Mental Health Monday–Of Alters and Core Personalities


Lydia Kang CC’ed me on an email from a writer who is devloping a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Super cool! As a result, I’ve decided to repost an oldie, but goodie post on Dissociative Disorders (in green). I have further comments below, specific to HOW TO WRITE A CHARACTER WITH DISSOCIATIVE SYMPTOMS.

The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV) categories various forms of dissociation (a disruption in memory, awareness, identity, and/or perception).

  • Depersonalization disorder: period of feeling detached from one’s self; this is often seen in anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder…or if you stare at yourself in the mirror for too long. Go ahead, try it. Go on.
  • Dissociative Amnesia: a person experiences significant impairment in recall of personal information, often resulting from a serious trauma; duration varies; often spontaneously remits
  • Dissociative fugue: a person “forgets” who they are and may travel to a different city & pick up an entirely different life; this may last hours to days or longer, depending on how severe. It can spontaneously remit and is usually the result of a significant traumatic event.
  • Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder): a very rare disorder where a person’s psyche is fractured into several (2-100) different personalities. These personalities are known as “alters,” and each has his or her own way of behaving. Depending on the severity of the situation, the person may or may not be aware of their alters. If the individual is not aware, the times when alters “take over” are experienced as black outs or “lost time.”

It is purported that DID develops as a means of self-protection. Often, those with DID have experienced significant abuse as a child and the personality fragments into several different “people.” This allows the “main personality” to compartmentalize trauma and function in the face of it.

People with dissociative disorders do not choose to become another personality. The idea is that it is out of their control. With therapy, a person becomes more aware of their alters and learns to communicate with them until they are reintegrated.

Dissociative disorders are challenging to treat because people are often reluctant to come into treatment and co-morbid conditions such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and substance use disorders can occur.

That’s all well and good, but how does one go about WRITING a character with DID???

The key to distinguishing each alter personality is to make sure each alter HAS THEIR OWN VOICE. It’s imperative that there’s some clue binding each alter together, especially with the core (the personality seen most) personality. For example, alters are generally aware of the core and can comment about them while they are being dominant. Furthermore, an alter may try to hurt the core (via cutting, burning) or may engage in activities the core wouldn’t ordinarily do, like going to a club, bar, having a one night stand, etc. Whoever the core encounters would be surprised by their “odd” behavior. It would be excellent fodder for a tension-filled dialogue and scene.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this post is for WRITING PURPOSES ONLY and is NOT to be construed as medical advice or treatment.

Check out Lydia’s post on Medical Mondays and Sarah Fine’s blog, The Strangest Situation.

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12 comments on “Mental Health Monday–Of Alters and Core Personalities

  1. Great definitions. But really, so much heartache there.

  2. Sarah Fine says:

    Great, informative post, Lauda! I’d love it if you’d do a post sometime on the overdiagnosis of certain disorders (I think this one has been empirically demonstrated as overdiagnosed, hasn’t it?). I think other writers, especially those who are writing and reading about these disorders, would find that helpful and interesting–talk about a situation fraught with tension and conflict!

  3. Think it would be interesting to write about a character like that, although a challenge to make each personality different.
    And Lydia rocks!

  4. Leigh Moore says:

    OK, yes. This might be the most interesting type of character to write. The whole idea of many voices bound together by one “clue.” Just fascinating–but at the same time, really, really sad. :o( Thanks, Laura!

  5. Karen Lange says:

    Good tips and info, thanks. I admire anyone who can successfully create a character with these disorders.

  6. roguemutt says:

    I have so many different accounts and names on the internet that sometimes it feels like I have multiple personalities. Except all of my personalities are jerks, so there.

  7. Lydia K says:

    Awesome post that every one needs to bookmark, in case they have such a character. Thanks Laura!

  8. Linda Gray says:

    Fascinating, Laura. Is the core also aware of the alters and able to comment on them? Excellent info., thanks!

  9. The mind has so many facets that I think we are only beginning to understand how it works. I think it’s cool that the brain is able to diagnose itself.

  10. Krispy says:

    Dissociative disorders are always fascinating to read about. Thanks for this post!

  11. Vicki Tremper says:

    When it’s well done, this disorder can make for great fiction.

  12. Very interesting. I liked how you applied it to creating a character. 🙂

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