Quirky or Plain Crazy - Where Do I Draw the Line for My Character?

Posted by Howard Gluss on

Lynn, a Writer/Producer from Palm Springs, CA Asks: In your book REEL PEOPLE you talk a lot about characters that seem to be quite disturbed. Can the theories of personality types apply to characters that are just quirky or eccentric rather than mentally ill? And are there specific personality types that are just plain funny?

Dr. Howard Gluss Responds: Yes, Lynn, it is very valuable to note that the human psyche has many facets and a writer may not always be creating psychopathological characters. Not every movie has a knife-wielding mass murderer or egomaniac tyrant. As with most things in life, there is a continuum at play. It is best not to think of the personality disorders as described in REEL PEOPLE as disorders, but rather as personality orders - a series of recognizable and correlating behaviors. A diagnosis of mental illness depends on whether or not an individual meets a specific set of symptoms and the severity of those symptoms. Someone may win at everything for attention, whereas another may fail at everything for that same attention.

A good example of a recent depiction of a Histrionic personality in a comedy is Suzette (Goldie Hawn) in The Banger Sisters. Suzette is blunt, direct, flamboyant, messy, needy, sexual, and to top it off, a raunchy foul-mouthed groupie. But unlike the Narcissist who is rarely funny but cold and calculating in their need for attention, Suzette possesses a heart of gold and a childlike quality of helplessness. One can't help but root for Suzette as she gives Harry (Jeffrey Rush) the best sex he's had in ten years or rescues Hannah (Erika Christensen) from a drug overdose on prom night. But more than anything, it is the relationship of Suzette and Lavinia (Susan Sarandon) that captivates us. Lavinia, a former groupie friend of Suzette's, has repressed her party life. She has become disconnected from her real self. She exists in a state of suburban denial. It is Suzette's love and attention that makes Lavinia realize that she looks as drab as the walls at the Department of Motor Vehicles and that Suzette looks like a flower. As the movie develops, we get the feeling that both women will grow from their relationship with each other. Lavinia may eventually help Suzette mature and grow. She may help her find a job, friends and a future, while Suzette can free Lavinia of her repression and help her gain a new sense of self.

What might make someone funny or eccentric versus fearful or dramatic can also have to do with the style, genre, and story. Two Antisocial characters that appear in two very different styles of comedies come to mind. One is the eccentric, swashbuckling, womanizing, alcoholic Pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean and the other is the very dangerous suburban housewife Beverly Stupin (Kathleen Turner) in John Waters's satirical black comedy Serial Mom. Beverly Stupin in Serial Mom and Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs are both accurate portrayals of the Antisocial personality. They are both dangerous psychopathic killers who are possessed by their need for power and control. One wants to have us for dinner as the other uses dinner to commit her evil deeds. What can be more frightening than to watch Beverly Stupin on a murderous rampage, swinging a leg of lamb while her victim innocently listens to the Broadway tunes from Annie? Surely Beverly is as complex and psychopathic an individual as is Hannibal when he contemplates which one of his victim's body part he wants to cook for dinner.

Pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), on the other hand, is a criminal; an Antisocial character of yesteryear living on the fringes of society. He is a wanted man; a seafaring con man. Somewhat insane, he is committed to robbery, yet can't seem to get away from his desire to be a good man. He saves the governor's daughter (Kieran Knightly) and winds up in jail because of his own humanity. Even though he possesses all the qualities of an Antisocial character, he is the antithesis of a cold-hearted killer. Rather, he is a wonderful mixture of the criminal with a heart of gold. He mumbles and bumbles and sways as he confronts dead armies and the high seas. He wants nothing more than to get his ship back and be free. He appears to be the fool but in actuality is the exact opposite. He is brilliantly one step ahead of the game with the intelligence to outsmart his rivals. In the end, Depp's character, a fascinating paradox of good and evil, takes complete command of the screen, inviting us to take the journey with him.

Although almost any personality type can be written for its comedic value, it is important to note that the Histrionic personality will be found more often in comedies and in lighter fare. Their pervasive and excessive emotionality, theatricality, unstableness and attention-seeking behavior make them loveable characters. Though most often diagnosed in women, men on screen have been noted and rewarded for their grandiose and childlike behavior. From the self-confidant stud of Alan Swan (Peter O'Toole) in My Favorite Year, the drag fitted Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) in Rocky Horror Picture Show or the excessive diva Albin (Nathan Lane) in La Cage Aux Folles, the histrionic has made us laugh more often than probably any other personality type in cinema.

Finally, Lynn, in using the information provided in REEL PEOPLE, it is important to note that the real value for the writer is not diagnosis but rather creativity. The personality types described should spark the imagination, not limit it in clinical diagnostic parameters. Mixing personality characteristics to whatever degree of severity or whatever style or genre can aid greatly in creating authentic, believable characterizations. Whether your character is a devilish suburban housewife, an aging groupie, or a swashbuckling pirate, the creation of psychological authenticity can only aid in the development of believable characters no matter what genre or level of psychosis or neurosis one is attempting to achieve.

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