When I first set out to write the Into the Wonder books, I realized that much of the action would involve nonhuman characters and even be told from nonhuman points of view. How to do that convincingly and still end up with characters a teenager could relate to was a mystery. I pressed on, however, by (1) sticking as close to the mythological source material as possible while (2) toning things down enough that at least the “good guy” faery characters didn’t look like complete monsters despite their alien attitudes and morality.
Two books later and well into writing a third, I’ve come to a conclusion: faeries are crazy. True, many of them are high-functioning crazy, and some don’t look crazy at all until you really get to know them. But the more I tried to get a handle on the motivations and personalities of the Fair Folk, I realized that much of their behavior as depicted in folklore lines up quite well with a number of real-life personality disorders.
Now, when I’m writing faery characters and wondering how they might respond to a given situation or what they’re likely to do next, I look for guidance from the world of psychology. These insights don’t explain everything, of course, but they do provide a fresh perspective that can spur on my creativity.
Here, then, are some of the things I’ve found that seem to explain (in part) what makes faeries tick.
Humans: Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by patterns of grandiosity, an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. Simply put, narcissists believe they are “special.” They have an inflated sense of self-importance and a strong sense of entitlement. They are quick to pass blame to others when things go wrong rather than admit their faults. Furthermore, narcissists can be envious of others and regularly display arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.
Faeries: Faeries are notoriously vain. In fact, a Manx term for faeries is cloan ny moyrn, “children of pride.” Even as harmless a faery as J. M. Barrie’s Tinker Bell exhibits great vanity. Whether it be in the area of looks, intelligence, magic, musical skill, or some other achievement, faeries crave the attention that comes with being the best—and heaven help anyone who would challenge their claim!
Humans: People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder have excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). They operate on the assumption that things need to be done “just right.” They crave an orderly, predictable environment. The specific nature of such a person’s thoughts and behavior may vary, but some common manifestations seem quite in tune with the faeries of mythology. These include a craving for order and symmetry, overzealous cleaning, and fixation on patterns and numbers.
Faeries: Depending on the legend, faeries might exhibit obsessive personality traits all the way up to full-blown OCD. They can be driven to distraction by such things as a person wearing his or her clothing inside-out, for example. In some legends, faeries always travel in straight lines—and visit mischief on anyone unfortunate enough to have a house that lies in their way!
Furthermore, there are many legends about faeries who clean a person’s house or finish their chores for them at night as well as legends of faeries punishing housewives for failing to keep a tidy house.
Other stories make much of numbers and patterns: a command or an oath must be spoken three times to take effect, for example.
Humans: Antisocial Personality Disorder is commonly referred to as psychopathy in popular culture. Psychopaths have an abundance of impulsivity and heightened attraction to rewards and risk-taking. A recent study has found that their brains are wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost. Due to their hyper-reactive dopamine reward system, they are inclined to take what they want without thinking of the consequences.
The traits most commonly associated with psychopaths are antisocial behavior, lack of empathy, and bold or disinhibited behavior. “Psychopath” need not mean “serial killer,” however. In fact, many successful people exhibit certain psychopathic traits such as ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, reduced empathy, developed self-confidence, and lack of remorse.
Faeries: Most faeries seem to effectively be high-functioning psychopaths, although the more unsavory among them drift easily into dysfunctionality: redcaps, spriggans, particularly nasty pookas, and the like. To one degree or another, almost all faeries seem to be impulsive, deceitful nonconformists prone to aggression and vindictiveness. Humans who violate their taboos will pay a hefty price.
Faeries’ lack of empathy is, well, legendary. They simply don’t appreciate the harm that is caused by their mischievous pranks. This deficiency plays into the popularity among faeries for such behaviors such as blighting crops, striking humans and animals with “elf shot,” and kidnapping human children. Putting themselves in another person’s shoes seems to be an alien concept to them.
Finally, faeries are often quite bold and uninhibited. They rarely seem to consider the negative outcomes of a course of action—which has tripped them up in some legends. Their fearlessness is partly fueled by their sense of arrogance, which leads them to overestimate their own abilities. This is especially true for trickster figures, who often have buffoonish or prideful traits.
What nonhuman characters have you especially related to in fiction? What made that character come alive for you?