Based on the Marvel Comics, Moon Knight‘s Disney+ television adaptation is about a timid museum clerk and Egyptology nut named Stephen Grant. He lives a carefully guarded, secretive life, all of which is upended when his alternate personality, Marc Spector, comes unchained.
If you know the least about this character, it’s no spoiler to say Stephen/Marc quickly discovers he’s been enthralled by the Egyptian god Khonshu. In ancient Egyptian mythology, Khonshu is the traveler, the god of the moon and the “Defender,” so it’s no surprise when our hero becomes Moon Knight, Knonshu’s avenging avatar, and must fight to defend the mortal world.
True to form, Oscar Isaac is brilliant in the role, no matter which personality steps to the forefront. He bring charisma to the screen, simultaneously cracking self-deprecating jokes while switching fluidly between accents and throwing his body around like a sock puppet.
It’s a wildly entertaining show, and I’d recommend it to any trippy action-adventure fans, but especially those interested in ancient Egyptian mythology. Stream it now on Disney+.
I love split personalities in my fiction
What I actually want to talk about, however, is how Moon Knight got me thinking about characters with split personalities in fiction, and why I love them so much.
Superhero fiction, in particular, has several prominent characters with dissociative identity disorder. Two Face from Batman, for example, and Jean Grey/Phoenix from X-Men.
But it doesn’t stop there—some of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy books also have characters who experience DID. Last year, I watched (and absolutely LOVED!) the show Arcane, a Netflix animated series in the League of Legends universe. Arcane has a marvelous character with a personality disorder, an orphan thief turned criminal tinker who goes by Jinx.
Finally, I’ve been reading the Stormlight Archive series of epic fantasy novels by Brandon Sanderson. One of my favorite characters in those books is Shallan Davar, an artist who develops and nurtures different personas in order to cope with her traumatic childhood, develop new skills, and win an endless war.
In case you aren’t familiar with all these characters, I’ll first describe their situation, and then bring it home by sharing the reasons they bring something special to the story worlds in which they live.
What is dissociative identity disorder?
Before we go on, a definition and a short disclaimer.
Split personalities, also known as dissociative identity disorder (DID), is a rare and complex mental health condition in which a person has two or more distinct personalities, or identities. According to The Cleveland Clinic.
People with DID have two or more separate identities. These personalities control their behavior at different times. Each identity has its own personal history, traits, likes and dislikes. DID can lead to gaps in memory and hallucinations (believing something is real when it isn’t).
In modern fiction, DID is often portrayed as a way for characters to cope with trauma or abuse they have experienced in their lives. Some show how the different personalities communicate and cooperate with each other, while in others they are at odds and may even be unaware of each other’s existence.
But this is a very real condition that affects a small percentage of the population, and I have no intentions of misrepresenting or mis-characterizing it. I also know that dissociative identities might be a trigger for some people.
I’m for including DID in stories because they allow us to explore the condition as a human experience in deeply interesting ways. But I also want to be careful not to glamorize such a thing, or play DID up as positive when those who experience it are struggling.
So, this is not medical advice. I am not a doctor. If you’re experiencing symptoms, please consult a qualified medical professional.
And keep in mind that we’re discussion portrayals of fictional characters, not real people.
Standout characters with split personalities
Now, after combing through my library of science fiction and fantasy books and films, I came up with a shortlist of both protagonist and contagonist characters who stand as archetypal examples from the science fiction, fantasy and superhero genres.
As we’ve already discussed, Moon Knight is a Marvel Comics superhero with multiple personalities, each with its own unique set of skills and traits. His dominant personality, Marc Spector, is a former mercenary who was resurrected by an ancient Egyptian moon god and became a vigilante fighting crime with various weapons and gadgets. His other personalities include Steven Grant, a wealthy playboy, and Jake Lockley, a street-level vigilante. Moon Knight’s conflicting personalities cause internal conflict, all while enabling him to transform into a formidable martial opponent by shifting personalities.
Shallan Davar is a Lightweaver from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives. She develops the ability to create illusions out of light and uses the power to disguise herself as other people. While spending time as Veil, a thief, or Radiant, a Knight Radiant, they take up space in her mind and fracture her personality. Throughout the series, Shallan learns to assimilate these different parts of her personality, and must face the ways each personalty has protected her, manipulated her, and ultimately take responsibility for their actions.
Jean Grey is a Marvel Comics character and founding member of the X-Men, known for her telekinetic and telepathic powers. She has an alter-ego, Phoenix, which is a powerful cosmic entity born from Jean’s own subconscious mind. Phoenix has great power, but it can also be unstable and destructive. Jean Grey struggles to control Phoenix, and the conflict between her own desires and Phoenix’s will lead to tragedy for her team and love life.
Jinx is the gun-toting, braid-rocking criminal tinker from Arcane once known as Powder, an orphan from Undertown and the younger sister of the thief Vi. Powder created the identity of Jinx after a series of family tragedies separated her from her sister. Jinx was taken in and raised by the crime lord Silco.
Last but not least, Two Face is a villain from the DC Comics superhero franchise, Batman. A former district attorney of Gotham City known as Harvey Dent, he becomes a criminal after being disfigured on one side of his face by acid. Two-Face’s alter-ego is a violent and unstable criminal mastermind who’s obsessed with the concept of duality and often makes decisions based on the flip of a two-headed coin. He is one of Batman’s most dangerous and unpredictable foes.
What makes these characters so compelling?
So why do I love these kinds of characters? What makes them so interesting, and why do they keep appearing in stories I enjoy?
Four things stand out to me:
- Conflict is built in. Multiple personalities inevitably have different motivations and goals, leading to unusual outcomes that propel stories forward. If it’s a villain, they throw the hero into unexpected situations. If it’s a protagonist, like Moon Knight, they may surprise themselves with unlikely choices, or provide justification for bad decisions that raise the stakes.
- They’re unpredictable. Good villains are full of surprises, so characters with split personalities make great bad guys. “Good” characters with split personalities are particularly suited to become villains later in the story, like Jinx does for Vi, or Phoenix for the X-Men. Different personas can also pull characters out of their comfort zones, giving them new experiences that lead to growth. Often, these characters appear as wronged or slighted. They tend to be resurrected, betrayed, lost, hurt, or otherwise damaged such that they no longer follow normal expectations for human behavior.
- They’re bound by time. Aren’t we all bound by the ultimate limit of human potential—time? We’re only mortal. Because time is a limited resource, we feel strongly about fleeting experiences and missed opportunities. A character who clings so hard to an idealized past that they crystallize it as a separate personality, or who creates a new personality to escape a bad situation, lend themselves to powerful themes of memory, identity, illusion, and chance.
- They’re flawed. We all have shortcomings, which allows us to sympathize with flawed characters. People with DID are flawed in a unique and often interesting way that most people never experience. It’s exotic and dangerous. It frightens us…which makes for a good story. Meanwhile, it gives the reader/viewer a new, compassionate perspective that has the potential to build genuine empathy.
I don’t think I would like Two Face as a person… but he sure makes an unpredictable villain. A chance coin toss can change everything. Heads is life, Batman. Tails means death.
X-Men fans love Jean Grey’s good heart. The way she cares for her team, the way she loves Cyclops even when he’s being a jerk. Watching these bonds get broken one by one is what makes her transformation into Phoenix so tragic.
Powder wasn’t born insane—the world made her that way. She loved her parents, and lost them. She loved her sister, and when she’s killed, the enemy takes her in and nurtures her most dangerous qualities. Silco then molds this tragic child into Jinx. In the end, she’s a dark mirror that shows Vi her one weakness—her love for her sister.
Shallan Davar shows us how she brings her imagination to life—while being a cautionary tale for the ways in which we may use our imaginations to lie and conceal the truth from ourselves. She ultimately overcomes… at least so far. The series is ongoing!
It’s about the why
I love these types of characters because it allows me to dive deep into the psyche of a truly conflicted person. Watching a character develop, or discover, split personalities, I come to understand why they are the way they are. Whether I’m empathizing with a villain, or rooting for a hero, I can see the reason behind the choices they’ve made, and how their experiences have shaped who they are and how they interact with the world.
Their justifications, their excuses, their mistakes all make great fodder for fiction.
In the best case, I get to experience a character overcoming great odds. It’s even better if the conflict they resolve is internal, or self-inflicted, as well as external. This shows me that I, too, can overcome my own flaws and internal conflicts through acceptance and negotiation.
After all, if Moon Knight can live in harmony with three personalities, what have I got to lose? Is my situation really so bad?
Maybe their success shows us how we can change our own personality, too. Not such a dramatic split as Harvey Dent—he’s a blinking red CAUTION sign for the ages—but perhaps flipping the coin and taking a chance every once in a while would be a healthy change in my life?
If we get a season two, I’m looking forward to seeing the many expressions of Oscar Issac back in Moon Knight. It’s my top ranked Marvel TV on Disney+ (so far).
In the meantime, let me know your thoughts about characters with split personalities in fiction. Do you like them? Hate them? Do other characters stand out that I should add to this list? You’re invited to share in the comments so we can all expand our reading/viewing.