Jared DeFife Ph.D.

The Shrink Tank

Stuff Psychologists Like - #1. Diagnosing Fictional Characters

Stuff Psychologists Like - Diagnosing Fictional Characters

Posted Jun 30, 2010

When people find out that someone is a psychologist, the first thing they usually say is: "That's cool." This is followed by: "Uh oh, you're analyzing me right now," (and usually we are), or "You know, I took a college course/got an undergraduate degree in psychology" (worth major academic street cred), or "Hey, I bet you can read my mind," (ESP being one of the required courses in psychology graduate school).  Next, they want to hear how one would diagnose their friend/family member/self/dog.

But if you've ever heard a clinical psychologist talk about work, they inevitably tell a story that becomes one of those long and uninteresting tales ending with the phrase, "well, I guess you had to be there". Also, most people don't like to be talked about by a therapist or written about in an article. And people certainly don't want to be written about on the internet.

This leaves the clinical psychologist in an unfortunate position. People want to hear stories from psychologists about other peoples' problems, but psychologists aren't allowed to talk about them. It's important for psychologists to talk about mental illnesses because people want to figure out if they have some, or all, of those mental illnesses. Also, most psychologists want to be recognized, praised and appreciated for their work (this almost always stems from problems in childhood).

Twilight - Edward and Bella

Psychologists like complicated romantic relationships

Fictional characters, on the other hand, are ideal targets for psychologists to diagnose with mental illnesses or personality defects. Diagnosing fictional characters is fun (because people love good fictional characters), allows the public to learn about mental illnesses which they may or may not have, and offers opportunities for psychologists to feel smart and get public recognition. Everybody wins. Except for the fictional characters who might get a bad reputation, but they don't have their feelings hurt by such discussions.

Sigmund Freud was the pioneer of diagnosing fictional characters. In a mythical Greek drama, the outcast character Oedipus returns home and unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. On discovering this knowledge, Oedipus's wife/mother kills herself, Oedipus stabs his eyes out with her brooch and he is exiled from his daughter/sisters, leaving the kingdom to his sons/brothers. And you thought your family was messed up. That's why psychologists talk about the Oedipal Complex when describing complex romantic relationship problems and the development of sexual guilt feelings.

Today, a psychologist might discuss whether Charlie Brown is optimistic (always believing that if he tries just one more time, Lucy will let him kick that football), masochistic (by being the neighborhood goat, he's found a way to get a lot of attention), or cognitively impaired (thumping onto the hard ground after a kick may cause serious traumatic brain injury).

Or a psychologist could tell you that Ebenezer Scrooge is a good example of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, with his miserliness, rigidity, and excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships (not accounted for by obvious economic necessity).

Or a psychologist might write about Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived...with PTSD.

There is one main drawback to diagnosing fictional characters, however. The person/audience a psychologist is talking with may not know anything about the characters being analyzed. For example, it won't do much good to debate whether Darth Vader is Borderline or Antisocial with someone who has never seen any Star Wars movies (a fact that is clearly diagnostic of someone with severe psychological problems).

But the next time you see a psychologist, it might be fun and informative to ask them whether they think Twilight's Bella Swan is devoted to a healthy and passionate love relationship with Edward Cullen, or enmeshed in a pathologically abusive relationship with a predatory vampire.

Note: Yes, this post is a shameless homage to a blog this psychologist likes: Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com from Christian Lander.

Also, you might want to check out a book being published in mid-September called The Psychology of Dexter from BenBella Books. The book features a number of PT bloggers discussing the psychology of Showtime's hit serial killer drama Dexter. Yes, this paragraph is a shameless plug, because yes, I wrote a chapter diagnosing the main character, Dexter.


Jared DeFife, Ph.D.