I’m trying to create a character who magically switches between personalities, a la Jekyll/Hyde, but I know those characters can create negative stigma around real mental illnesses like DID in the name of making a new “twist” on the idea. How can I avoid this stigma while still keeping the design inventive? And how do I distinguish for readers between such a character and someone who actually has DID or something similar?
Thank you for your question! This is a great example of the complexity involved in navigating the relationship between fictional disabilities and real disabilities.
Because fictional disabilities aren’t trying to be a representation of a real disability, storytellers have more flexibility when they craft their details. However, fictional disabilities are still representations of disability, so it is important to do the research and consulting needed to avoid harmful patterns, like villainous disability and stereotypes about mental illness. It is also important to ground fictional disabilities in at least one disabled experience, like a symptom or common experience, so that they represent real experiences of disability, rather than false ideas.
In addition, any time a fictional disability has a major trait that resembles a real disability (or a stereotype about that real disability), it will remind people of the real disability. This means that the representation of the fictional disability will affect how people think about the real disability it is associated with. The only way to break this association is to make the fictional disability so different from the real disability that it no longer reminds people of it.
Because a core concept of most Jekyll/Hyde characters is that they are someone with “dual personalities,” they have a strong association with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). There is no way to separate a Jekyll/Hyde character from this association without changing this core concept. That means that if you want to get away from this association, you will need to change the “dual personalities” core concept.
One way to do this is to go back to the original work and look for other interpretations and themes to use in creating a new version of it. Based on a cursory reading of the Wikipedia article for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the original version of this story is less about dual personalities and more about the Victorian dichotomy between the outward appearance of respectability and all of the vices that were happening in private. Whether or not this is correct, the idea that Jekyll uses his transformations to indulge in his vices “without fear of detection” is a useful starting point for creating a reinterpretation. For example, a character that undergoes a purely physical transformation might act reprehensibly because they are able to avoid the consequences of their actions. Because their mind is unaltered by their transformation, this would be a big move away from associations with DID.
It is important to know that the association between a fictional disability and a real disability doesn’t have to be broken in order for the fictional disability to be respectful. As long as the fictional disability isn’t recreating stereotypes, spreading misinformation, or sending a negative message about disability, it is fine. In fact, fictional disabilities can become metaphorical representations that illustrate important experiences of real disabilities (keep in mind that this is best done by people who are expressing their lived experiences).
The first step in making a fictional disability into a respectful representation is researching the real disability it is associated with. When researching, be sure to google both stereotypes and myths about that disability, as both searches can yield important results. If you don’t have personal experience with this real disability, I also strongly suggest hiring a consultant with that lived experience.
Use the results of this research to avoid recreating myths, stereotypes, and misinformation in the fictional disability. For example, one of the most pervasive and damaging myths about DID is that people with DID are violent or have alters that do extreme harm. Many Jekyll/Hyde type characters perpetuate this stereotype, depicting the Hyde character as evil, destructive, and violent. Changing this pattern is essential for moving away from this harmful stereotype.
However, if neither of these two routes appeals to you, then I recommend delving into what it is about the Jekyll/Hyde character that appeals to you. Is it loss of control? A magical transformation? Exploring corruption? A dramatized internal conflict? The relationship between two entities sharing a body? Once you know what appeals to you, use it as a starting point for creating something different.
Finally, regardless of which of these three paths you follow, there is definitely room to create something fresh and new. Because the ableist patterns have been followed so much, just avoiding them is a good first step in creating something novel.
I hope that this helps!
Good luck with your writing project,
— Fay from Writing Alchemy
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Comments on How Do I Avoid Creating Stigma for Characters With Dual Personalities?
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is actually that of a man who creates a way to physically shift himself so he won’t be recognized when he, the virtuous Dr. Jekyll, goes to places like Whitechapel and has fun with prostitutes or goes drinking or enjoyes other types of ‘unacceptable’ fun.
Strangely enough, the original description of Hyde, who is completely without moral inhibitions, is that of a small and younger person than Jekyll – basically, Jekyll’s ‘bad side’ is younger than him, because he hasn’t indulged in his desires for a long time and not exercised it.
There is no explanation in the book (which isn’t long – a better novella) as to how Jekyll performs the transformation, the horror comes from the fact that, after a while, he can’t control it and Hyde comes to the surface unbidden. In the end, Jekyll dies in Hyde’s body, but with his own mind.
Now it was some time since I read it, but from what I recall, he also changes personality-wise, in that he becomes more selfish, less inhibited, etc. But since he voluntarily does the transformation in order to live out his vices, I’d say it’s more similar to taking recreational drugs with the intention of “losening up”, and daring to do things you’re normally too inhibited to do, than of having a mental disorder.
Recreational drugs are a very good comparison, I’d say. Just as with some of those, Jekyll starts thinking all is going to plan and then he loses control bit by bit.
Yes, over time, the ‘Hyde’ personality bleeds into Jekyll’s regular life, that’s part of him ‘losing control’ over Hyde.
Meanwhile, something that’s mssing from almost every adaptation is that Jekyll and Hyde remember each other’s actions.
Jekyll and Hyde definitely promotes pretty much all stereotypes about DID. It doesn’t matter if recreational drug use seems like a closer metaphor – all this time later people like me with DID still have to debunk these myths. It seems like Jekyll and Hyde wrote the script on “How to vilify DID” from making one personality morally abhorrent to descriptions of physical transformation (yes that really is still a common stereotype even though mostly in fiction. But people are very fascinated with real or exaggerated physical changes that can sometimes happen when there is a switch).
Amnesia /gaps in memory are a diagnostic criteria for what we now call DID (a diagnosis that didn’t exist when the book was written) but there are other conditions with multiple personalities but without amnesia, so that distinction doesn’t save the book from promoting harmful messages. Besides, a lot of people misunderstand just how much amnesia there has to be for a DID diagnosis – I for example usually remember what other system mates do when there is a switch. This can also be trained and changes with external circumstances like stress.
If I remember correctly, the original story was inspired by some extremely respectable citizen of Edinburgh (a judge, I think) who was discovered to be living a double life.
Reading the book, I was rather disappointed by how limited Hyde’s evil was; rather than, for example, slipping a dose of his potion into his fiancee’s drink, or a batch into the local water supply, most of the things he does require the influence of no more exotic potion than cheap gin.
I think the main horror of the story isn’t supposed to be how ‘evil’ Hyde is. He’s amoral and does as he wishes at that moment. The horror for Jekyll is that at some point Hyde is starting to take him over – he, the perfect paragon of virtue, turns more and more into the opposite, the uninhibited Hyde who does as he wishes, no matter what ‘as he wishes’ means at that moment. In the end, he is physically Hyde even when mentally being Jekyll.
I admit that I like his daughters from the Athena Club trilogy much more, though … Mary and Diana are cool.
You’re both right, but this is exactly why these are harmful stereotypes – because the idea that someone with DID just wants to evade responsibility and/or is in danger of losing control or there being a fight between the “real” (what even does that mean) and the “other” personality are still alive and kicking. Unfortunately.
Yeah, it is not a good representation DID.
Jekyll and Hyde work well as the first novel representation of the werewolf myth, to a degree, but they’re not good at representing a real-life illness.
Another idea is for the alternate personality to come out under the influence of a mind-altering substance or magical effect. For example, if the result is reduced inhibition (as with alcohol IRL), that could fit with the original Jekyll and Hyde novel’s theme of wanting to indulge in vices with deniability. If I remember right, A Clockwork Orange also has a drug that Alex consumes before engaging in “the old ultra-violence.”
I think there are a few fantasy/sci-fi things I’ve seen that did this without being at all DID by firmly establishing that the “other personality” was an actual person using magic/super powers.
Ancient King with mental link with the person who sometimes takes over and who has done this before. 2 people with their own bodies who due to magic become one entirely different person (with powers)who they take turns controlling. Or my favorite, one suit but a whole team behind it, so which person anyone is dealing with changes, as does the advice they are given, and the others catch them up.
If you don’t just make it a personality and give them a history, separate to the original personality, even one that is taking over never comes off as DID.
So, I’m plural, which is what DID is but without the illness part. Basically, I’m one of two people in same brain, and this doesn’t stop either of us from a healthy and fulfilling life.
And what I want to say is that it doesn’t work like you say it does. No matter the fictional context, more than one person sharing a body will reflect my experience to a certain degree. That’s a thing that most people don’t experience, but I have to deal with. Underlying neurological processes are largely unimportant: sometimes details come up, like me not really having a childhood, because I didn’t exist in those years, but vast majority of the time the issues unique to our lives will be the same for the characters you propose.
Safety of the body, caring for eachother, dividing time, bargains, moral dillemas and ability to intervene, intimate personal knowledge, complication to personal relationship with other people, shared responcibility, etc. Those characters will have them too, and nobody else.
It can’t “not come off as DID”, in the same way that a character using a wheelchair to share the space with other characters will, inevitably, ressemble portrayal of paraplegic people, even if the character is a mermaid living on land and not a disabled human. This probably does change some aspects of how they talk and think about this, but they still have the wheelchair-person-experience and it’s laughable to think you can stop your readers from drawing the connection.
I totally agree.
This strategy might fit the story anon wants to write and it might evade some sticky points (like explaining what trauma caused the DID if you went with literal DID instead) but it can’t avoid the basic similarities. Reading up on stereotypes and myths at least is still required to avoid harmful tropes and searching for advice from actual plural/multiple/DID systems would definitely help.
If keeping the dual identities thing is important to the story, you could also just explicitly point out that it isn’t the same thing as DID. For example they could have another character with DID and demonstrate the differences, or have a therapist attempt to approach this as a case of DID, but fail because, well, you can’t fix demonic possession with talk therapy, or even just have dialog mentioning it.
A couple of other cases of fictional dual identities that I’ve come across were symbiosis with an alien mind (from one of Clifford Simak’s books, I think), and a crown that stored the personalities of its previous wearers, intended to give the current ruler access to their experience.
Honestly, I would question even the concept of *dual* personalities. Not because it doesn’t happen in real life, because it does, but a lot of systems have more system mates than that (I/we have several hundred). But because the temptation is way too strong to have the system mates (the personalities sharing one body) representing two opposites, like good and evil, cowardly and brave, rational and emotional or what have you.
Real people aren’t like that. But I have the strong suspicion that the idea of DID and similar experiences as “a split between two sides of one character” feeds into the stereotype of one of them being evil.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should under no circumstances portray a dual system. Just ask yourself why a dual system and if your portrayal would feed into the “good/evil” stereotype.
While they can be distinct and memorable, make sure all system mates are real, rounded, complex characters with feelings, goals and motivations. Don’t make them personifications of simplistic ideas or one-dimensional caricatures or scary enigmas who act unpredictably.