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I want to write a passage of text that makes the reader feel like the person writing it is deranged or otherwise not in the right state of mind.

It seems relatively easy to write incoherent, nonsensical text, but I still want the reader to be able to follow it. Any tips for how to do that?

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    This is for creative writing, right? Right? But in all seriousness you really should add some more context to this question, like about the type of story you're writing and also about the character who's supposed to be ranting.
    – Laurel
    Dec 3, 2023 at 18:59
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    We have this famous answer on another site on SE. The arguement is valid, however the author is somewhat frustrated at having to make it again (and again).
    – Neil_UK
    Dec 4, 2023 at 13:47
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    How deranged do you want the writer to appear? web.archive.org/web/20040131232404/http://www.timecube.com
    – barbecue
    Dec 4, 2023 at 19:57

9 Answers 9

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Generally speaking, the people who we describe as "deranged" are not really incoherent. Rather, they typically have views of the world which are wildly different from everyone else. They appear incoherent until you understand their underlying worldview—their rants might look illogical, but they are typically internally consistent. Writing "nonsense" is not going to be convincing.

In order to write dialog from someone who is "not in a right state of mind", I might consider some of the following:

  • Martin Gardner famously wrote about spotting "cranks". Quoting from a Scientific American article written after his death (I can't find a primary source in digital form),

    (1) [A crank] considers himself a genius. (2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads....(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to "enemies" for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work....(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein....(5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

    Scientific cranks are a certain kind of crank, and crank-ery is a special kind of "deranged". A crank-y character might consider themselves to be superior to others. They might feel persecuted by the no-nothing establishment (mainstream science, mainstream media, mainstream anything). They may use a lot of made-up jargon. And they may compare themselves to people who have been historically understood as "great people".

  • The character described in the question likely sees themselves in opposition to others, thus it might help to try to get into the mindset of someone with whom you vociferously disagree, and try to write like they do. If you are an American Democrat and consider the far-right of the Republican party to be a bunch of fascists, pick your favorite bit of right-wing media, and emulate it's style. If you are an American Republican and consider the far-left of the Democratic party to be a bunch of commie-pinkos, do the same.

    Look at the media produced by people who are at the fringes of some political or social spectrum, particularly those with whom you might disagree, and try to emulate their style.

  • More broadly, you might seek out people who you, personally, believe are "deranged". The internet is full of fora for various groups of people who's world views are vastly different from the mainstream point of view. Reading the things written on those fora (or watching the YouTube videos they create, or however else you access their work) could be enlightening with respect to creating a "deranged" character. Collect up examples of such media, and emulate their style.

    Again, the point is that people who are "deranged" usually have some internal consistency to their thinking. They might ignore evidence which contradicts their world view (indeed, contradictory evidence often solidifies one's prior assumptions), but their own, internal thinking will follow some kind of logic.

  • Finally, I would suggest empathy for the character. It is very easy to decide that a character is "deranged", and therefore have them say all manner of nonsense. This can easily make a character look like a strawman for an author to burn in effigy. Take the time to get some understanding of what the character actually believes about the world (whether true or not), and allow them to put forward the best arguments they can make. This will help to create a much more believable, three-dimensional character, even if they only ever get one paragraph of dialog.

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    Start with some false assumptions. Then find some means to justify them, and make good use of confirmation bias. Extrapolate from there. Conspiracy theorists or people with persecution complexes are good examples to look at.
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 4, 2023 at 19:24
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Don't write incoherent text.

Deranged people have their own logic, their own weird beliefs, and completely fail to see holes in their logic.

"It's the Illuminati! They control everything! The, the TV, and the headlines! My god you don't know -- they've got chips, you know, they put them in -- It's all about extraterrestrials! E.T., man! That's the end game, the Illuminati and E.T., it's obvious! I mean -- Okay, it's so simple, see, like, Jesus was real, but they put an alien brain in there, and then the miracles, that was TECH you see? That was alien technology, isn't that obvious ..."

Just borrow from conspiracy theories, weave stuff together with a few insane leaps of logic, and you've got your rant.

But don't make it incoherent. You want readers to follow it and still see it as an unhinged rant.

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    I suddenly wonder if you could get ChatGPT to do this?
    – davidbak
    Dec 5, 2023 at 21:55
  • @davidbak Interesting. Sounds tough, I'm not sure ChatGPT is that creative.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 5, 2023 at 22:58
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    @Amadeus Speaking from experience, the issue here is not getting ChatGPT to produce stuff like this (try asking it to propose a conspiracy theory about some relatively generic subject and it usually does a pretty good job), it’s getting it to maintain internal consistency in the generated excerpt if it’s longer than a few dozen sentences. Dec 6, 2023 at 18:14
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  1. Make sure you understand why and to what effect your want to write such a passage and whether that is the best way to achieve the intended effect.

  2. Collect examples of "unhinged rants". I find many examples online in discussions in social media or in blog posts.

  3. Analyse these examples for typical stylistic and formal elements.

  4. Try and emulate the style and form you have found.

  5. Employ redundancy (e.g. repetitions) and an underlying logical argumentative structure to facilitate understanding in your readers.

  6. Keep it short or be funny so as not to bore, irritate, or confuse your readers.

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    ...but don't do too good a job or somebody's bound to take it at face value. Dec 4, 2023 at 15:55
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One thing that makes a rant a rant is that it does not stop when it has already clearly made its point. The speaker keeps wanting to drive the same point home, over and over. As the rant progresses, the speaker is running out of straightforward ways to convey this message, so the content is slowly getting sidetracked with more forced analogies and needlessly roundabout ways of saying things.

The speaker also does not leave any gap for feedback, as they are 100% saturating the conversation with the point that they're trying to make. They don't really listen to responses if anyone talks over them; and if they do acknowledge what another person has said, they do so without changing their own conversation topic (merely grammatically phrasing it as a response to what someone else said), immediately steering back into the topic they were ranting about.

Thirdly, as the rant continues, the speaker gets more impassioned. The specific emotions is contextual. Usually it's anger, or sadness, or obsession (in that descending order), but you can play around with different emotions here. The rant usually only stops either when someone forces it to stop, or when the increasing emotion becomes so large it derails the person's ability to talk any further.

Pretty much this.

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Not a writer, but I once played a conspiracy theorist in an RPG.

The most important tip I can offer is to use reality as much as possible. Reality is weird, amazing, and unbelievable. You can create a wholly unreal system of beliefs out of mostly true information by recontextualizing that information. For a relatively grounded set of unreal beliefs, you could go for something like 80% verifiable facts, 15% innocuous falsehoods or misinterpretations, and 5% egregious nonsense. The more implausible the true information you use, the more likely that the thing that a reader picks to fact-check will turn out to be verifiably real — which lends credence to the innocuous falsehoods. This is why things like MKUltra often feature heavily in real-life conspiracy theories.

This is most useful if you're going for a grounded, borderline-plausible rant, maybe with a weirdly compelling vibe. When done well, this can give the reader/listener the impression that “this can't possibly be true, but I also can't point out which specific part is definitely false.” If, on the other hand, you want the initial impression to be more comical or obvious, then it may be easiest to fall back on established real-world conspiracy tropes — lizard people, aliens, and so forth. But this can feel cheap — the person who wrote the rant may not be in their right mind, but they live in a world where their Thing (whatever it is) is real and compelling, and they want to communicate that effectively and convincingly.


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The devices and figurative language models you'll want to focus on when composing these parts are:

Stream of consciousness:

Use fragmented sentences, run-on sentences, and illogical jumps in thought to represent the character's chaotic inner world.

Include sensory details that are disconnected from reality or exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Use slang, colloquialisms, and informal language to create a sense of immediacy and urgency.

Examples:

The walls are closing in, I can feel them. They're painted a sickly green, the color of moldy cheese. They're dripping with slime, and it's trickling down my neck. I can't breathe, the air is thick with the stench of decay. The floor is sinking beneath me, I'm falling into a bottomless pit. Help! Help! Can anyone hear me?

Non sequiturs:

Introduce unrelated topics or ideas into the text, highlighting the character's inability to focus or think rationally.

Examples:

The toaster is plotting against me, I can see it in its beady little eyes. It wants to burn my toast to a crisp, just like it did to that poor, defenseless bagel yesterday. I won't let it win, though. I will fight back with the spatula of righteousness! But first, I must discuss the philosophical implications of free will versus determinism.

Hyperbole:

Use exaggerated language to emphasize the character's intense emotions and irrational beliefs.

Examples:

My brain is on fire, I can feel it sizzling and popping like a pan of hot oil. The voices in my head are screaming, they're telling me to do terrible things. I can't shut them out, they're too loud! I can't take it anymore, I'm going to explode!

Sensory overload:

Bombard the reader with sensory details, creating a sense of disorientation and confusion.

Examples:

The colors are too bright, they're burning my eyes. The sounds are too loud, they're piercing my eardrums. The smells are too strong, they're making me nauseous. I can't feel my body, I'm floating in space. This isn't real, this can't be real.

Internal monologue:

Give the reader direct access to the character's thoughts and feelings, even if they are disturbing or illogical.

Examples:

"They're watching me," I thought, my eyes darting around the room. "They know what I'm thinking, they know what I've done. I can't escape them, they're everywhere. I have to hide, I have to disappear."

Additionally, you can pair these devices with the following to further enhance the effect:

Rants:

  • Use repetitive phrases, illogical arguments, and accusations to make the character's rant seem unhinged and out of control.

Conspiracy theories:

  • Include elaborate and bizarre theories to demonstrate the character's paranoid and distrustful nature.

Distracted focus:

  • Jump from topic to topic rapidly, highlighting the character's inability to concentrate on anything for very long. High energy:

  • Use short sentences, exclamation points, and all caps to create a sense of urgency and excitement.

By using these devices and figurative language modules, you can create a character whose mental state is unsettling and disturbing, making the reader question their sanity and the reliability of the narrator.

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The essence of an unhinged rant is that it's a non sequitur: The rant is not justified by the circumstances that led to it. This doesn't have to be incoherent, however! An audience will generally be able to follow cause and effect even if they perceive the situation differently and would make different choices.

The cause

This rant could be triggered in your character for any number of reasons; it's whatever makes sense for your story. The reason could even be that the person is bored, as is the case for many online trolls (who may not even believe what they are saying). It just has to be a reason that your audience does not relate to, even if they were in a similar situation.

Often this reason is paranoia. We all may have a little paranoia sometimes, but people who are very much hinged are able to dismiss it in the absence of actual evidence. A person who is not will connect the dots between all types of events, even things so small most people would ignore them, and make it all into a conspiracy:

  • Bad things were done on purpose for a specific reason by one or more people out to get you in particular (usually secretly). Your papers ended up on the floor because your one coworker is trying to sabotage you, not because the fan points at your desk.

    Even when there really was some malice behind an action, an extremely paranoid person is likely to jump to conclusions about who (or what) to blame, perhaps on a connection as tenuous as getting a weird look from that person earlier.

  • The good things people do (like smiling at you) are just to throw you off so you (or the people around you who aren't involved in the conspiracy) don't suspect they're behind the conspiracy.

  • Even otherwise neutral things may become twisted in the mind of such a person. Imagine thinking that the flicker of headlights (in reality caused by faulty wiring, or a car going over a bump) was actually someone trying to send you a message.

While you can have a character mention their paranoid reasoning in the rant itself, it is also highly effective to show this in advance: Show them reacting to the events as they happen.

The effect: An over-the-top or otherwise inappropriate response

Instead of keeping it in their head, an unhinged character may lash out verbally (i.e., ranting) or threaten to do things that society does not deem acceptable, such as stalking, violence, or exacting revenge in some other manner. (When extreme actions can be justified by society—or rather your audience—you have a character that will be perceived as a vigilante-type instead of someone making an unhinged rant.)

This overreaction is needed in some cases for the character to be considered unhinged instead of just pitiable. For example, if a character thought all their coworkers hated them because nobody said hi in the morning, the audience might see them just as an anxious or sad character. However, if they threated to put rotten eggs and hot sauce in their coworkers' food for that reason, it would be unhinged. (Doing so would also be a crime!)

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In the world of the blind the half blind are raving lunatics because they see things that the rest us do not.
~ Marshall McCluhan

  • Decide on the topic of your rant and write it from the belly.
  • Substitute a type of animal for each person and vice versa
  • Substitute emotional states or time periods for places and vice versa.
  • Substitute smells and flavors for colors and vice versa.
  • Substitute (if you are over 21) a different form of sexual intercourse for every activity and vice versa.
  • Pick a benign corporate logo, the Maytag man and remind your readers HE will be coming for revenge. You know because you are in his head. Then use Maytag as a verb.
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I´d say. Remember to give every single one of your mad characters a method. A logic of their own. Just because it doesn´t make sense to YOU doesn´t mean it doesn´t naturally flow from A to B in their minds.

Play with writing a normal letter from a place of emotional desperation but trying to be as eloquent, earnest, honest and pushy as you can while remaining within the bounds of reason and decorum. Then switch the things that are important to the person writing the letter for utter madness. "Retrograde mercury will make my GF leave me and wake ctulhu up from his slumber deep in rlyeh". "If I don´t click the lightbulb of my room 12 times in a row the demiurge will get me!

Then if that still doesn´t sound deranged enough you bring in the chanting and ramp up the earnestness a little bit. "And of course the landlady doesn´t understand that if I don´t click the breakers on and off 12 times every night my GF will leave and ctulhu will awaken from his slumber in R´lyeh!- CLICK CLICK CLICK - "Koomba yáhmy LOrdcumvayah!"- CLICK CLICK CLICK - screw her appliances, she can buy surge protectors but I won´t let the priest of the old gods raise up to lay waste to the world, or lose gina". I mean, sure my example got wacky rather than deranged but you get the idea. Ramp up the earnestness but also ramp up the eloquence of the character.

The effect when you write your deranged character as a calm, collected person who talks about these things with the same energy, care and belief as a scientist who tells you "please, please, please, wear a mask and vaccinate". But they do so when talking about the secret font that can make any college paper an instant A+ by hypnotizing the teachers. Imagine that "I only need a drop of your blood in order to make a clone of you and use your biometrics to get into the science lab, but here´s the plan. Meanwhile you´ll be in memphis for the science fair which you will obviously win and that will give you the perfect alibi. Meanwhile You-2 sneaks into the lab, steal the font. I disintegrate the clone and no one is the wiser. And I know what you´re thinking, what if the clone and my best friend bond over my abscence and now the clone resents me because I get to be the science fair winner while he gets to be the criminal element that gets murdered. Don´t worry I will take away the clone´s tongue before I jolt him to life so he doesn´t get to mess with my head. So, when can I drop by with my bio extraction kit?"

If that doesn´t work it is always good to pour a lot of the character into the passage and make the issue that concerns them a secondary mild preocupation in contrast to their ego. Grandeur and madness are often confused. Usually by the mad people with grand egos who think both go hand in hand. But you and I are not those people. We are humble writers, men of the world who realize how small we are in contrast to the big writing tradition. We realize how small and isignificant and how little we matter when it comes to literature at once. So you must forgive me if I take offense to the fact that you still, at this point, having read everything I said, still haven´t decided to freaking apply my technique and advice. Am I not good enough? am I not a good writer? I know we´re all small, but must you treat me like an ant and ignore everything that I´ve given you in the pursuit of that dream, of being a medium writer? You know what? I´m done, you don´t understand and you never will, do what you think is best with what I´ve provided you and may the muses of writing never abandon you, because the gods of reason obviously have.

Something like that. Let the character´s insecurities tint how they write and make everything about themselves while a BIG problem is set aside as nonfactor. That is a powerful way to show how deranged a character is. By exemplifying how distant their motivations and priorities are with respect to the POV or audience.

Hope this helps a bit. Good luck!

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