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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mark Rubinstein ~ Adding Psychological Elements to Your Characters ~ Q & A

Okay. I have to admit I love psychological twists and turns. I find what the mind conceives to be more frightening than things that go bump in the night or walk about on eight legs. And I have to admit I tend to watch television and movies that are psychological thrillers. So. Let's get this right out on the table. What pet peeves do you have with the way psychology or mental illness is portrayed in the media? 

There are many misrepresentations in the media about psychiatry, psychology and mental illness. First, psychiatrists and psychologists are these pipe-smoking, tweedy-looking nerds who stereotypically sit back and say "uh-huh" when asked anything or who answer questions by asking more questions. Or, they're portrayed as frizzy-haired intellectuals you would never really want to talk to. As for mental illness, patients are portrayed as raving lunatics a la James Holmes (of Aurora Colorado infamy--a real life psychotic person) or the mental institution is portrayed in a cartoonish way so that it's represented as a "loony bin." Occasionally, you see a good portrayal of a psychiatrist such as occurred in the movie "Ordinary People" by Judd Hirsch. But that was years ago. Many disturbed people are depicted in the media in an exaggerative way: Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" or Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver" or virtually the entire cast of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I could go on and on, but I've said enough.

Our readers are authors and we want to write authentic characters. Psychologically speaking, what are a few key things to do (or avoid) when trying to flesh out a character and make him or her realistic? 

To make characters realistic you have to bare your own soul. You must reach deep down inside yourself and drag to the surface your own fears, feelings, conflicts, fantasies and bugaboos. If you can put them on the page, you're half way there. After all, you want your readers to care about your characters and the best way to do that is to expose their feelings--which are really your own feelings, thoughts and fantasies. Of course, you don't want all your characters to sound or be alike; so you must compartmentalize yourself and chunk off different "parts" of yourself and set them on the page. You want your characters to have bite--so above all, you have to keep it real; make it authentic, dig very deeply and give of yourself.

What drive(s) do you think is(are) the most powerful when it(they) get(s) twisted and someone begins a slide into obsession? 

The most powerful driving force in human nature is love...combined with sexuality. There's no doubt about it. So when someone slips into obsession as occurs inLove Gone Mad, you generally see a distorted form of love and/or sexual striving combined in a malignant (a strong word) way. It's universal to love and to have sexual attraction (not necessarily toward the same person) but when they do get ignited in a sick way, watch out. Of course, there are other drives as well: aggression, jealously, the wish to be Number One or The Only One (either in love or business) and these too, can be kindled into an explosive mixture. Either way, characters become very interesting (in novels or movies) when these drives are harnessed in a pathologic way resulting in conflict. Let's face it, without conflict, there's no drama. And drama is what makes us read or watch a movie, aside from beautiful prose or photography or a musical soundtrack. In the end, feelings are what count.

How is it that some people can weather crisis and tragedy and others seem to snap under less trauma? I would throw out the word resilience, but what makes one resilient? 

People vary in their abilities to weather crises. Yes, resilience is a very important element. What makes one resilient? Many things contribute. There are genetics: some people are born with an internal reservoir or resilience and a kind of inner calm. Another important factor in the equation is family support. It's much easier to deal with a crisis if you have emotional support from people who love you. Also, don't discount age and experience: if you've been around for a while and have lived through many rough seas, it's easier than when you were 18 or 25 or even when you were a mature 35 or 40 year old. People evolve over time; and this includes their abilities to adapt to situations and deal with stressful times.

Is there a certain psychological malady that is frightening to you? What and why? 

No psychological malady is frightening to me because as a psychiatrist I've dealt with virtually every disorder under the sun. Now, if you ask me which one would be most frightening to have -- to suffer -- I would  say, hands down, Schizophrenia. It's the world of the surreal; of frightening and threatening voices; of delusional beliefs (usually persecutory) and it may seem  the entire world is your enemy. Of course, it's no picnic to suffer from Panic Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or severe Depression. In fact, to the afflicted, having any severe mental illness, may seem like having cancer of the mind.

Do you think that most psychologically twisted people are in denial, ignorant or want to break free from whatever has them in its grip?

When we talk about "psychologically twisted" people, we have to keep in mind that those with severe mental disorders, frequently have no idea they're affected. They often lack insight into their sicknesses and have no idea they're disturbed. The paranoid person who believes the  FBI, CIA, KGB and other agencies are after him, truly believes this, and has no idea his notion--his alternate reality--is sick or twisted. In contrast, a person suffering from lets say, Panic Disorder, and who has frequent panic attacks so that he or she won't leave the house for fear of having an attack in a public place, would give almost anything to be rid of the disorder. That person knows he or she has a disorder and is fully aware of how distorted and constricted life has become. In other words, that person possesses insight. So it all depends on the nature of the disorder.

It's been widely taught/speculated that most serial killers gave tells and started small and grew into insatiable monsters. That there is always a parental abuse of some sort or twisted lack of love. How true is that? Is the mind really able to be measured and mapped so easily?   

There are many beliefs about serial killers. Some sound almost mythical while others may be true. Yes, there's often a history of a chaotic early family life, but this isn't always the case. There's no "one-size-fits-all" background or "type" that comprises this kind of psychopathology. It's been observed however, that virtually all serial killers (with some exceptions) have been young men; and many of them have at best, problematic relationships with women. These are men who (with many variations) experience sexual gratification in exercising domination and unfettered aggression over women and it's fairly easy to postulate that they've had problems with early mothering figures in their lives. I do think that's somewhat simplistic, but there seems to be a pattern to support such a view. Of course, we can never cast aside genetics and various inborn factors that cannot be accounted for by one's background or upbringing. All in all the serial killers of the world (from David Berkowitz to Jeffrey Dahmer) constitute a diverse group of people with profound psychopathology in which sexuality and aggression are usually combined and some (Berkowitz) appear to be Schizophrenic. Others can't be labeled and seem to have a distorted sense of themselves, of women, and of the world. An interesting variation on this is the well-known portrayal of a woman killer in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" where "mother" does the killing because the son is sexually attracted to a woman. Talk about an identity crisis! Wow.

MARK RUBINSTEIN grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near Sheepshead Bay. After earning a degree in Business Administration at NYU, he served in the U.S. Army as a field medic tending to paratroopers of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. After his discharge, he went to medical school, became a physician, and then a psychiatrist. As a forensic psychiatrist, he was an expert witness in many trials. As an attending psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell, he taught psychiatric residents, psychologists, and social workers while practicing psychiatry. His first thriller, MAD DOG HOUSE was released in the fall of 2012. Before turning to fiction, he coauthored five books on psychological and medical topics.  He also is a contributing blogger to Huffington Post and Psychology Today. He lives in Connecticut with as many dogs as his wife will allow in the house. He is currently working on his next novel. To learn more, please visit


  1. Fascinating interview, Kelly, and I can't wait to read Mark Rubinstein's book, I love psychological thrillers especially if they happen with characters who think "outside the box". The unexpected yet totally logical outcomes are so satisfying!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent interview, thank you.

  3. I appreciate the insight. I'm having trouble getting into the head of one of my characters, and the information in this interview made a few things click.

  4. So glad this helped, Sue. Thank you, Tammy. And Claude, I also love psychological thrillers, his book caught my eye, and the opportunity to pick his brain was too tempting to pass on.

  5. Wow, interesting article. I've always been fascinated by the human mind - what makes us tick - what makes us blow up and act crazy. While reading your article, I thought about the movie, A Beautiful Mind. The main character realize he suffered from Schizophrenia until several years later. Strange to hear voices and see people who aren't there.

  6. Really good interview, Kelly. Wonder what Mr. Rubenstein thinks of the TV series Perception, an attempt to "humanize" a paranoid schizophrenic, make him functional at a high level yet always fighting his condition.

    It's a rare find when an author can make his villain or his mentally-ill person refrain from a stereotype. Steven James does a good job with his Patrick Bowers Series.

  7. Love this interview. It's rare indeed that media gets it right at all with the issue of mental illness. Because I work as a counselor during the day and both my husband and I have worked in mental health for more than 30 years I apprecite it when truth is spoken about what mental illness is really like. I've attempted to break the stigma of mental illness in my first two novels from a historical perspective. I took great risks when I wrote my second novel Chameleon. I encourage other authors to do the same. It's fun too!

    I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook and A Beautiful Mind. I think the tv show Perception tries hard to look at mental illness in a different way than is typical and shows the struggle regarding medication and hospitalization and the pain behind it to some extent.

    I think untreated paranoid schizophrenia the scariest of all maladies of the brain, but others are heart breaking as well and create so much trauma for those who suffer and for their families.

  8. I know there is a book tour going on, hopefully, Mr. Rubenstein will be able to swing by and add some comments. I think we all, with our snowflake unique perspectives, think what we experience is normal on some level. I loved that A Beautiful Mind painted that picture of normalcy. It is what he experienced, even though no one else shared that "reality." How unsettling it must have been to discover that some of his reality only happened in his mind. Have any of you seen Temple Grandin, another fascinating insider look into a mind. I also love Oliver Sachs' case study books that read so much like novels and show the resilience of the mind to overcome many obstacles. Fascinating creation, the brain/the mind/the human being. I've not read any of your books, Jillian, I'll have to look into them.

  9. Mark,

    I liked most of what you had to say, but I have to take exception to "raving lunatics a la James Holmes." My background, for the record, is as a former FBI Profiler, so I tend to have a different slant on things of this nature. Plus, I live in Colo., so I have the advantage of getting more news coverage than most people do.

    You noted Holmes is "a real life psychotic person." You're the physician/psychiatrist, and I highly respect that, but I think we could go to battle stations on that comment.

    First of all, it has yet to be decided if he is or not, and my suspicions would be he is NOT psychotic (if that word is still correct per the new DSM V), and will not be deemed legally insane when and if this comes up for trial. Why? My experience has shown me a 'lunatic,' or 'psychotic,' or 'schizophrenic' person cannot come up with a plan as elaborate as the one Holmes did. Think of all the booby traps set up in the house, the ordering of every bit of equipment needed, ammo, weapons, and heaven knows what else for him to implement his plan. Were his acts 'normal,' of course not. But is he 'crazy' as most people would say, I don't believe he is. And yes, I do know the word 'crazy' is colloquial and essentially means nothing.

    Pete Klismet, BS, MS, MA, (FBI- Retired)
    Author of: "FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil"


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