who could forget the now-iconic bunny-boiling scene? Seriously.) Wouldn’t you love to write a character as memorable as Alex? I know I want to!
Want another example of an undiagnosed personality disorder in film and/or literature? It’s long been suspected the “Gone with the Wind’s” Scarlett O’Hara suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder, and she showed all the classic signs: a need for attention, inappropriately seductive and shallow emotions, just to name a few. Research the traits of this disorder before re-watching this film. And check out Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Detective Alonzo Harris in “Training Day,” as it’s a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder if there ever was one! (And a wonderful performance by Washington, as well.) There are many other examples, of course, and the more familiar you become with personality disorders, the better you’ll be at spotting them on film or in print.
So there you have it. Work with the traits and use them to develop your character, allowing them to escalate slowly until the ultimate climax. This is what made the character of Alex so insidious and iconic … and the perfect model for incorporating a personality disorder into your mystery, thriller, or mainstream novel. Another thing to keep in mind: personality disorders are not that rare – the National Institute of Mental Health reported that roughly nine percent of U.S. adults have at least one. You might even know someone who fits the bill: an overly-clingy ex-girlfriend, an egocentric boss, and a woman who needs to the center of attention are all good examples. (Borderline personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Histrionic Personality Disorder, respectively.) What happens if your protagonist meets gets on the wrong side of someone like this? Or is someone like this?
But wait! Didn’t I say you shouldn’t diagnose the character’s personality disorder? (Quick look back up to the top.) Yes, I did. What I meant was, don’t have another character – doctor, counselor, mental health professional, etc. – diagnose the personality disordered character within the confines of your work unless it’s absolutely necessary for the plot. An undiagnosed character that displays the traits of the author’s chosen personality disorder ultimately appear more mysterious, damaged, and unpredictable; diagnosing them within the work takes the mystery out of it. I can almost hear your readers saying, “Oh … That he or she is just crazy. No wonder.” You don’t want that type of reaction from your reader!
Okay, okay … I’ve resisted the urge for shameless self-promotion long enough. I’ve used the “Alex method” in my neo-noir murder-mystery, “World So Dark.” Basing the character off someone I knew with a diagnosed personality disorder, I had fun incorporating as many of the traits as I could and loved watching the protagonist make excuses for her bizarre behavior. This prompted one Amazon reviewer to opine: “(Ribner) knows his subject well, and the author put a tremendous amount of thought into character development, the story arc, and the gritty setting.” That’s all the validation I need!
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece. Now I’m on to other things … like, where does my ex keep her pet rabbit?