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The Most Unhinged Fictional Characters Ever Written

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Vivienne Woodward


Vivienne Woodward lives in Philly and works as the events coordinator for an indie bookstore. She can often be found drinking too much coffee in the sunny spot on her couch and over-identifying with fictional characters. She enjoys collecting hobbies, dancing to radio pop, and rearranging the book stacks on her side tables.

I do not know if it’s me, or if it’s “the times,” but when I recently perused my library checkout history, there were an undue number of contemporary books featuring what one could describe as an “unhinged” main character. But what is unhinged? Let’s picture a door. One with no hinges. It’s detached; it’s hanging by, at best, a thread, and it’s disconnected from the frame that holds it up. Unhinged, to me, implies a disconnect from reality — the character has come unglued from the world, the norms that keep us all running as something of a functioning society. 

And I think there are two distinct categories of unhinged: the chaotic and the evil. 

The chaotic characters are at risk of doing themselves harm because they have lost the plot on what is a safe, reasonable way to be in the world: they are the doors that have come unglued and are falling flat on their sad, paneled faces. It is often at least a partially conscious effort to escape their reality that begins the decline. Maybe they want a change, maybe they choose to loosen the hinges, but what they find is that there is nowhere else to go but down.

Then there are the unhinged evil characters. These are the doors that wait until someone has just passed through before falling on and crushing the passerby. Perhaps I have animated the doors too much, but let’s just say there is more than one way to become detached from society. 

Let’s start with the characters that are violently detaching from the social contract with malintent:

My Sister, The Serial Killer cover

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Ayoola

This one seems like a pretty straightforward place to start. Ayoola is the sister. You know, the sister who is referred to in the title? The sister who is the serial killer? And her victims are her lovers? Seems like a safe bet for someone who is a bit unhinged. Probably rule one of the social contract is “Do not kill others.”

cover of Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter

Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter: Jackie Newsome

Listen, I am sure having four children would make anyone a little unhinged, but Jackie takes it to the extreme. We meet her as an overwhelmed mother, wife, best friend, and we watch her unravel into an affair-having, compulsive dieting, nearly absent mother who maybe drives someone very close to her in her life to maybe commit a murder. Maybe.

Cover of The Three of Us

The Three of Us by Ore Agbaje-Williams: Temi and the Husband

The Three of Us is about the truly unhinged relationship between a woman’s husband and the woman’s best friend. Both feel like they have a winning claim on the woman, and are fighting dirty to stake it. The friend may at some point have sex in the couple’s bedroom just to infuriate the husband, the husband may at one point be ordering take-out, imply he’s ordering for the friend and then gloat when nothing shows up for her. And those are the petty examples! It gets more sinister, more unhinged as the book goes on.

yellowface book cover

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang: Juniper Song

Where to even begin! Juniper Song has lost her shit. Blinded by jealousy and convinced that she is somehow doing her friend a favor, she steals her friend’s manuscript moments after she dies in front of her, tries to obscure her whiteness by rebranding as “Juniper Song,” and then basically…does it all again? Girl. You’ve lost the plot (of your friend’s book).

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith cover

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith: Tom Ripley

Not a super contemporary novel, but in honor of the new series starring Andrew Scott, how could we leave off Mr. Ripley? Tom Ripley is all sorts of unhinged: murderously, lustfully, jealously. This is the classic case of the unhinged evil character — the less literal equivalent of wearing someone else’s skin.

And with that, let us turn to those characters that have found themselves unhinged by their circumstances, the doors with no resilience remaining to do anything but fall:

cover of Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky; image of pink and orange polka dots around blue waves, with yellow font

Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky: Allison Brody

At least some (most?) of Allison’s unhingedness is due to the shock and trauma of a head injury, but that does not change the fact that throughout so much of the book, the reader is going, “Oh, please don’t do that, please don’t do that.” Allison’s decisions are hilariously, endearingly, dangerously divorced from what you would expect from a stable person.

The Dog of the North cover

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie: Penny Rush

As is the case with Allison Brody from Hurricane Girl, it’s easy to go “GIRL, WHY” to so many of the choices Penny Rush makes. It’s the no-highly-secure-person-would-make-that-choice-would-they?? of it all that lands Penny on the list and into our hearts. See: moving into a stranger’s filthy van, boarding a plane with an obviously infected wound. Oh, Penny.

my year of rest and relaxation book cover

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Narrator

If the other characters on this list have found themselves struggling to maintain contact with the walls of reality, the narrator from My Year of Rest and Relaxation has taken out a screwdriver and detached the hinges intentionally. She chooses to completely unmoor herself from contemporary life by pledging to sleep for an entire year, using whatever substances or means necessary.

cover of Death Valley by Melissa Border

Death Valley by Melissa Broder: Narrator

Like our other beloved narrators on this half of the list, the narrator in Broder’s is indeed seeking an escape from her reality, and the desperation of that search leads her down a dangerous and unstable path. She goes into the desert in an apparent effort to lose herself both spiritually and literally, and we’re left turning pages hoping she might just turn around!!!

We will end here, but there are countless examples from classic literature that I haven’t named: Mr. Hyde, Annie Wilkes from Misery, Humbert Humbert from Lolita — the list could go on and on because the thing that so often makes characters interesting is their disruption to the texture of everyday life. The unhinged characters are so often the most memorable. And doesn’t it intrigue us, to see what might happen when we step outside the rigid walls of the social contract? What else is out there?