Faeries and Personality Disorders

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.

Narcissism

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!

Obsessiveness

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.

Psychopathy

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?

A History of the Fae

Leo Elijah Cristea has posted the final installment of his series on the fae. (Links to all four parts here.) This has been a very informative series looking at the legends and myths surrounding the Fair Folk, and I heartily commend it.

In this final part of our exploration of the fae, it seems appropriate to take a look at not only the varied and expansive wealth of literature and that features fae, or any recognisable incarnation of them, but also a more comprehensive look at their time line. We’ve briefly explored the evolution of the fae, from Irish folklore, through to Shakespeare’s romantic depictions, and to their modern day Disney or urban fantasy cousins, but the long and fluid history of the fae makes it difficult to succinctly follow. As such, if we head as far back as a pre-Christian time, indeed touching on the relevance of Pagan faeries and early Greco-Roman fae we start to see that two things are true:

You’ll just have to click through to see what those two things are. 🙂

The Fairy Investigation Society

I may have to check these folks out. I’ll definitely be taking their online survey of faery beliefs.

The Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was founded in 1927 by a British man named Quentin Crauford. Attracting mostly Theosophists who believed that fairies were elemental beings, the Society continued sporadically through the 20th century until finally disappearing in the 1990s.

In 2013 the Society was re-booted by Simon Young, an English historian living in Italy. While membership in the original Society was limited to people who believed in fairies, the current society is open to “all those who have an interest in fairylore, be they believers or ultra skeptics.” I’m proud to be a member myself!

The Evolution of Fae

Alas, the title of Leo Elijah Cristea’s most recent post on the fae is not a reference to how these beings emerged and diversified through random mutation and natural selection. It is, however, a wonderful discussion of the varieties of Fair Folk one encounters in myth and literature. In particular, this post tries to tackle those elements that are recognizable as at least suggestive of faeries in world mythology, always admitting that whatever overlap (or identity) is claimed must only be claimed with due appreciation for how the source cultures themselves do different things with their various nature spirits, angels, or what have you.

If we delve back in time and focus on the birth of these various stories, even widening our net and including other “fae-like” beings whose appearance or vocation has led them to be tangled up in the same net as faeries—such as the short, stout Northern Dwarves, the elfin Álfar and Svartálfar who could become the aos sí, as well as the creatures already discussed—it becomes clear that appearance alone is sometimes enough to define the beings from different realms as fae.

In this way, we can trace the evolution of the faeries through their alteration and adaptation, drawing up lines of likeness between similar beings, as well as their manmade transformations throughout literature and popular culture.

This is an excellent article, well worth the read!