The writer’s madness tickle trunk

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What a great many madnesses do we writers have to plague our characters! There’s depression, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, addictions, paranoias, doubts and suspicions about ourselves and others, feelings of unreality and insignificance, feelings of grandiosity and cosmic importance.

Consider those niggling terrors; the thoughts that won’t go away, no matter how hard your character tries. As individuals we fight these things in ourselves, so why don’t your characters? As a writer these are your tools, your opportunity, to make characters of depth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is your character not happy about herself? Is she too fat? Too thin? Too poor? Lacking in direction? Too normal? Too low in status?
  2. Who does she see as the perfect ‘me’ in the future? What is she doing (and not doing) to get there?
  3. How is she fighting off insanity? Is she obsessive about cleanliness, saving money, staying away from ‘dirty people’, disease, germs? Does she slip into a bottle of booze at night? Is she so economical that she has started to wash all of her clothes by hand as he showers (a.k.a. become eccentric)?

Brave and unique choices give you great opportunities to create interesting situations that readers can connect with.

What does your character value?

A good place to find your character’s madness is to look at how your character defines ‘sanity’? This is the same question as, “what does your character most value?” When you know what is valued, you can find what most terrifies. You don’t obsess about something that doesn’t matter to you, right? So if a character doesn’t care about germs but is obsessively cleaning, the reader will know something’s not quite right.

To make this as deep as possible, a number of exercises can help, including:

  1. Free-association: Start with one idea for something that makes your character crazy. Do a free writing exercise, associating their current fear backward in their life. Keep going until you find something that ‘pings’ at you.
  2. Research the foible to see how it manifests in others. Little nuggets can really inform your writing. For example, many germ-o-phobes do not touch public handrails or will punch elevator buttons with a tissue. For example, a germ-o-phobe might carry a set of special gloves for dangerous situations.

Making the most of insanity

How do you make the most of your character’s insanity? There’s a famous writing quote about plot structure that goes:

In the first act you put your character up a tree.
In the second, throw rocks at them.
In the third, you get them out of the tree.

To put your character up a tree, you place them in a situation where they have to face their madness. If they are clean freaks, you put them someplace dirty. If they are power hungry, place them in a situation where they have no power. It is by facing our weaknesses that your character will be forced to change and grow.

If the character can face the worst life can throw them, then so can the reader. Great writing persuades us that there is not terror so dark we cannot overcome it, even as the earth shakes beneath our feet.

How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.

Prepare to write like an actor

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When an actor prepares to play a role, she doesn’t only memorize her lines and reach into her schtick bag for an accent and wig. Creating a layered character requires getting under the skin of her character. To do this she might:

  1. Learn as much as possible about the time the story is set. What it looked like, smelled like. The kinds of jargon people used.
  2. Imagine the character’s personal history. Who were her parents and what kind of relationship did they have? Who were her friends and why were they her friends? What does she do when she’s alone?
  3. Write journals about scenes not in the play or movie to learn more about the character. Take an important moment and write a stream-of-consciousness monologue that follows her thoughts moment by moment.
  4. Find a piece of music that communicates the character’s rhythm. The music becomes the character’s theme that the actor plays on her iPod in preparation for playing a scene.
  5. Work on the character’s movement patterns. Work from the breath and find how the character holds herself, speaks and tosses the hair out of her eyes.
  6. Study not just the lines, but what lies under them

The actor may fill a notebook to brimming with notes and scratching and doodles. She may create an altar where she gathers images that relate to her character. Every dialogue exchange may have alternate meanings that she works through over and over.

The idea of this work is not to put on the character, but to live the character. To be the character. To feel inside the skin of the character.

This preparation work becomes like the tea bag, the actor the teapot full of water. The richer and more varied the tea, the more layered the performance.

If this work is done well, when the actor steps on the stage the audience sees a lot more than a person reading a bunch of lines. They feel the presence of a fully realized character. They feel it in vocal intonations, how the actor moves, the gleam in their eye. Even a raised eye brow at the right moment can speak volumes.

Because it really is like making a tea, the prep work doesn’t last in the actor for long. Like any tea, it gets cold and old and eventually evaporates into the air. It can be brought back, but it’s not like snapping fingers. The steeping process needs to begin again.

I have come to believe that writing works in a similar way. When you are truly writing the character, the words come from a special place. When your readers take in the words on the page, there’s something else that comes through. Your readers can sense the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, feel the breath moving in and out.