Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Writing, Abnormal Psych, and You! Writing Crazies by silverchild2
I'll say it straight out: when it comes to fantasy, psychology isn't the first thing that comes to mind. The subject lends itself far better to the genres of horror and thriller (even action), and even more so to the villains rather than the heroes. And continuing in that vein, abnormal psychology. Paranoid schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Munchhausen Syndrome By Proxy. These are all fairly familiar to the general public and paint an image in our minds, a sort of template or typecasting put on a character that we immediately recognize and identify as 'the bad guy', and as tools to quickly set up a villain and their motives it's quick and easy. But there's a lot more to these than our Hollywood villain understanding, and care needs to be given so that these things aren't treated akin to temporary tattoos and stuck on our characters because we need something interesting. As well, "just plain crazy" when describing a character is lazy and slapdash and far too abused when you want a character that does things just for the sake of the chaos and randomness of it all.
Like every writer that has come before you, I carry this single word and paint it on a banner and wave it around while I holler at the top of my lungs: Research, research, research! It's really not that scary, and you don't have to get a four year Bachelor's in Psychology to write your abnormal psychology (though the schooling certainly made me the go-to gal when it comes to mental disorders and diseases). And given the accessibility of the internet, sometimes wikipedia is indeed your friend when you need the basics. You don't have to be hardcore and get a DSM-IV, read it cover to cover, to be considered legitimate and taken seriously when it comes to writing these things, but you do need to treat them with the same respect you'd treat any other beyond the normal aspect of writing and need to perform the research for.
In personal opinion (isn't that what these things are, anyways? ;) ), the best place to start is taking a look at your character as you start to build them and consider the following. Is it necessary to give them a mental illness? Why? Is it for their motives, to make their goals believable in context with the character? Is the illness a product of a lifetime or childhood trauma/abuse? Did something traumatic happen recently in their lives that caused this? The IC and OOC reasons for the character and their abnormal psychology are equally important, especially if it is integral to how the character acts within your story.
The next step is, if you decide to go ahead with this, to figure out what exactly it is this character suffers from. There are a couple of different ways you can go about this. First, which I personally would shy away from, is to select a few character traits that could be construed as symptoms and find the best diagnosis that fits with them. You're probably going to be skimming a lot of pages and, as your frustration mounts, may end up throwing your hands in the air and picking "whatever sounds best" that isn't too obscure. To the people that take note of these things, this may induce a great deal of cringing and negative backlash if you end up Doing It Wrong.
The most preferable method is to take the disorder that you've probably already picked out in your head and have your heart set on, that little phrase that you picked up from your most recent read or trip to the cinema that stuck in your brain and just won't leave you alone it would be the most fascinating concept ever, and spend some time getting intimate with its Wiki page. Did you read it? Did you understand it? If yes, does it still fit with your image of the character? If yes, awesome! If not, take a step back and ask yourself why doesn't it exactly fit. Is there a way you can alter the character that would better reflect the disorder? Because while there can be any combination of symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of a particular disorder, some make more sense than others and makes you look less like you just chose something for the hell of it. You may end up throwing the disorder out the window entirely, that this character is the way they are simply because it's who they are, that they like to cause pain and suffering.
And sometimes, that's okay. We all need a megalomaniac villain in our stories, sometimes, and we don't need a psychologist's diagnosis to justify it. Sometimes, in the case of mental disorders, they serve to humanize the "villain", that they simply just can't help being the person they are and that they might be helped and even saved through medication, therapy and support. And a lot of the time they're just there to quickly point out that "this is the bad guy and this is why they are the way they are and why they act the way they do and we can look on in pity, or disgust, helplessness, shock, appalled, horrified". Done well, they both serve their purpose and move the story and the character along.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that these aren't just fictional tropes that you're working with. They are real disorders that people live and suffer with every day, actions and thoughts that they can't control the coming and goings of and the invasion of their thoughts and how they live their lives. The inability to adapt to the world around them and unable to function in their given society. Depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, among many many others, deserve proper research before they're slapped into a piece of writing. I'm not saying that you have to become the online expert of everything you write, but reading and understanding even a little is a bigger step towards a better piece of work than nothing at all.