Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Psychological Problems: MANIAS

Before Spring Break, I was discussing Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters. (Note: I took two weeks for my break because that's how I roll.) The book has a section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS, and I'm to the bit that lists mania types. The fun part of the list is the right column, which gives the technical name for the mania. Most of them I couldn't pronounce if you paid me. But they're fun to look at. However, the part that I found applicable to writing is the left column, which offers some manias that I'd never thought of before. Can you find a way to use any of these in one of your characters?

Let me back up a bit. McCutcheon first offers a definition of mania: "an excessive enthusiasm or obsession for something or someone; craze." Now consider the list he offers (minus the ones I thought were common, standard, or just wouldn't work in a novel):

Demon possession
Believing one is a genius (I can see the comedy in this one...)
Urge to kill

As I typed the list, I thought of several ways to use these, but I'll admit my mind is running toward the humorous. The "enthusiasm or obsession" can run both positive and negative. For example, someone who's manic about books could either be a zealous collector that's pushed to a hoarding level, or someone who's terrified of books and refuses to crack a cover. Think how rough this person would have it if he were a college student or a librarian. Or the woman who's manic about bathing. She's either bathing thrice a day, or once a month. Both could have humorous or devastating effects on the character. 

What did you think of when you read the list? Did anything stand out to you as highly useful for a character in your novel?


Monday, March 31, 2014

Psychological Problems: Cardioneurosis, Cataphasia, Hebephrenia, Korsakoff's Psychosis

 Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters has a section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. My last post on this topic generated a bit of disagreement, so let's see what I can come up with today from the alphabetical listing of psychological problems. (Note: the list is in alphabetical order, so you can see I'm just beginning. I'm also skipping many of the well-known ones, like bulimia, compulsive disorders, delusions, etc.)

CARDIONEUROSIS: "A neurotic fear of having a heart attack. Symptoms include perceived chest pains, palpitations, and shortness of breath." This one can be used seriously, but I've also seen it done for comedic effect. Victoria Laurie has a series with a young man who's always terrified of getting sick. Not like a head cold, but strokes, heart attacks, exotic fevers, and off-the-wall sicknesses that make him extremely funny. 

CATAPHASIA: "Repetition of the same word or phrase over and over." You could use this one without ever labeling the problem, and I could see this working extremely well. Many well-loved characters have catch-phrases ("Elementary, my dear Watson" comes to mind), but you could magnify this one enough to truly make your character stand out. Too much repetition and the reader will tire of it, but used in moderation, this could be a fantastic tool for creating a memorable character. This disorder closely resembles ECHOLALIA, which is "a brain disorder in which the victim repeats the words of others." Both of these could also be used for comedic effect, too.

HEBEPHRENIA: "A form of schizophrenia characterized by regressive behavior and a perpetual silly grin." If you want to use this one, do a ton of research before diving in. I bring it up, though, because I've never heard of it before and the "silly grin" stood out to me as unique and interesting (in a morbid sort of way). As I know nothing about this problem, I hesitate to comment as I may get it all wrong, so I'll leave you with the description and your own imagination.

KORSAKOFF'S PSYCHOSIS: "Distorted thinking and memory loss caused by alcohol." Again, I know nothing about this, but the memory loss part sparked several ideas. Do your research if you want to use this one. If any of you have heard of this one (or the previous), please share in the comments section.

The next part of the list has a bunch of manias, and I'll discuss those in my next post. Questions? Comments? Rants? Share them all.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Psychological Problems: Accident-Prone, Alethia, Anomie, and Anxiety

 Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters has a wealth of information to absorb, and I'm doing my best to share some of it. Today I'm in the section called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. It's an alphabetical listing, so I'll just go through it and hit the ones that stand out to me. (For a complete list, buy the book. It's a handy tool.)

ACCIDENT-PRONE: This is "an unconscious need for attention that manifests itself through an unusual number of accidents and mishaps." This is different that being clumsy or uncoordinated. A character with this problem will intentionally hurt themselves to draw attention. This could be a ton of fun to work with in a novel, but you'd have to be careful that your character doesn't come across as pitiable, or worse, unsympathetic. Make sure that underlying need has a background that's believable and sympathetic.

(photo courtesy of

ALETHIA: It sounds like a girl's name, but it's really a "dwelling, to a neurotic degree, on the past." This is more than just wishing for the good old days, or pining for someone who's gone. This is an unhealthy fixation on the past. I can think of a ton of ways to use this in a novel. A woman who lives like a pioneer, avoiding all technology. A man who sees his dead wife's face or smells her perfume or hears her voice wherever he goes. A woman who treats a doll as her own baby to replace the one she lost. These are getting kind of sad, but you can see the potential to use this in your novel. Even a minor case of alethia could be useful for a character.

ANOMIE: "Feelings of alienation and not belonging to society." We've all seen this one taken to extremes on the TV where the guy thinks he's an alien sent to probe the planet. That can be fun, but you can also dial this back a bit and use a mild form of it for your character's flaw. A man who lives in the city but stays inside at all times. The woman who lives in the country and can't abide visitors. The teenager who's desperate to fit in but can't find a friend. Play with it and see what you come up with.

ANXIETY: "Fear, nervousness or apprehension caused by a real or imagined source." Most people feel this a time or two during life. It's the feeling of not being in control, of things moving outside your sphere of influence when you're certain you should be in charge. Magnify it in your character, remove any sense of control (locked in a mental institute against her will? held captive by kidnappers? child is dying of incurable disease?), and watch the conflict mount exponentially.

I'm not finished with the A's yet, but I'll stop now and continue next time. See anything here that sparks your imagination? How could you use one or more of these in a character? Please share.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Personality Traits: Bad Habits/Vices part 3

I'm discussing a section of Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters called BAD HABITS/VICES. It's basically a three-page list of bad habits and vices you could give your characters. Let's get to it.

The next vice that caught my eye is WATCHES TOO MUCH TV and it's twin brother, WATCHES TOO MUCH SPORTS ON TV. We can all see the comedic potential in this one, but think about it's serious impacts. Spending too much time on any one activity has a negative impact on all of life. Think about the man who skips church to watch football, or the woman who doesn't feed her kids until it's nearly bedtime because "her shows" were on, or the college student who's failing classes because she's addicted to daytime TV (soaps, talk shows, all of it). This can be a devastating issue if taken to extremes, and it shouldn't be too hard to figure out how this vice could become the Flaw a character must overcome to reach The Goal. You could substitute "TV" with any other activity and get the same results (video games, reading novels, building model airplanes, etc).

SWEARS TOO MUCH is on the list, and I immediately thought of a retired man who drove into the Cal-Gas one day to fill up his propane tank (this story courtesy of my husband, who was the poor soul who had to help this man). Every other word out of his mouth, to both the propane attendant and his wife, were foul words. He didn't even realize he was cursing. He'd added those filthy words to his vocabulary, and they were as standard as articles and verbs. He used them like adjectives. This is an extreme example, but extremes are so much fun to play with in novels. How could a man with this potty mouth survive in the work force? Could he control his tongue in front of a police officer, or a judge, or his boss? How would his wife deal with it? I'd be mortified to be married to a man like that. Would his children emulate him? How would he respond to teachers who complained about his child's inappropriate vocabulary? Society has become a bit numb to curse words, but they still offend people. Can you think of a way to use this as a flaw for your hero? How and why would he overcome this?

There are a lot of things on the list that deal with food and eating: TIPS TOO MUCH, DOESN'T TIP ENOUGH, BURPS LOUDLY IN PUBLIC, FINISHES EVERYONE ELSE'S MEAL, SNACKS TOO MUCH, CHEWS GUM TOO MUCH, COUGHS WITHOUT COVERING MOUTH (which is really gross if there's food involved). You may have noticed the word "TOO" in many of these. They are all extremes. As I said above, these are fun to play with and will work as both comedy and tragedy. I remember an episode of Third Rock From The Sun where Mary left a tip on the restaurant table and Dick stuck it in his pocket. She caught him at it, and that lead to a half hour of hilarity while Dick learned the art of tipping properly. Just because it's been done once (or twice) doesn't mean you can't put a new twist on it and use it yourself. Does your hero eat too much? Pair it with a high metabolism and she's enviously skinny. Is your hero an extremely picky eater? Plunk him into a middle-eastern society where it's rude to not eat what's put in front of you and watch the tension mount. You've seen this a ton on TV: the girl who's afraid of green Jell-o (Third Rock), the man who only eats white food (Numbers), the characters who only eat live food (Star Trek)... have some fun with this one.

There are a lot more on the list, but I want to finish this up and move on. The last habit I'll cover is PARKS IN HANDICAPPED SPACE because it has so much potential. When I see what appears to be a non-handicapped person get out of a vehicle parked in one of those spots, my first thought is "what a jerk." But what if he really is handicapped, but it's not visibly apparent? Or what if he really isn't handicapped, he's just being a jerk? Why would he do such a thing? Is there backstory lingering behind this excuse, or is he just in a hurry and it's the only spot available? Does he do it all the time, or only once in a while? What are some handicaps that aren't readily visible to passers-by that could make someone think ill of them? Diabetes came to the top of my head, but I'm sure there's more. Heart trouble, nerve damage in feet, seizures (although why would this person be driving?), passenger who's handicapped... what do you think?

(Photo courtesy of

The next section of the book is called PSYCHOLOGICAL/PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. I can't wait to dig into it with you! Stay tuned.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Personality Traits: Bad Habits/Vices part 2

I'm digging through Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters for the good stuff, and I'm in a section called BAD HABITS/VICES. It's basically a three-page list of bad habits and vices you could give your characters. I started this discussion in my last post, so if you want to know what I'm up to, revisit that one. I'll wait.

Welcome back. The next bad habit I want to discuss is FORGETS A LOT. I don't tend to think of forgetfulness as a bad habit or a vice (I'm horribly forgetful), but I can see where this could be a fantastic trait for a hero. My friend Aggeloi wrote a story with an absent-minded hero, and I thought it was fabulous. The key to this trait is to balance it with some strength so the character doesn't appear weak, pitiable, or unlovable. The forgetful genius has already been done (Absent-mindded professor). How about the forgetful woman who feeds the homeless four nights a week? Or the forgetful police officer who tries to get prostitutes off the streets? The forgetful school teacher who takes disadvantaged kids camping during the summer? I'm actually working on a version of this in one of my WIP's: a forgetful FBI consultant who knows there's a bit of information she gathered that's crucial to solving the crime if she could just remember it. Memory is a fun thing to play with in stories because they can be triggered by so many things: smells, sounds, textures. I could find a dozen ways to use this trait in a novel. How about you?

Here's a funny one: EATS SOUP STRAIGHT OUT OF THE CAN WITHOUT HEATING. The first thing I thought of was a hobo under a bridge eating pork-n-beans with a fork. I must have seen that in a TV show or movie. Anyway, this could be a wonderful quirk for an otherwise normal character to give him a spark of humor and reality. Chef Boy-R-Dee out of the can? I could see a young single man doing that. How about green beans out of the can? Crushed tomatoes (use a spoon, please), kidney beans in that nasty pink syrup, Nalley's Chili with that crust of orange fat across the top... I could gross myself out doing this. Open your pantry and see what comes in a can, then picture your hero eating it. To jazz things up, make your hero something other than a young bachelor. 

(Sweetened condensed milk, anyone? Photo courtesy of

The last one for today's post is WEARS TOO MUCH PERFUME OR COLOGNE. I can relate to this, as I was born with no sense of smell. If I spritz myself with perfume, I have no way of knowing if it's too little or too much unless someone else is brave enough to tell me so (sons and husband seem oblivious, so I rely on total strangers or friends. Usually I just skip the perfume). While this could be an embarrassing trait for your hero, it could also impact others. There's a kind old gentleman in my church who's seriously allergic. Many times he comes to church, sits down, gets a whiff of someone walking by, and he's got to leave the building with his hacking and wheezing. This bad habit could be used for comedic relief, for increased tension, or for raising the stakes (life-threasening allergies). Can you come up with a way to use this one?

I'll continue with McCutcheon's list of bad habits in my next post. Share your thoughts with me and whoever else might be reading today. Thanks!


Monday, March 17, 2014

Personality Traits: Bad habits/Vices

The next section of Marc McCutcheon's book  Building Believable Characters I'd like to discuss is called BAD HABITS/VICES. It's basically a three-page list of bad habits and vices. While some of them are silly (cracks knuckles or farts in public), others would be useful for building a well-rounded yet flawed character. I'd like to pick out some of these bad habits and offer suggestions on how to use them in novel-writing.

The first one on the list is OVERSLEEPS. At first, I thought it was funny/not serious, but then I thought of a great application. My hero oversleeps every day. The alarm goes off, he slaps the snooze button a few too many times, and suddenly he's late for work. Most bosses would not tolerate lateness, especially on a daily basis, but as I writer and creative person, I can do better than that. Maybe the boss is okay with a flex schedule, or the work involved doesn't revolve around a fixed schedule, so it doesn't matter what time the hero shows up for work, as long as he puts in his eight hours. And for the sake of storytelling, my hero is a hard, conscientious worker. He just not very punctual. Now I'll make it his flaw, that inner something that must be overcome before he can achieve The Goal. Suppose his goal has a time limit? Maybe not as dramatic as a ticking bomb that will blow up his entire city, including his puppy, his girlfriend, and his aging mama, but something that has high enough stakes that he's got to be on time for it--and that deadline is 5:30 am. I'm gong to stop there because I'm sure you've already finished the story, or you're miffed at me because I changed something midstream that you were already thinking about. Play with this bad habit and see if it can work for your hero.

I'm skipping down the list to "Shaves and leaves whiskers in the sink." Gross! Definitely a bad habit, but not something that would work as an inner flaw. However, this could generate some necessary tension in a relationship. I'm thinking the guy who leaves whiskers in the sink will also leave his socks on the floor, and when he makes himself a sandwich the mayo knife will be left on the counter, and his raincoat will be a permanent fixture on the banister by the front door. This guy's bad habits will make some woman's life misery--and maybe that's HER flaw that she must overcome: deal with this guy or move on, because all women know, deep down, that we can't change our man no matter how hard we try. (Insert joke here). Can you think of another way to use this bad habit in your story?

(This mess brought to you by

Further down the list, I'm intrigued by LAUGHS TOO LOUD WHEN NERVOUS, and it's cousin LAUGHS TOO MUCH WHEN NERVOUS. This is a glorious personality flaw to play with! We've all seen this on TV and in real life: female hero is in the emergency room waiting for news of a loved one who was in a horrific fill-in-the-blank, the nurse arrives to give the dire news, and the hero's giggling at every word the nurse says. I know someone like this in real life. Her daughter was having a broken arm reset, and my friend was giggling. Not a "it's funny" giggle, but a nervous chitter that she couldn't help. She's admitted that it's thoroughly embarrassing, and she wishes she could stop, but she can't. It's her body's way of dealing with the stress. Can you think of other inappropriate situations where this nervous laugh will create tension or hostility? (Other versions of this are whistles when nervous, hums when nervous, sings when nervous, etc.)

The next one on the list that caught my attention is TAILGATES (goes with IGNORES YEILD SIGNS and SCREAMS AT OTHER DRIVERS). While tailgating is a dangerous activity that can earn you a hefty fine if a police officer spots you doing it, how could this be used in a story? I'm thinking of a Type A hero who prides himself on never being late, who demands that everyone else on the road do the exact speed limit ("You're going five under the limit, you jackwad! Find your gas pedal!"), and who's now got ten minutes to make it to fill-in-the-blank and there's a traffic snarl up ahead. While this will create tension for both the hero and every other driver on the road, can you think of ways to make this a much bigger issue? Can this bad habit of tailgating and shouting at other drivers become an inciting incident, or even a major plot point? Think about it for a minute. I'll wait.

There are a ton of bad habits/vices on this list, and I want to talk about more of them, so I'll continue this discussion in my next post. Did anything I say in this one get your creative juices flowing? Care to share what you thought of? That's what the comments section is for. Please avail yourselves of it. Is that grammatically correct?