This post, by Marian Perera, originally appeared on her Flights of Fancy blog.
I read an urban myth that The Madness of King George was originally called The Madness of George III, but it had to be retitled in case Americans thought it was the third in a series. That made me think of writing a post on insane characters…
Obvious vs. subtle
I’ve read that one of the scariest things about serial killers or rapists is that they look like everyone else. The same thing would apply to insane characters.
This isn’t always the case. There was a serial killer called Richard Chase whose disheveled, bizarre appearance helped in his identification and apprehension. But for the most part, people with mental disorders can pass as normal, or eccentric at the most. Writers can often use that to its best advantage, because readers will usually believe that I’m a wolf and will be taken by surprise later.
By the way, the phrase I dropped into the last sentence – “I’m a wolf” – is the first indication in Stephen King’s Desperation that the cop stopping people on the highway is not normal. The cop slipped it into the middle of a regular conversation, and it made me start a little. The people he had stopped weren’t sure if they had heard correctly or not.
The same thing applies to insanity. It’s incredibly fun to watch readers gradually realize that a character whom they took for normal is nothing of the kind. And is probably very dangerous.
Often, such slips in dialogue or odd actions can be more unnerving to the reader than if the character is gibbering and clawing at the walls. You can always start subtle and ramp it up to obvious, but it doesn’t work so well the other way.
Beyond the madness
Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse in Misery, might chop off a man’s foot but she’ll never use the f-word. Insane characters could have their own codes of morality and ethics. The more you flesh them out – giving them hobbies, fears, genuine liking for some people – the more realistic they’ll be. And the easier it might be for the readers to care about them, if you’re going for tragic-insane rather than only scary-insane.