Apologies for the week’s break in the middle of this series, as I was distracted by actually writing and changing my day job.

Neurotic defences are the province of characters failing to deal effectively with life stresses. They are still fairly common in adults, but more likely to be unhealthy or seen in extreme situations.

There are also rather a lot of them, so I’m going to concentrate on a few in this post before completing the tour in the next. The ones listed here are strong salt, so their use in your plot will probably have resounding consequences for the rest of the work. As before, I will illustrate with some of my favourite audio-visual treats:

1) Repression
I telepathically received details of genocide, so I buried them down so deep I couldn’t find them

When a situation is completely beyond a person’s ability to process, that memory can be repressed. This is not voluntary forgetting and people are often not aware the memory even exists – but it can re-emerge under later stress or with a specific reminder. Particularly seen for events in childhood or terrible traumas, this is a game-changing defence and will probably form a pivotal part of your plot if used.

2) Reaction formation
I’m terrified about what’s going to happen, so I’m going to act like I’m relaxed and amused.

Deeply attracted to your co-worker? Act like you can’t stand him. Have almighty cosmic powers? Play up the farmboy charm. Uncomfortable with your sexual orientation? Crusade for it to be banned or take vows of chastity.

When uncomfortable feelings arise, you act like the complete opposite is true but in an exaggerated way. Like all defence mechanisms, this is subconscious and it is a very short-term fix, because you can’t sustain this level of pretence for long. Might make for an explosive mid-season reveal!

3) Dissociation
I was traumatised in my childhood so I turn into a killing machine

This is an extreme defence mechanism, where the person becomes detached from reality. To a lesser extent, someone may feel numb or like they’re in a dream – this is often seen in post traumatic stress disorder, for example. The most severe example – more common in fiction than reality – is the dissociative fugue, where a person completely forgets their identity and travels away from home. The person appears functional – buying train tickets, eating, etc. – but recalls none of the events when it’s over.

[More accurately, River has been conditioned to this response through intrusive laboratory experiments rather than as a “natural” defence mechanism, but the effect is still largely dissociative in nature]

4) Identifying with the aggressor
“Everything you did made me stronger, it made me the weapon I am today. It’s the truth. I’ve known it all along. You are my creator.

This is the argument one often hears about bullies: they are often bullied themselves. This is when a victim takes on characteristics of the attacker, usually using them against those who are less able to defend themselves. This is a more extreme form of displacement, where one person provokes but it’s taken out on someone/something else (e.g. punching the wall). This may work for the origin of a well-developed antagonist or anti-hero, but beware that this trope is tired in some genres – particularly women in comic books.

NEXT TIME: Everyday Neuroses and How Your Characters Justify Their Bizarre Antics

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