Paranoid Personality Disorder: Psychological Disorders for Writers

Personality disorders are fascinating. They have their very own section in the Diagnostic Services Manual, Fifth Edition (the psychologist’s and psychiatrist’s bible when it comes to diagnosis—although most professionals have lots to say about the validity of the DSM-V, but we’re not getting into that), and are defined by their inflexible patterns of inner experience and outward behaviour. These rigid personality traits lead to not only psychological pain for the person, but also distress and pain to others. What’s more, they are the most difficult disorders to treat, compounded by the issue that individuals with these disorders are not likely to seek help (or recognise their own maladaptive thoughts and behaviours).

One type of personality disorder, categorised under the ‘odd’ personality disorder cluster, is paranoid personality disorder. People with paranoid personality disorder deeply distrust other people and are suspicious of their motives. They believe that everyone intends them harm and therefore shun close relationships. If you have a character who’s like this, it might be worth considering exploring the following characteristics to see if they have paranoid personality disorder (and even if they don’t, it could give you some valuable insights to any character with paranoid tendencies).

A Pervasive Distrust and Suspiciousness of Others

A character with paranoid personality disorder will be highly suspicious of others and will often interpret their motives as malicious. Individuals with this disorder work under the assumption that other people will exploit, harm, or deceive them; even if no evidence exists to support this expectation. They are preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of their friends and associates, whose actions are minutely scrutinized for evidence of hostile intentions. Interactions are likely to be a no-win situation for them, because any perceived deviation from trustworthiness or loyalty serves to support your character’s underlying assumptions.

A character with paranoid tendencies will read hidden meanings that are demeaning and threatening into benign remarks or events. Often, the more ambiguous the remark or event, the more their bias will present. For example, a character with this disorder may misinterpret an honest mistake by a store clerk as a deliberate attempt to short change or they may view a casual humorous remark by a co-worker as an intentional character attack. Compliments are often misinterpreted, for example; a compliment on a new purchase is misinterpreted as a criticism for selfishness; a compliment on an accomplishment is misinterpreted as an attempt to manipulate more of the same; or an offer of help is misinterpreted as they are not doing well enough on their own.

In romantic relationships, individuals with this disorder may be pathologically jealous, often suspecting that their partner is unfaithful without any adequate justification. They may gather trivial and circumstantial evidence to support their jealous beliefs, such as friendly texts to co-workers, smiles to strangers on the street, or a disinterest in physical affection. They frequently strive to maintain complete control of intimate relationships to avoid being betrayed and may constantly question and challenge the whereabouts, actions, intentions, and fidelity of their partner.

The frequent conclusion (and to be honest, the logical conclusion if this is your perception) is the belief that they have been deeply and irreversibly injured by others, even when there is no objective evidence for this. Understanding, and conveying, this central tenant of paranoid perceptions will provide you a solid framework for a characters’ choices and actions throughout your story.

A Tendency to Bear Grudges

Individuals with this disorder persistently bear grudges and are unwilling to forgive the insults, injuries, or slights that they believe they have received. Minor slights arouse major hostility, and the hostile feelings persist for a long time. These characters are likely to quickly counterattack and react with anger.

Problematic Social Relationships

Individuals with paranoid personality disorder are generally difficult to get along with and often have problems with close relationships. Their excessive suspiciousness and hostility may be expressed in argumentativeness, in recurrent complaining, or by quiet, hostile aloofness (think passive-aggressive and you’re there).

Because your character is hypervigilant to potential threats, they may act in a guarded, secretive, or devious manner and appear to be cold and unfeeling. In more extreme cases, they may attack others suddenly, without apparent reason. Although they have the capacity to appear to be objective and rational, they more often display a fluctuating range of presentations, with hostile, stubborn, and sarcastic expressions predominating. This combative and suspicious nature may elicit a hostile response in others-which will only serves to confirm your characters’ original expectations. This swiftness to counterattack can translate into a tendency to be litigious and becoming involved in legal disputes.

Individuals with paranoid personality disorder are reluctant to confide in or become close to others because they fear that the information they share will be used against them. Your character is likely to have an excessive need to be self-sufficient and a strong sense of autonomy, along with the high degree of control over those around them that has already been mentioned. They are often rigid, critical of others, and unable to collaborate, although they have great difficulty accepting criticism themselves. They may blame others for their own shortcomings.

An Inclination to Extremism

A character with this disorder will seek to confirm their preconceived negative perceptions regarding people or situations they encounter, attributing malevolent motivations to others (that are, essentially, projections of their own fears). They may exhibit grandiose fantasies, are often drawn to issues of power and rank, and tend to develop negative stereotypes of others–­particularly those from population groups distinct from their own. Attracted by simplistic formulations of the world, they may be perceived as fanatics and form tightly knit cults or groups with others who share, or are recruited to, their paranoid belief systems.

What about schizophrenia?

I’m glad you asked! Yes, some types of schizophrenia are defined by paranoid thoughts. The key that differentiates paranoid schizophrenia and paranoid personality disorder is the loss of contact with reality that occurs with schizophrenia, e.g. delusions and hallucinations. Although the beliefs underpinning paranoid personality disorder are untrue, they still have their foundation in reality and if the evidence were accurate, would be plausible.

The key to a personality disorder, and any character that you weave into a story with this type of presentation, is the pervasiveness of their perceptions. The ability to perceive the world through a different lens is not something these individuals are willing to consider, and the more you capture that in your story, the more authentic your character will be. If your character consistently believes others are out to get him (or her), particularly when it becomes obvious that their perception is skewed, then your readers are just as likely to be fascinated by this as we are. Weave this understanding of the world through your villain or character’s mother or cult leader, and you’ll create a character readers will follow to the end of the book.

What do you think? Do you have a character with with elements of paranoid personality disorder? Do you recognise any of these tendencies in other characterS? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

Tamar-Sloan

Hey, did you see my Resident Writing Coach post over at Writers Helping Writers? 

Check out how you can Deepen Character Complexity with the Help of Psychology!

 

15 comments

  1. “…Although most professionals have lots to say about the validity of the DSM-V, but we’re not getting into that.”
    Not just professionals! Though I’m glad to hear they’re debating the matter, just as so many people have rightly debated the actual Bible for thousands of years. But I won’t get (further!) into that.

    Anyway, thanks for another informative article, which strongly suggests the world is NOT primarily a huge plot against John T. Shea! Who’d have guessed?

    Like

    1. As an author and psychologist, my website PsychWriter, was created to provide psychological information for writers e.g. character development, character arcs, the science of story etc. Therefore I explore psychological disorders in a way that writers can use to develop their stories 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wish writers would introduce a less narrow minded view of supposed mental illness, from the view of overcoming the adversity of it and not waste all the resources the world has had that have had the positive goal in mind, not just psychologists

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve got the skeleton of a story waiting in the wings for me to finish that is about a woman the paranoid tendencies and delusional thoughts. Your post is now bookmarked so I can refer to it when I dive into my research more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly have! I want to do a series on the less common psychological disorders in the near future, it’s just getting the time to research it thoroughly enough. But it will definitely happen 🙂

      Like

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