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DISCLAIMER: the writer of this essay is just that, a writer. I am not a trained psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, neurologist, biologist or kazoo player. I'm just someone who's done a fair bit of research on mental and neurological disorders in the past for various scholarly assignments, and continue to do so because I find it fascinating. Also I'm fairly sure it's impossible to be a professional kazoo player.

Let's talk about mental disorders. Odds are, you at least know someone that has some form of mental or neurological disorder. Hopefully, they're getting some form of treatment for it, or at the very least, have learned to cope with it.

Unfortunately, modern media seems to largely ignore that. Mental illness is viewed in a very narrow lens by modern media. Generally, there are three1 categories of how mental illness is written in the media: The Psycho, the Savant and the Depressive.

So let's dance to these stereotypes and find out what's up.

Part 1: How To Write Mental Disorders Like You're From Hollywood

The Psycho

Examples:23 Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, any portrayal of Jack the Ripper in fiction, any generic serial killer on a crime show, Moriarty in Sherlock, Alex and Eric from Gus van Sant's Elephant, Light "Kira" Yagami from Deathnote.
Defining Characteristics: The Psycho is usually encountered on poorly-written every form of crime novel, film or show ever. A psycho is usually incredibly charismatic, incredibly brutal, and quite often sexually deviant or LGBT.

The psycho is the most violent archetype of mental illness in media, and the easiest one to write; they are the most "other" to many people, especially more conservative individuals or individuals from another point in time (see: Norman Bates).

Psychos often become psychos due to a traumatic event or string of events in their childhood, or a certain way of being raised. This is all based off of Sigmund Freud's field of study known as psychoanalysis, which, to quickly sum up, states that certain events in the childhood (such as attraction to a parental figure, various "phases" of development and fixation, etc) contribute to affecting the adult life. Which is true, to a degree; if you eat broccoli and don't develop the taste for it in childhood, you'll most likely not be able to stomach it in your adult life.

Two possible defining traits of a psycho are their knowledge and charisma. Look at Fox's The Following for an example of this. Joe Carroll, a classic Psycho, is well versed in the works of Edgar Allen Poe to the point of obsession, and his charisma has enabled him to gain quite a large… well, following when he escapes from prison. This Following also consists of several psychos. Another good example of this for you manga fans out there is Light Yagami from Deathnote: smart, charismatic, elitist, and slightly deviant.

To be perfectly fair, quite a few psychos in media are based off of actual individuals; Norman Bates was based off of Ed Gein. And so was Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And so was Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. And, arguably, so was Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Starting to see a pattern here?

Yes, a large part of psychopaths in modern media are based off of Edward Gein. All sexually deviant, all insane, all utterly horrible people. This form of mental illness is the one that rings most true in media… and also one of the biggest misconceptions, but we'll get to that later.

The Savant

Examples: Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Gary Bell from Alphas, Parker from Leverage, Sherlock Holmes in all incarnations, River Tam in Firefly and Serenity, Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kevin from Eureka.
Defining Characteristics: The Savant is an individual who is incredibly smart, able to do things like calculate quantum equations in their head or recite the dictionary from memory. They're often obsessed with a single subject or series of subjects, and, most curiously, are often the most likely to receive or have some kind of supernatural ability.

Gary from Alphas can see the electromagnetic spectrum. All of it. River Tam from Firefly is telepathic4. Eureka's Kevin had a form of autism that allowed him to link up to the Akashic records. This even carries over to real life, with people who have autism being known as "indigo children" among some new-age groups, receptive to indigo auras and sent to heal the world And no, I am not making a word of that up.

In fiction, Savants usually have little sexual interest or are entirely asexual. This is justifiable in some cases, where the Savant is a child under the age of 15 and the writers don't want to seem creepy by having a child know what sex is.


Blargh too many character concepts

  • Quantum Physicists obsessed with the existence of Alternate Universes
  • Former IBM employee that shut down the first AI
  • Primitive Geneticist
  • Private Investigator that got suckered in after finding an SCP-like object on a case and tracing it back to the Foundation
  • Psychologist that worked in MK-ULTRA
  • Survivor of the Philadelphia Experiment:
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