June 16, 2015

Character Psychology: 9 Common Errors — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

Bandage over a ripped piece of paper with text: 9 Psychology Myths to Avoid

If we don’t want to write characters who are too perfect, we have to layer in a few flaws. The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is full of ideas for how to make our characters seem more real with a mix of traits, including weaknesses.

That goal of avoiding the too-perfect character means that we might be writing characters who are “broken” in some way. They might be trauma survivors or suffering from depression, etc.

While psychological issues can be great for rounding out our characters and creating conflict, we don’t want to get the details wrong. Real people with real psychological disorders might be among our readers, and we don’t want to twist or belittle their struggles.

Luckily, I know just who can help us get this right. *smile* Writer and retired psychotherapist Kassandra Lamb visited us here before with her Emotions 101 for Writers guest post, and now she’s here with information about what writers often mess up about psychology.

Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! Woo hoo!


9 Common Errors
Authors Make about Psychological Disorders

As a retired psychotherapist, I cringe sometimes when I read inaccurate references to psychological phenomena in fiction. But as an author, I know how hard it is to get every detail right. We can’t all be experts in every field, and I’ve certainly made some cringe-worthy errors in areas outside my own expertise.

Today, I want to correct several misconceptions about psychology and psychological disorders that I’ve seen misrepresented in fiction.

#1:  Schizophrenia and multiple personalities are not the same disorder.

This common mistake is understandable because this misconception is widespread in our society.

However, it is not a forgivable mistake in the eyes of those readers who know a bit about psychology. It immediately exposes the author as someone who hasn’t done their research.

These two disorders couldn’t be more different. Schizophrenia is primarily a genetically-transmitted, biologically-based disorder that causes the person’s brain to malfunction. It is true psychosis. The person is out of touch with reality. Schizophrenics have delusions, hallucinations, their speech may not make sense, etc.

The correct diagnosis for people who have multiple personalities is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This disorder is caused primarily by extreme childhood trauma. Although their perceptions may be distorted because of past trauma, people with DID are not psychotic.

#2:  Schizophrenics and people with DID are rarely dangerous to anyone but themselves.

It makes me grind my teeth when a perfectly normal-seeming character is revealed at the end of the book to have DID and one of the personalities is a pathological killer.

In DID, the different personalities are called alters. And they are indeed quite different, with different traits and also suffering from different mental disorders themselves. One alter may be very anxious, another depressed, etc. However, it is highly unlikely that one, and only one, of the personalities will be a psychopath (more on psychopaths in a minute). As a matter of fact, I’ve never even heard of such a  case in real life. (Although serial killer Ted Bundy tried to fake that he had multiple personalities in order to get off.)

Ninety-eight percent of the time, schizophrenics are quite harmless. The only time that they are likely to become dangerous is if they are having a delusion and/or hallucination that leads them to believe that other people are a threat to themselves, their families or their country—such as believing that their neighbors are really aliens from another planet sent here to take over the Earth.

#3:  Bipolar, depression, and manic-depressive are not synonyms.

Depression is considered the common cold of mental disorders, because everybody has it at times. Most authors are familiar with it, and I’ve rarely seen its symptoms misrepresented in fiction. But sometimes its causes are.

It can be caused by life events (past or present), inherited biological factors (faulty brain chemistry) or by some of both. A character with severe, recurrent or chronic depression should either have a lot of nasty crap stuffed in their psychological closet and/or have a family history of depression.

Depression is a part of bipolar disorder but the two disorders are not synonymous. Bipolar disorder is far less common. It’s genetically transmitted and primarily biologically based. It involves mood swings between moderate to severe mania and moderate to severe depression. If there is no mania involved, it’s not bipolar.

Manic-depressive is the old name for this disorder. An everyday person will use this term but a medical or mental health professional will not, unless they are using it to explain bipolar disorder to a lay person.

#4: Yes, people who are really suicidal do talk about killing themselves.

It is a total myth that people who talk about suicide aren’t really serious about killing themselves. Yes, they are.

Most people who eventually attempt suicide have talked about wanting to die, wishing they had the guts to kill themselves, etc. quite a bit. I think the myth comes from the fact that once the person has actually decided to do it, often they stop talking about it. Because now they don’t want anyone to stop them.

#5:  Neither “psychopath” nor “sociopath” are true diagnoses.

These two terms were once official diagnostic labels, but they were replaced decades ago by antisocial personality disorder. However, the two terms have stuck in the general vernacular. So lay people may use either term interchangeably.

But a psychological or medical professional wouldn’t, at least not in any official capacity. However, we do sometimes use these terms when dealing with the lay public, mainly because it’s easier to say “psychopath” than “a person with antisocial personality disorder.”

#6: Not all nasty, abusive people are psychopaths (i.e. have antisocial personality disorder, abbreviated as ASPD).

Often they have other personality disorders, such as narcissism. The key difference between people with ASPD and these other personality disorders is the lack of a conscience. Psychopaths, i.e. people with ASPD, do not experience much in the way of remorse or guilt. (For more on the nature of psychopaths and the causes of ASPD, see my posts on the subject here and here.)

Let’s get back to why a person with DID is unlikely to have only one psychopathic personality.

Antisocial personality disorder is partially genetically transmitted. There is something intrinsically wrong with the person’s wiring that interferes with the development of a conscience. As I said, I’ve never heard of a real case of someone with DID who had only one truly psychopathic personality. But I have heard of a case of a man with DID in whom all his personalities lacked a conscience.

#7:  Not everything negative that happens is a trauma and PTSD is not triggered by mild to moderate trauma.

We tend to use the word traumatic a bit loosely to refer to anything upsetting, like receiving a bad grade in a course. The definition of a trauma is an event so emotionally overwhelming (usually sudden and unexpected) that we cannot process it emotionally or cognitively at the time the event occurs.

The definition of trauma related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is even stricter–a traumatic event is one in which “the physical integrity of oneself or others” is threatened. In other words, somebody gets hurt or killed, or you’ve got good reason to believe that someone is about to get hurt or killed.

The most common causes of PTSD are combat, child abuse, serious car accidents, being the adult victim of a violent crime (including domestic violence), and natural disasters.

#8: Yes, people’s minds really can block out an entire traumatic memory.

Indeed, people can experience traumatic amnesia for whole months, years or even their entire childhood. When I was a psychotherapist, the statement that was most likely to fill me with dread was: “I really don’t remember much of my childhood.”

This amnesia is a product of a defense mechanism called dissociation, which blocks out anything that is too emotionally overwhelming. If you’ve ever felt spacey after a moderately traumatic event, you’ve experienced dissociation in its mildest form.

Dissociative amnesia is well documented, has been researched for over a hundred years, and is officially recognized by the diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Sadly, a movement was started in the 1990’s to discredit the previously dissociated memories of child sexual abuse survivors. This movement was spearheaded by—wait for it—parents whose adult children had accused them of child abuse.

But most members of the general public didn’t know that, and the group leading the charge was represented as a “research organization.” So the idea was planted in the public’s mind that the whole concept of traumatic amnesia is bogus.

Sorry, this whole movement was bogus. But unfortunately once an idea gets a foothold in the public mentality, it’s hard to shake it loose.

(For an exploration of the horrendous impact of this “false memory” movement on sexual abuse survivors and their therapists, see my novel, Family Fallacies, A Kate Huntington Mystery.)

#9: Human memory is a fickle thing!

We tend to see human memory as much more infallible than it is. In reality, our brains normally do not record events as if they were cameras or video recorders.

Indeed, human memory is quite fallible. It is biased by the perceptions of the person at the time it’s recorded, distorted by the passage of time, and susceptible to suggestion at the time of recall.

One misconception about memory that is perpetuated in fiction (and especially on TV) is that eyewitness accounts are trustworthy.

They’re not. The most infamous real-life example of this was a woman who swore a certain man had broken into her house and raped her. Turned out he was the guest on a live talk show she was watching on TV at the time of the break-in. Several hundred people in the studio audience could verify his alibi!

(Unfortunately, law enforcement and the courts all too often rely more heavily on eyewitness accounts than they should.)

Also, people assume that the memory of a traumatic event is less accurate than normal memory because the person is upset. In reality, traumatic memory is more accurate. During a traumatic event, because the mind isn’t processing the event at the time, the data is stored in its raw form. In other words, it is the one instance when the memory is imprinted on the mind like a photograph!

Bonus #10: Patient confidentiality is important.

(Jami’s note: This comes from one of Kassandra’s comments below.)

Therapists take confidentiality very seriously. It drives me nuts when I see fictional ones sharing information about clients without a release or a court order, and without even giving it a second thought.

The Problem of Readers Thinking We Got It Wrong

Let me end by saying that unfortunately it is not enough to portray these psychological phenomena accurately. Because some of these misconceptions are so ingrained in our society, it becomes necessary sometimes to address the misconceptions in your story. Otherwise that part of the general public who believes the misconception will think you’ve got it wrong. But if you go with the misconception, those folks with any background in psychology whatsoever will know you’ve got it wrong.

Fortunately for me, this dilemma is easily addressed because my protagonist is a psychologist. I just have her speak up and set the record straight. *smile*


Kassandra LambWriting and psychology have always vied for number one on Kassandra Lamb’s Greatest Passions list. In her youth, she had to make a decision between writing and paying the bills. Partial to electricity and food, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida where her husband and dog get occasional glimpses of her. She and her husband also spend part of each summer in her native Maryland, where the Kate Huntington mysteries are set.

Find Kass on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for updates on Kate’s World at Kass’s website, and check out her posts on psychological topics and other random things at the misterio press site.


Cover for Love and MurderThanks so much, Jami, for letting me borrow your blog today! And as a thank you to your readers for their attention, I’ve put my romantic suspense thrillogy, Love and Murder, on sale for a couple of days!

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Newly widowed Kate Huntington is sure that romance is a thing of the past for her. How could anyone replace her beloved husband? But when she reconnects with the hunk of a bodyguard who protected her from her late husband’s killer, she isn’t sure of anything anymore. The man is now a private investigator, and he’s just as drop-dead gorgeous as ever. But it’s way too soon after Eddie’s death.

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Thank you, Kassandra! I’m one of those authors who writes broken characters sometimes, so it’s great to get the scoop on these common myths about psychological disorders.

#9 struck me the most, as you’re right that we all greatly overestimate the accuracy of our memory. I do have a near-photographic memory (to the point that letting a story “rest” to get a fresh look at it doesn’t work for me), and I still get things wrong all the time.

Yet what choice do we have? Everything we believe about who we are is based on our memory. So the world, something we’re even less aware of than ourselves, can only be known through our memories and our senses, fallible though they are.

Kind of makes us understand that human psychology isn’t as cut and dried as the myths would lead us to believe. But hopefully, information like this gives us a head start. *smile*

Do you have any questions for Kassandra? Are there other psychological topics you’ve run across in fiction that you’ve wondered if they were valid? Have you seen authors get things wrong about psychology? How about other things, such as from your own areas of expertise? What makes you cringe when you see it misrepresented in fiction?

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[…] I’m over at Jami Gold’s cyber-home, talking about some common mistakes authors make about psychology. Come on over and check it […]

K.B. Owen

Fab post Kass, and thanks to Jami for hosting! That’s quite a pickle for the writer: portray a psychological disorder accurately, and get slammed for it by a misinformed reader, or vice-versa. You handle it beautifully in your mysteries!

Kassandra Lamb

Glad you enjoyed the post, K.B. It is a real dilemma sometimes. I’m lucky in that I can claim some expertise so readers usually believe me.

Claire commented below that she tries to tell people about the schizophrenia vs DID myth and they don’t believe her!

Christina Hawthorne

Thank you, Jami and Kassandra, this was excellent. Writers need to remember, as they always should with all they do, that The Negative Trait Thesaurus is a great reference and/or starting point, but it isn’t an excuse to forgo research or, at the least, checking facts. It works best with in-depth knowledge such that’s provided here.

I have to say that some of this gave me chills, for I had a Schizophrenic in my life long ago (he’s now deceased). One question for Kassandra: For those with ASPD, is it a question of “you have it or you don’t” or are there degrees? I ask because I have a relative who seemingly possesses these traits, though he’s long been estranged from the family because everyone is terrified of him. Thanks. 🙂


At least some antisocial things are deemed as a sliding scale rather than a checkbox. The dark triad comes to mind: narcissism, machiavellianism, psychopathy. You can add sadism in there, too, for the dark tetrad.

I’m not sure how much of that “sliding scale” is intelligence, though. A smart narcissist can fake empathy when appropriate; a clever machiavellian can play long cons to keep on folks’ good sides; etc.

Christina Hawthorne

Thank you!

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Carradee, sorry I’m slow to respond. This day has not gone according to plan.

First let me address narcissism and psychopaths. Narcissism is a personality trait and if it is extreme enough the person may be deemed to have narcissistic personality disorder. It is basically being very self-absorbed, to the point that others’ feelings, needs, etc. don’t often register on the person’s radar.

All psychopaths are narcissistic, but not all narcissists are psychopaths, and the key difference is the narcissist is able to feel empathy when the other person’s feelings, etc. are pointed out to him/her. If s/he is “faking” the empathy, then s/he is a psychopath. And with some folks this becomes a real difficult line to draw!

I would say that machiavellianism and sadism are potential traits that those on the far end of the psychopath continuum may have. *shudder*

As for intelligence, that is independent of psychopathy. Someone might be on the milder end of the ASPD continuum and be quite bright. Someone else might be on the severe end of the ASPD continuum and not be very bright. A colleague of mine who specializes in working with ASPD once said that dumb psychopaths end up in jail; smart ones end up running Fortune 500 companies.


Good reminder. I’m used to someone who displays all 4 aspects of the dark tetrad, so I sometimes forget “Oh, yeah. Not all abusers are quite that…extreme.”

Another place smart ASPD folks end up: leading churches. [/wry tone]

Kassandra Lamb

Excellent question, Christina. Yes, all these disorders exist on a continuum, from mild to severe. Although I’d say that if you are all terrified of this person, he is probably has full-blown ASPD.

Christina Hawthorne

Thank you, Kassandra. The person is long since out of my life, but it’s an issue I’ve long wondered about. After all, as writers we often draw upon our personal experiences even when they’re frightening. You’ve pointed me in the right direction for understanding. Thanks again. 🙂

Kassandra Lamb

Thanks again, Jami, for letting me guest post today. I always love hanging out at your blog.

I remembered another one–should have made it an even ten. *smile*

Therapists take confidentiality very seriously. It drives me nuts when I see fictional ones sharing info about clients without a release or a court order, and without even giving it a second thought..


I actually get more annoyed by psychology issues that miraculously vanish. By contrast, the Hunger Games books (and movies, so far) do a good job of showing how trauma builds, and how manipulation itself can destroy a person without a hair on their heads actually being harmed. The books also show how devastating even delayed treatment of trauma can be.

If I keep talking, I’ll go on tangents about things like the entire years missing from my own childhood memories, and how one of the few things I do remember from that period is when a neighbor kid stuck a plastic bag over my brother & my heads, and I’ve already been doing pretty badly, lately (physical health), so…


Kassandra Lamb

That totally annoys me too, Carradee, when the character starts out super flawed psychologically, and then poof somehow most of their problems have evaporated. And when it really makes me grit my teeth is when the story implies that love has somehow fixed the person. Love may be a strong motivation to get help and get one’s psychological issues fixed, but it doesn’t in and of itself cure psychological disorders.

As for those missing memories, the psyche buries these things for a reason. A good trauma recovery specialist can help you deal with them when you are ready, but in the meantime keep on taking good care of yourself!!

Davonne Burns

I cannot tell you how happy I am about this post. All too often I read characters who’s authors obviously did not do their research. I myself was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia about 6 years ago and the stigma against my illness is so incredibly disheartening. So often in the media schizophrenia is used to ‘explain’ the action of the villains since many people associate it with violent behavior. The only person I have ever been violent towards is myself.

Another issue I find at times upsetting are the ableist comments about authors ‘hearing voices’ and being ‘crazy.’ I understand most times people are joking but for someone who does hallucinate and toward whom crazy is used as an insult it can be rather upsetting. I do not write the voices I hear. They are … well I don’t need to get into that, but they are NOT my characters. I create my characters, my hallucinations are inflicted on me.

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Davonne,

I am so sorry that you are dealing with that double whammy of bipolar and schizophrenia. The latter in particular, as you point out, still has so much stigma attached to it, and especially because it is so often misrepresented as a cause of violence.

That must be very frustrating to have people assume your characters are “the voices.” I like the distinction you make here, that you create the characters while the voices are inflicted on you.

I hope you are getting the help you need to cope with all this, and I really appreciate your sharing with us. It may help others who are reading this post and the comments to put a real face on these disorders and bring home even more how misrepresenting them for the sake of a storyline can do harm.

Davonne Burns

Thank you for that. I have good support from my family and doctor. ^^

I do sincerely hope that this post and comments like these will help others to reevaluate how they might choose to write a character. I am always happy to answer questions about my condition and experience if it will help someone with researching a character.

Vinnie Hansen

As another misterio press author, I am blessed to have Kassandra’s wisdom at my fingertips. I love it when she says I got the psychology right. 🙂


Excellent article, Kass! You know some of my current situation but I’ll share here too. I’m a person who has been on anti depressants since my beloved grandparents died 5 months apart in 2001/2002. Our family is small and I have had few encounters with death and I don’t deal with it very well. I was heart broken with grief. But felt as if I had two angels now watching over me.

Last summer my mom passed and just recently changed meds because the old ones gave out on me. The grief this time has been a while different kind. This grief came with issues not the unconditional love I had with my grandparents. Wow, has it ever been hard to deal with! I miss my mother, loved my mother, but some days, especially at night, my brain remembers long forgotten (and some not so long ago) memories that I must have stashed away to save myself. So when you mentioned people not remembering their childhood, it really made me think. Yet I remember more about being a child with my grandparents. I was 6 when my brother was born yet I don’t remember anything about him being a baby other than when my grandmother woke me that morning to tell me I had a baby brother. Strange?

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Cindy,

Grief is one of the toughest things we ever have to deal with, and the death of a parent can stir up so much stuff! And that can lead to a lot of conflict because we’re remembering both good and bad stuff about the parent while dealing with the feelings of loss. Please keep in mind that acknowledging the bad stuff doesn’t mean you don’t love your mother.

We love our parents for better or worse; that’s human nature. But sometimes we have to remember and deal with the “worse” in order to heal and move on.

As for not remembering certain aspects of your childhood, see my response to Ella’s comment below.

{{Hugs}} from me as well.


“Indeed, people can experience traumatic amnesia for whole months, years or even their entire childhood. When I was a psychotherapist, the statement that was most likely to fill me with dread was: “I really don’t remember much of my childhood.””

That section kind of bothers me, since I *don’t* remember a lot of my childhood. Argh. I’m going to hope that’s just because of the bullying. I know I was nauseous a lot before school, and missed a lot of school. Ended up the same way in college, but there was definitely a trauma there.
I need to go back to happy-land. Sorry.

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Ella, I hope you don’t mind if I address Cindy’s concerns (above) along with yours. There are lots of reasons why our memories for childhood may be incomplete besides traumatic amnesia. A lot of other factors can play in there as well. Some people have better memories in general than others. Also whether or not we have been exposed to retrieval cues plays a part. How often do we have a rather mundane memory from very long ago triggered by something in the here and now? And then we think, “Wow, haven’t thought about that in years!” That doesn’t mean it was a traumatic event. We just didn’t think about it until something triggered the memory. As for bullying, that is definitely traumatic. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. As a therapist I learned a lot from my clients, and now sometimes I learn from my characters. In the book I’m currently writing, a subplot revolves around bullying. One of my characters is giving a presentation to his son’s school’s PTA on bullying, sharing his own childhood experiences as the school struggles with how to deal with the issue. I’m a pantser like Jami, so I didn’t really know what this guy was going to say until he said it. In his speech he talks about how scary the bullying was because he never knew how far the bullies would go, and sometimes he thought they might kill him. After I wrote those words from his…  — Read More »

Claire Gem

Jami, this was an extremely helpful clarification of so much of the jumbled and concepts about mental disorders that circulate today. Forever I have been saying that schizophrenia is NOT multiple personality disorder, but few believe me. Now I can quote your blog 😉

Thanks for this enlightening clarification. I am right now writing about mental disorders because my novels(s) are set in antiquated mental institutions. If you want a real jaunt through the horrors of history, so some research on the history of the treatment of the “insane.”

Thanks for sharing.

Kassandra Lamb

By all means feel free to quote me, Claire. It never ceases to amaze me how widespread that myth is.

I know a little about the history of the treatment of mental disorders and it is very scary stuff. As frustrating as the misinformation and stigmas of today may be, we can be glad we don’t live in the days of trepanning and lobotomies. *shudder*

(I’m off to buy your book to read while on vacation 🙂 )

Paula Millhouse

What a great post, Kassandra and Jami.
Thanks for sharing all your wisdom, Kassandra.
Human Beings can sometimes be the most alien species, right?

Kassandra Lamb

LOL Yes indeed, we can, Paula! Glad you enjoyed the post.


Thank you for this post! I have an (un)healthy interest in psychology and driving characters up the wall (although when it veers to angst, not so much). This was really helpful and it helped kick my muse’s butt to gear.

Query! They say that those with DID often have that because of serious, repetitive trauma when they were kids, mostly before age 9. But some also say that they develop this when some trauma happens, even in adulthood? I just want your opinions, as this area seems to have little clear-cut facts.

I suppose my scenario is that a character went through a war and her side lost — no survivors except her. Apocalypse. Is it possible to develop DID? How.. severe?

Argh, sorry for the lack of explanation — it’s rather difficult to ask about the unknown.


Kassandra Lamb

Oh, I’m so glad this helped kick your muse in gear!!

To answer your question, DID has to develop in early childhood. Most cases start to develop before the age of 5, when the child’s personality is still forming and is completely malleable. In a few cases the earliest trauma that can be identified occurred between ages 5 and 9, thus the use of age 9 or 10 as the cutoff for onset. (Personally I suspect in those cases there was earlier trauma that the person couldn’t access. Our memories before age five are iffy at best under ideal circumstances.)

Putting DID aside for a moment, all of us can dissociate in the face of trauma. We may experience it as a spacy feeling, or even an out of body experience where we float on the ceiling while something bad is happening.

Now back to your scenario, if the war started while the character was a small child, and the child was directly affected (home was bombed, witnessed family members’ deaths) then she might develop DID.

And once the person’s psyche starts to use dissociation to deal with trauma, it becomes the first line of defense against later trauma as well. So someone who is already DID may very well develop a new personality as a teen or adult to deal with additional trauma.

Hope this helps.


Thanks for the reply!

If you don’t mind…

But what if the character has some sort of ‘inner’ self, like a little imaginary friend who says the stuff inside that she doesn’t outside (if that makes sense). She treats this as a separate person. Or is this another personality disorder? Can a person develop DID from this? It seems that all personality disorders can easily branch to others (or maybe it’s just a popular notion?).

Thanks for taking the time to ponder and answer! 😀

Kassandra Lamb

No problem. A milder form of DID would be just two personalities, an adult and a child. Again, this would likely start before age 9 due to trauma, and that person would be a bit more susceptible to developing other personalities later in childhood or adolescence.

DID is not a personality disorder, interestingly enough (it used to be until 1979; now it’s in a different diagnostic category).

Some of the personality disorders are very similar–antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic and borderline have a lot of overlap. A person with DID can also have an alter that has a personality disorder, but otherwise DID is not all that similar to the personality disorders.

Kit Dunsmore

Great post! When someone I love dearly suddenly remembered a traumatic childhood rape, another friend told me “suppressed memories are bogus” and I was irate. I believed the first person and stood by her. I am so grateful to read here that suppressed memories are now treated as real. The rest of your information is wonderful as well. I’ll be sure to do my research before I get psychological in my writing!

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Kitt,

Good for you!! So glad you stood by your loved one. Unfortunately a lot of people, including some psychologists who aren’t familiar with the trauma recovery field, still believe the propaganda about “false” memories.

When people insist on arguing with me I point out that Dissociative Amnesia is an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

This is why I don’t write about, the way many writers friends WISH I would whenever I bring up my mother (who has Schizophrenia) or talk about my own mental challenges, I just don’t have the desire or distance to write about however fictionalized. It doesn’t help that writers often advise each other to write what makes us uncomfortable, and understand, I’m not saying that’s inherently a bad thing, just that I think there’s something to be said for not wanting to be limited to what you lived, especially if it’s the opposite of what you want to do as an author and in life. I don’t have a bonded family, that doesn’t mean I can’t write one, I don’t have many friends offline, doesn’t mean I can’t write about friendships. Yes, research is important for fiction writers, too, but (barring your points made above, Kassandra) sometimes we have to pick and choose what we can include, because no one wants to read an encyclopedic breakdown of the history of bipolar disorder when they’re expecting a story. I’m not in any way excusing perpetuating misinformation and not doing your due diligence, but we can’t spend a decade or more on EVERY BOOK we’ll ever write, I know my experience, but even then, as Kassandra makes bitingly clear, honesty in therapy doesn’t necessarily go hand in proverbial hand with honesty from a legal standpoint. For “feel my way through” writers like me who struggle with when to be factual (something unique…  — Read More »

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Taurean,

You make total sense and thanks so much for this perspective. Of course we don’t have to experience something in order to write about it. That’s why we write fiction, isn’t it?!? *grin*

I write murder mysteries, but I’ve never even seen a dead body except at funerals and I’ve never known anyone personally who was murdered or had a loved one murdered. (And hope I never do!)

And I agree, we can get buried in research if we get too meticulous about every detail. I’ll let some mistakes slide if they’re peripheral to the story, but when the whole premise revolves around a character with certain psychological disorder(s) or issues then I expect the author to do their research.

For “feel my way through” writers (what a great phrase!) like us, it’s often best to postpone research so we don’t interrupt the flow of the story. I usually write notes to myself right in the middle of the first draft, something like “RESEARCH HOW TO GET OUT OF A STRAIGHTJACKET.”

A presenter at a writer’s conference I attended a few years ago said, “It’s good to be as accurate as possible on as many things as possible, so that the reader trusts you. Then when you have to deviate from reality to make the story work, the reader will go with you.” That advice has really stuck with me.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Ooh as a psych major myself, I enjoyed reading this! Yeah I remember our profs talking about people getting schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder mixed up; it does annoy me somewhat when someone says schizophrenic when they actually mean DID, lol. But I have to be forgiving, since these people are not in psych so they don’t know about this. Oh another misconception of the public, is that people with mental disorders are really weird and “crazy”/ incomprehensible. Yes, some are hard to understand, and some have for instance paranoid delusions or excessive fear of certain things, but most people with mental disorders are pretty “normal” when you interact with them and you wouldn’t know that they had a disorder unless they tell you. (They could have a phobia of X, for instance, but you wouldn’t know they had a phobia until you see them with X in their presence.) I know that this “people with mental illnesses are all ‘crazy’ and incomprehensible” belief is wrong, because I have some friends and acquaintances with mental disorders and they all seem pretty “normal” when you talk to them. (Though what is “normal” anyway? lol.) About the more general issue of character flaws, I find it very entertaining that it seems most readers hate perfect characters, whilst I LOVE them! XD In the latest story I read, I’m so in love with the male protagonist because I think he has such an amazing personality. Later I read a critique of the story,…  — Read More »

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Serena, Thanks for bringing up the “we versus they” mentality. “We” like to think that only other people get psychological disorders, and “they” will obviously look and act “crazy.” The reality is that the number of people who will have a diagnosable disorder in their lifetime is well over 50%. So we are they. That source amnesia is a big problem, especially for students. It is the most common cause of unintentional plagiarism in students’ papers. You read something during your research, then later think it’s your own original idea, having forgotten where it came from. And the confusion between dreams, stories people have told us and our own memories is definitely another reason why we shouldn’t be too, too trusting of our memories. As for character flaws, I kind of agree with you. I don’t like super flawed characters. I prefer to see how more ordinary folks handle the extraordinary events that occur in stories. When I started writing, I naively created characters that were the way I wished real people were. I even teased my husband that I had created the perfect husband, but then I had to kill him off (they are murder mysteries after all 😀 ). But I found as my series progressed that the life events these characters experienced (like losing a husband) created enough scar tissue for plenty of challenges and conflicts in future stories. Still as a reader, I’m with you. I tend to love the characters who are “good folks,”…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yeah, I remember some psych classes saying that 1/3 of people will get a mental illness in their lifetime, though this is an underestimation since many people avoid seeing counselors, therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists due to the social stigma. 🙁 So our Abnormal Psych prof said the figure was probably more like 1/2 people. But I agree with your figure more, because I feel like the vast majority of people will become mentally ill sometime in their lives, especially with so much life and work stress for many people in our society! D: Though I’m not saying that life and work stress guarantee mental illness, since they are only possible stressors.

Yikes, yeah I even remember that a student plagiarized an entire novel but didn’t realize it! Quite scary, come to think of it.

Lol I’m glad I’m not the only one who confuses dreams with real life. ^_^” It is quite an intriguing phenomenon despite how terrible it can be…

Yeah good point that “ordinary people” characters encountering big events in stories can already become wounded or even experience great psychological change.

Lol! Aw that you had to kill him off in the end!

Crystal Thieringer

What a fascinating discussion. My nephew died by suicide, so I especially appreciated your point about that, Kassandra. I’ve learned that talking about it doesn’t make put the idea in someone’s head–if they have the idea, talking about it might be the very thing they need.

I just finished a manuscript where I included elements of PTSD after a car accident where a soon-to-be-born child died, and the character has issues sitting in a car afterwards. It was tough to write, honestly, and I’ve found myself since feeling the vestiges of her panic attacks in my own life lately. Very weird and somewhat disconcerting, though I realize there are reasons for that.

One last bit, Kassandra–thank you for such a sensitive post on these important areas. Could I email you a question for an offline discussion? And Jami? Thanks for hosting this. I hadn’t expected to spend an hour here this morning, but it was well worth it. Thank you.

Kassandra Lamb

Oh my! My condolences, Crystal. Thanks for making that point, that talking about suicide can be exactly what the person needs and it isn’t likely to plant a seed that wasn’t already there.

I would say that you really put yourself in your characters’ shoes if you’re now feeling some residual PTSD! I’m certainly willing to try to answer questions “offline.” You can contact me through my website at

Glynis Jolly

I have a degree in Sociology/Social Work. Two of the classes I was required to take were Psychology 101 and 102. Yes, this isn’t a lot by any means, but both courses went over the various abnormal personalities and the range of mental illnesses. There’s one little mistake you made in your article. It probably won’t matter to most writers or readers, but I do want to set the record straight.

In #3, you stated “It[depression] can be caused by life events (past or present), inherited biological factors (faulty brain chemistry) or by some of both. A character with severe, recurrent or chronic depression should either have a lot of nasty crap stuffed in their psychological closet and/or have a family history of depression.”

Depression can be cause by physical imbalance not associated with “a lot of crap stuffed in their psychological closet” or in family history. It can be manifested by illness. For example, people who are survivors of a stroke may have clinic depression. It is not from the trauma of having the stroke. It’s cause by malfunction in the brain. In addition, a stroke is not necessarily a weakness that is inherited. The depression is wholly a physical problem in these cases.

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Glynnis,

A very good point. That is a third possible cause of depression (and anxiety) as a by-product of physical illnesses or brain injury. I have a close friend who is depressed and anxious for the first time in his 70 plus years, as a side effect of Parkinson’s disease.

I also had several clients whose depression turned out to be partially or even primarily caused by sleep apnea.

Thanks for the clarification!


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Follow-up question!

How do we write/treat DID character? Are their alters need be treated as different characters, with their own plot arcs?

Kassandra Lamb

That is a very good question! Hope I can come up with a good answer.

I would say probably not, that it’s better not to treat them as separate characters, for a couple of reasons. One, it can be very confusing for the reader who may not understand it is the same person.

And in real life, the desirable “arc” of a person with DID would be that the various alters have healing experiences and eventually become more in sync with each other. The ideal therapeutic outcome is to get them to integrate into one personality, but what happens more often is that the internal system of alters becomes more and more co-conscious (as in they all are aware of what’s going on even if they aren’t “up front” right at that moment) and they become more cooperative with each other. Also they would probably talk to each other more inside the person’s head, such as making comments about what’s going on or maybe coaching or warning whoever was up front at the moment.

Hope that makes sense.


Thank you so much for hosting this, Jami. I would have commented sooner, but alas, the current project is quite demanding of my time and now I am attempting to catch up on everything I’ve missed. This is a topic I am currently researching myself, as I have a character who may or not have DID. I have a question for Miss Kassandra Lamb (apologies for the formalities, it’s a habit). Another person here asked if when writing someone with DID, should their alters be treated as different characters, to which you responded, that no, perhaps they should not, so as not to confuse the reader as well as due to the method of treatment generally used by therapists to treat DID (which is understandable). My question is, what if this person has not been diagnosed or treated and they are not in a situation to seek help? Would the alters eventually begin to cooperate and become co-conscious on their own, or would they remain separate for the most part until treated? Also, are there any specific resources you could recommend to those of us who are writing a character with DID (or any of the disorders mentioned above? Thank you for your time, -Ebony

Kassandra Lamb

Hi Ebony, Another great question. Unfortunately no, there is rarely spontaneous improvement in DID. However, the person may experience long periods of time (years even) when one alter is up front most of the time, getting on with life, and only occasionally being bothered by some symptoms, the most common of which is “lost time.” Lost time refers to periods of time when the person has no recollection of what happened. People who don’t know they have DID usually refer to these as blackouts or times when they “blank out.” However they are not unconscious; another alter has taken over briefly. When life gets stressful, symptoms will get worse. Also people with DID usually have depression and/or anxiety off and on, and very possibly PTSD-type symptoms as well. These more obvious symptoms often are what bring them into therapy, and misdiagnosis is very, very common. DID sufferers often spend 5-8 years in the mental health system before they are accurately diagnosed (and some never are). And treatment of other symptoms without addressing the dissociation rarely has a whole lot of long term impact. Without treatment, sometimes people start to realize there is something going on, especially if lost time occurs a lot and/or they have lots of experiences of people calling them by different names or things showing up in their homes that they know they didn’t buy (strange clothes or shoes in their closets for example). More often then not they think these are signs that they are “crazy”…  — Read More »


Thank you, Kassandra. This clarifies a few things for me and gives me a better idea of how to write this character without any major misconceptions. Also, thank you for the link and book reference. I will be sure to look into both. Thank you once again, Jami, for passing on the question. Now all that’s left is more research…



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