I have a series idea that I am toying with that has one character who becomes a bit less reliable mentally than her usual for a section of the story (this downward spiral is brought upon her largely because of events, once those are eventually dealt with things improve). There will be times where readers experience events from her perspective early, before the big turning points occur. As she falls into becoming an unreliable narrator, I want to show that change over time through things like thought patterns and word choice. But even without any specifics, I'm wondering -

What are some tools you have used or seen (these could be writer's craft related, text format/appearance, anything) that effectively convey a character with an unstable mind?

  • Please do not redact your posts.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 14, 2021 at 8:11

2 Answers 2


An effective method of characterization is to draw attention to the 'things' the character notices as they move the setting.

The objects that you notice when you enter a room can reflect a lot about your inner state.

For instance, if you come home when you are really tired and exhausted, the comfortableness of a sofa with lots of pillows might be the thing that draws your attention. But, if you are anything like me and you come home angry and filled with rage, you might notice how those pillows fit nicely over some jark-off-mother-duster's face.

And 'things' isn’t confined to physical objects, they can be smells, other people, things from memory likes events from the personal past or historical past. They can even be imagined.

For a character that is going insane they can either notice different things in the settings, or react differently to the same things in the setting. Or they might be making up things or associations with the 'things' as they encounter them.

A lot depends on their insanity -- paranoia v delusions v narcissism v sociopathy.

I think to be engaging and sympathetic, it must start off low and small, kind of quirky and build up, and at times cost the character something.

That said, it depends on the kind of problem the character faces and the story itself, because there are many stories were central characters start off mad and the reader has to kind of play catch up to understand what is going on.

Preparation for a Descent into Madness by Doris Lessing and The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'toole all deal with characters gripped by insanity and portray them very differently.


I think that would be interesting! About the insane character... Stick with her for the first few chapters then, even if she isn't insane yet, change perspective early in the story! You can get the reader used to changing perspective if you start early in the story. Instead of titling the chapters in a way that hints what comes next, you can use the name of whomever the perspective. That way, they know whose perspective it is.

As for reading from the insane character's perspective, show her slowly starting to go insane. Make the reader notice her change in thought in mood before she does. Say she is a bubbly, happy-go-lucky character, then her thoughts and mood change, and she starts to have trouble without noticing it. Since you have been changing perspectives throughout the story you can switch to a friend or lover of whom you have visited before. That person notices something is wrong and keeps an eye on Ms. Insane. When the character cant hold it together, then real problems start to happen from her perspective, like hearing things and hallucinations. You can build from there!!!

Have fun with it!


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