BLOG No. 32 by novelist Jeremy Logan - OUT OF MY ELEMENT
How does an author portray a character suffering from a mental or emotional disorder, if he has never been afflicted? Mental illness, and how it affects the sufferer, has always intrigued me. Perhaps I've been around too many poor souls have been afflicted in some manner. Up close, I've seen schizophrenics, the severely depressed, some with anxiety disorder, and people which acute phobias. To some extent, their afflictions do not allow them to experience the world, and them in it, as those that are not afflicted.
When I was a youngster, the prevailing public opinion was that mental illness was a personality weakness, and not anatomical in origin. As a result of this notion, the stigma society placed on the afflicted ones was that of shame and disdain. I've researched the subject enough to understand that almost all of the forms of mental illness are the result of a physical abnormality in the brain. Just as one might have diabetes, mental illness is a disease due to a malfunctioning organ, the brain.
I also have an opinion that is not supported by research; a person's psyche can also be injured or damaged. And it is this type of injury that can also result in abnormal behavior. I believe it is this type of injury that is most often manifested in criminal behavior. I consider this an environmental disorder resulting from suffering constant cruelty before adulthood from a relative or presumed caregiver, or being tortured, abandoned, etc.
So, why am I mentioning this? It's because so many stories depend on someone suffering from one or both of these ailments. In my first novel I go to some length explaining why the villain grew to become a psychopath. In that story I wasn't giving him an excuse for being who he was so much as I was laying a foundation for how the protagonist would be able to overcome the villain's superior battle skills and training. He researched his adversary's upbringing and figured out how he might be distracted or confused. He used a ploy that would play havoc on his psyche, which made him vulnerable to being captured or killed.
In my recently published novel, The Rubik Memorandum, there is a mercenary who is carrying out the evil wishes of his principal. The mercenary is dually afflicted by suffering the early stages of schizophrenia, and of being a victim who was tortured and brutalized during the recent Croatia War of Independence. Again, I was not giving him an excuse for being a villain, however, I find it somewhat fair to explain why he was able to be so heartless and why he was vulnerable, so long as you caught him before his antipsychotic medication kicked in.
I consider myself out of my element when I can imagine being delusional. I have one phobia, acrophobia, the fear of heights. There are times I can control it to the extent that I can appear to be without the phobia. It takes a lot of concentration, motivation and energy to keep it hidden. However, if I am exposed to several situations or over an extended period of time where the fear needs to be fought off, I can get weary from the strain of fighting it off. This is when I feel I am out of my element or helpless to control the delusion that I am in danger of falling.
There have been only a few times in my life when that has occurred, and I was surprised how I became almost paralyzed to the extent that I refused to get remotely near another cliff or foot bridge. It's a form of panic created by one's imagination. While acrophobia is hardly comparable to the more severe delusions like acute paranoia or schizophrenia, it's not that far of a stretch to imagine how some mental or emotional disorders can make a person perform acts that they would never consider without the delusions.
Perhaps I have a difficult time imagining a person performing evil acts without some reason or provocation. Can a person be so evil without some cause and effect? Since I'm in the 'Thriller' business, there is a need to make the reader be afraid that something bad might happen to innocent people. Maybe I'm a bit of a 'softie' by not wanting to make a villain so bad and cruel. And if that's the case, I can live with it.