Personality Disorders Depicted in Popular Fictional Stories

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th ed. (DSM-V) defines personality traits as “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself exhibited in a wide range of important social and personal contexts” (APA, 2013, p. 782). 

Relatedly, personality disorders constitute “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture and is manifested in at least two of the following areas: cognition, affectivity, interpersonal functioning, or impulse control (Criterion A). This enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations (Criterion B) and leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (Criterion C). The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back at least to adolescence or early adulthood (Criterion D). The pattern is not better explained as a manifestation or consequence of another mental disorder (Criterion E) and is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication, exposure to a toxin) or another medical condition (e.g., head trauma) (Criterion F)” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 647).

The following descriptions depict characteristics of personality disorders in modern fictional stories.

Paranoid

Individuals with Paranoid Personality Disorder manifest a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others and consistently interpret their motives as malevolent.

Darryl Zero, in the 1998 movie Zero Effect, is characterized as “the world's most private detective”. He is so private, that instead of meeting his clients personally, he sends his surrogate, Steve Arlo, to make deals and to collect payment. He spends his time blockaded in his apartment, surrounded by state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, unwilling to leave even for food (he can subsist for untold days on nothing but Tab, bulk pretzels, and amphetamines). Darryl Zero has no social life and he has no social skills. However, he is very good at his job. His paranoia and suspicious nature is responsible much of his success as a private detective. He is so distrusting that he feels compelled to employ a myriad of disguises.

Schizoid

Individuals with Schizoid Personality Disorder display a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expressions and emotions with regard to interpersonal settings.

The sensitive albino teenager known as Powder in the 1995 screenplay written by Victor Salva has experienced the world only through books, never leaving the family farm. He was emotionally abused as a child by an angry father and later neglected by distant grandparents. He has never been allowed any interaction with the outside world due to the familial embarrassment his odd appearance might cause. Upon the death of his grandfather, he is found in the basement of his grandparents' house and sent to a state home for boys where he has trouble fitting in socially. Powder has only contempt for the outside world. He is bullied for being physically different, misunderstood for being mentally superior, and vilified for his unusual ability to conduct electricity. He desperately wants to return to his basement, to be left alone and harassed by no one, he tells a well-intentioned social worker. Home is his farmhouse cellar with his books, the only place he feels comfortable.

Schizotypal

Individuals with Schizotypal Personality Disorder exhibit a pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior.

Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle is a 26 year old disgruntled war vet, a loner in the streets of New York City, and a lonely man obsessed with pornography and violence. Solving his insomnia by driving a yellow cab on the night shift, he slowly slips into isolation and violent misanthropy and grows increasingly disgusted by the “low-lifes” that hang out at night: As events in Travis' life begin to turn for the worse, he descends into the depths of his own anger and paranoia, driving away the one woman willing to love him and eventually exploding in an orgy of killing against the "scum" of the streets he hates so intensely. Driven to the edge by powerlessness, he buys four handguns and sets out to assassinate the Senator, heading for the prized infamy of a “lone crazed gunman”.

Antisocial

Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder present a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others accompanied by a complete lack of remorse for the crimes that they commit. They also often exhibit an inability to control their violent impulses and often erupt without warning.

Silence of the Lambs character, psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lector, "Hannibal the Cannibal”, is incarcerated for vicious and violent crimes that culminate in eating the internal organs of his victims. Dr. Lector is a man of exquisite intelligence and a complete absence of emotion and conscience. He is a very powerful and clever mind manipulator and maintains a sense of superiority and disdain for the stupidity of those around him. Though he is sealed off completely from any human contact in his solitary cell and is the recipient of the harshest and strictest penal conditions, he repeatedly manages to outwit and overpower (physically and mentally) those with whom he comes in contact.

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Borderline

Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder manifest a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affect, combined with extreme impulsive behavior.

Character Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction represents an obsessive borderline personality. What starts off as a supposedly simple, “no strings attached”, recreational extra-marital one night stand, soon escalates into something much more disturbing, unpredictable and dangerous. Alex’s moods cycle and intensify as she transforms from amorous to suicidal in rapid succession and from rational to raving with little provocation. Alex insinuates her life into her lover’s family and her behavior becomes increasingly more violent and irrational. She vacillates between pledging undying love and devotion, pleading for continuing the relationship and viciously threatening bodily harm and destruction.

Histrionic

Individuals with Histrionic Personality Disorder display pervasive and excessive emotionality, theatricality, self-dramatization and attention-seeking behavior.

Carly, the voluptuous and volatile wife of a US Army major in the film Blue Sky, continually wreaks havoc in her family’s personal life and stirs up intrigue at each new Army base. She changes her hair color often and dresses outrageously. Her erratic behavior, her smoldering, inappropriate seductiveness, her frequent tantrums and her rampages in which she destroys government property, have forced her family to change bases frequently. Carly fancies herself a professional dancer and often acts as if she is on stage

Narcissistic

Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder present pervasive self-centeredness and an all-encompassing grandiosity about themselves, their achievements, and their place in life. Along with this exalted self-centered behavior, there is also a discernible lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement that blinds them to all needs except their own.

In the film Sunset Blvd., Norma Desmond is a fallen star of silent films under the illusion that millions of fans still adore her. Norma surrounds herself with her past glory - faded publicity shots in gilt frames and an obsequious manservant, Max, who keeps her supplied with fresh batches of fan mail daily. Norma is planning a comeback playing the lead in her own screenplay and character Joe Gillis is soon entrapped in helping her make her return to her adoring public. Broke, Joe takes the job but soon finds that Norma's vanity, her ego and her need for unadulterated admiration is unquenchable. She wants him around only to satisfy her endless need for praise and will not tolerate the slightest divergence of his attention. He must be ever-devoted to her, enduring private theatricals and endless screenings of her once great movies.

Avoidant

Individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder manifest a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.

The fictional documentary, Zelig describes the life of human chameleon Leonard Zelig, a man whose overwhelming desire for conformity is manifested in his ability to take on the facial and vocal characteristics of whomever he happens to be around at the moment. Rather than express his own personality and emotional reactions, he finds it less threatening to mimic those of others. The story traces Zelig’s bizarre career as a tabloid hero and side-show freak who finally finds true compassion only in the arms of his psychiatrist, the only person to whom he reveals his true self.

Dependent

Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder exhibit a pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of that leads to submissive and clinging behavior and fears of separation.

Sophie, the main character of Sophie’s Choice, is the survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who has found a reason to live in Nathan, an unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust. Nathan and Sophie’s dysfunctional relationship is clouded by Nathan’s violent behavior, his uncontrollable jealousy, and Sophie’s repressed and troubling memories of her war experience. Believing she doesn’t deserve love or happiness, Sophie’s insufferable pain makes her emotionally needy, intense, desperate and willing to tolerate Nathan’s erratic behavior.

Obsessive-Compulsive

Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder present a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control - at the expense of flexibility, openness and efficiency.

In As Good As It Gets, Melvin Udall is a writer of romance novels. His personal life, however, is very different from the fictional life he creates because he alienates other people and keeps his own emotions repressed. Melvin's life is one of intense ritual, orderliness, and control. He refuses to touch anything public, or let anyone touch him. While walking down a crowded sidewalk, he meticulously refuses to step on any cracks. In various areas of his life, including personal hygiene and household organization, he goes to great lengths in his need to remain ordered.

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Reference

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

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