Curating Depression

So I knew this guy years and years ago, and he was sooooo depressed. Like, that was what he talked about, and what he spent his time doing. He talked about his medications, and his latest failed therapy attempt, and his disappointed parents, on and on. His whole life was a big, complex drama about how he was depressed.

I was sympathetic. You know, because I’m not an asshole. I did the whole listening ear shtick. Again, not an asshole. I shared things. I was supportive. I made sure he ate food on occasion in a friendly sort of way. I was, I think, a decent friend.

Then, one day, we were in his car and going to a theatre thing together. A rehearsal, probably. He played a song for me that was from one of his favorite esoteric musicals and was sharing how significant the plot was.

The music was off-key and highly depressive. The lyrics were almost over-the-top, going-out-of-your-way emotional and misery-misery-miserable.

Something snapped for me.

The whole picture came together.

This is going to sound enormously judgy, but a whole lot of things cohered and I saw something about this guy that I’d been too blinded by niceness to see before.

He was deliberately cultivating depression. Like, it was an aesthetic for him. Suddenly I started remembering different little things, like how he strategically refused to eat and then magically binged on sugar when he knew it would make him crash. Like how he avoided the group of friends that were his active social network, actually went out of his way to steer clear of them over time, and hung out with another set who were unanimously anti-social and draggy-down-ish.

The biggest thing, though, was how he didn’t understand what I was talking about when he was asking for advice and I was talking to him about what was happening with his depression. It was like he’d missed the memo and didn’t actually understand the condition well enough to replicate the internal effects. I know lots of depressed people. I’ve been in demand as the on-call talk-this-person-out-of-feeling-so-sad friend a lot of times.

I know what the inside of a depressed person’s head feels like. I know the chain of broken impulses that move through the body of a depressed person.

And this guy … wasn’t actually depressed. He was wearing depression as a cloak, concealing a self-absorbed persona in a complex, shifting cloud of supporting behaviors that resulted in a depressed body and an active, calculating mind.

It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, like a man hiding out in a cave and destroying his body and mind just to say to himself that he accomplished something. Very strange.

Sample

Diana Receives a Message

She made it to the school and methodically went down every hall and into every room. The gym was empty, dark, and creepy. The swimming pool echoed with light slaps and the chug of the filters. The biology lab was full of floating frogs, half dissected in glasses.

Diana worked her way all the way down to the vice principle’s office, which was also empty, before turning the corner past the athletic trophy case.

Something white on the glass caught her eye.

Hi.

Someone had written, in what appeared to be white soap, the word ‘Hi,’ complete with a neat little circle for a period at the end.

Diana licked her lips and stared at the letters. That’s not a message for me, she told herself, but a shiver passed over her shoulders as she went past the case and into the secretary’s lounge.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in the book I’m working on at the moment, the dead doctor is coming back to life and having a small identity crisis because of his changed body.

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No Advice At All

So I’m thinking about this guy I used to know and his wife. They had a weird relationship. What I’m thinking about just now is the power dynamic. She was mostly in charge, and he did this thing where he had dreams and was super talented, and she supported him without breaking him enough to make him succeed.

Does that make sense?

What I’m saying is, he kept failing, and he had all the parts necessary for success except that motivating partner section that gives you a foundation from which to take risks that work. The physical support was there but the emotional grit was missing.

I don’t think he wanted to let go of his father’s disapproval. He had a super screwed up family, the kind that looks normal until you stick around for six years and start to see the big picture, and the patterns that emerge over time.

What I’m wondering is what it would have taken, in the situation he was in, for him to have broken from talented and promising into actual success. He didn’t want success enough to reach out and take it in a forceful way, and I don’t know if his wife was emotionally lacking in support because he didn’t want support or because she didn’t want him to succeed. I think it was because he didn’t want that kind of support, which is sort of sad.

Although, why should other people giving up make me sad, if they’re willfully clinging to dysfunctional relatives instead of cutting loose and becoming independent (emotionally) and successful (in the sense of achieving what they want)?

That’s illogical, to be sad for people choosing what they want, even if what they want is misery. More power to them, right?

Anyway, here’s a sample.

Diana is Alone:

Diana moved down the darkened hallway of the junior high with a thundering heart and prickles of fear on her palms. The aliens had come yesterday, and now the world was frozen with ice, but this school, because of a quirk in the ground below the foundation, had stayed warm.

She’d only found out about the junior high being left alone because the mass text from the city had alerted everyone to the situation before her phone had died. Everyone’s phone had died. Cars had frozen, too. She’d walked here through the thinning crowds and the white, icy wasteland and found no one in the building when she’d arrived.

People had started to vanish partway through her walk, blipping away without a sound. She hadn’t thought it was really happening until her friend, Jasmine, who had been talking loudly just beside her, went away. More people, and then more, disappearing without any sign. Nothing was left behind.

Well, except for Diana.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my book that I’m working on right now, Carrie is talking about his several piercings, how he got them and why.

Pride and Vanity

Something I found while I was working on performance creation was that while some actors were proud of themselves, very few of them had functional vanity.

So let’s talk about selfishness.

Being selfish is bad, right? Except it’s not. Unless it is.

The morality of self-absorption is contextual. Let’s look at an example, and we’ll see if we can get the story to illustrate for us.

Examples

BAD writing:

George was so full of himself that he never thought about other people. He spent way too long over the way he dressed and over his hair. He was vain! Also, he never gave other people compliments. That was bad!

George had a job, but he never did more than was precisely expected, because he valued his time far too highly to spend his effort on stuff that wasn’t directly connected to him. George was a snob! He would probably fail in relationships, if he took the time to form any. Alas, George was too busy admiring himself to make friends or attachments that way. He liked to look at himself in mirrors, too.

GOOD writing: 

George avoided the crowded compartment on the train and sat down at the end, next to the smelly, homeless-looking people. He didn’t mind the smell so long as he could keep about three feet between himself and anyone else, no matter who they were. He smiled at everyone, and they glared suspiciously back at his effortless, glossy business clothes, and then George pulled out his latest self-improvement book and buried himself in How To Talk Kindly To Yourself In Your Thoughts.

When George left the train, he stepped around the spots of grease on the sidewalk. It was a game he’d picked up as a kid; he pretended that any dirt outdoors was a kind of virulent poison that would eat away his clothes and mar the scrupulous cleanliness of his skin. He wasn’t obsessed at all, and didn’t play every moment, but when he was thinking, which was most of the time, he liked to study the pavement and find clean patches. Safe, safe, oh no! Poison! George thought as he wove his way, smiling, through the crowded pedestrians.

Victor Poole, That George Character Wasn’t Selfish!

Yeah, he was. He was self-absorbed in a healthy way. Did you notice how he didn’t talk to any of the people on the train? Or how he wasn’t making sure to walk so that everyone else on the sidewalk had plenty of space? He was weaving all over the place on the sidewalk! Selfish!

Let’s look at another example.

BAD writing:

George met the landlady outside his apartment door.

“Oh, hello,” George said, his heart falling.

“I need help with some chores,” the landlady said.

“I don’t have time to help you, though,” George said.

“I’m so old. I’m probably dying soon. Don’t you want to be a good person who helps old people?” the landlady demanded. George sighed.

“No, Mrs. Brickenhoft, I’m too busy for anyone, even old people,” George said.

“I’ll make you cookies,” she said.

“What kind, though? And how many?” George asked, folding his arms.

GOOD writing: 

George walked slowly up his stairs daydreaming about the concerto he’d been composing in the evenings. Tonight he was going to work on a complicated passage in the string section. George held in a sigh and shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking about the wealthy music aficionado who had promised to look at the concerto in the spring.

Mrs. Brickenhoft was looming outside George’s apartment door, looking like a diseased spider.

“Morning,” George murmured, though it was evening now.

“I need your help,” the landlady announced, as if it was a roll-call in a church school. George unlocked his door and Mrs. Brickenhoft put a hand out. George slipped into his apartment and shut the door in her face. She knocked on the door.

“If you knock for more than five minutes, lady, I’m calling the cops,” George called, setting down his work bag and loosening his tie. There were no more knocks, as George had called the police twice on Mrs. Brickenhoft for harassing him in the past. George smiled, shed his clothes on his way to the bedroom, laid out his sheet music, and started to tinker contentedly with his violin.

That Was A Silly Example, Victor. You’re Just Making Stuff Up

When I worked with actors, both becoming a better performer myself and teaching others what I was learning, I found that there were a lot of selfish actors who were vain the bad ways, in the poisonous, not-glowing ways.

There were a few, though, who had managed to hit on boundaries, self-respect, and actual vanity, which is essential for even rudimentary performance.

Anyone who is standing up in front of other people, through writing or acting or anything else, has to have enough internal pressure to withstand the outer pressure of observation and unavoidable criticism.

Pride can be toxic or beautiful. Selfishness can be necessary and good or damaging and bad. Vanity is essential to the accomplishment of anything in your life.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Finch the assassin is about to bring an invalid some ice cream (butterscotch, I believe).

Good Evil and Bad Evil

So one time a long time ago, there was this older woman who was working really hard to ruin my life. She did a pretty good job messing things up. She strategically destroyed some auditions. She screwed with my finances. Yadda yadda, boring depravity on a morally devastating level, but it wasn’t until I started writing her character as an experiment into a book that I started to realize how deep the evil went.

So let’s talk for a moment about evil.

BAD writing:

Quentin was an evil guy. He kept tadpoles in a jar on his desk and starved them to death on purpose, because watching the little things swim weakly and then perish made him feel powerful. He stomped on flowers on purpose, and always tore small holes in the grocery bags as he passed the check out aisle, to cause tremendous accidents when people tried to pick up their purchases.

Not until he decided to really hurt people did he turn dark in his heart, though. Quentin felt he had to go into full-scale evil with a bang, so he started to leave buckets of rotting fish on people’s doorsteps, and painting raw cow brains over their windows in the night. The smell, he felt, was an effective spread of horribleness. I’m so evil, Quentin told himself, and he started work on a really nifty energy-shifting bomb that would destroy most of the life on the planet.

GOOD writing:

Quentin decided that he didn’t like his roommate’s girlfriend by the third night she stayed over. It was how peaceful and quiet she was; Quentin felt she was mocking him.

He knew that the girl had a jar of tadpoles on the windowsill in his roommate’s room, as she was some kind of biology freak, and so one morning after everyone was out of the house, Quentin scooped each and every tadpole out of the jar, laid them on a plate, gave them a few thorough zaps in the microwave, and then dumped them, floating and distended, into the jar.

He moved the jar over into the sunlight on the window, and he deeply enjoyed the fight that ensued between his roommate and the girlfriend later on. She thought the sun had killed them. Quentin chuckled to himself and began to think about tampering with her birth control pills, which he knew she kept in her purse, and her purse was often left about the apartment.

Ew, Victor Poole! That Was So Gross!

Yeah, I know, but evil is driven and personal, generally. Even for the big evil dudes, they’re doing it for reasons that–

You know, I really ought to say more clearly what “it” is. Even for hugely dastardly evil persons, they’re engaging in social harm for reasons that are deeply, intensely personal, and often, to be frank, petty.

If we wanted to create more depth and chaos in our awful sketch of Quentin the evil dude, we could start to write about his kid sister, whom he hates, and how he’s working out his repressed aggression against her on the whole world, or at least, the portion of the world who happens to be younger than him, female, and sharing some personality traits with his kid sister.

The family of origin defines the emotional drives of the character.

The roots of the abuse determine the redeemability of the evil person.

There’s evil that’s created by a trapped victim who is robbed by circumstance and abuse from any other vocabulary of social expression; this is the evil that requires empathy and rehabilitation, and then there’s evil that springs from a malignant sense of entitlement and an unreasonable and unfounded desire for control. That kind of evil in fiction requires forceful imprisonment and potentially the extermination of volition for reader satisfaction.

When writing your evil characters (and please, make a distinction between good and evil), remember that there are piteous sorts of evil and horrible kinds. Don’t mix the kinds into one character because that’s lousy construction and creates narrative contradiction.

The answer to “why evil?” always lies in the origins of the character, and the clue to the evil-or-not nature of the evilness resides in the internal, chosen response to psychological injury.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Carrie feels like he’s dying. Poor kid. He got a new haircut, though, not that it’s helping him feel any better just now.

Internet Hijinks and a Sample

I have internet again! Whee!

My router was being unruly. It is now all better.

Anyway, I was thinking just now of an older man I worked with. He was an actor, shoulda been more than he was but there were personal problems tangling up his sense of independence, and his brain was messed up from old drug use.

He didn’t use the substances anymore, but his emotional pathways were highly reliant on consistent hits. He was a, um, clean addict? The behaviors had never been rooted out. He was kind of like a dog with old, deeply infected porcupine needles shoved into his muscles in several places in his body, and he was rabid and pathetically fierce about no one ever touching them or noticing they were there.

He had a decent amount of personal clout where he was, and had established himself as an actor a bit, so people mostly left him alone and pretended not to see any of his problems.

And his wife kept him on a very tight leash, metaphorically speaking. I think he was broken as a very young man, as a teenager, and then found consistently through his life that were were plenty of people around who were willing to take advantage of his body and mind as an already-beaten-down actor.

He was a good actor, though, aside from the infected emotional injuries. I mean, he used the damage to create visceral empathy for characters he portrayed, and could always get a good effect out of the audience.

I didn’t have any money when I was working in a vicinity near to him, or the social groundwork established that I would need before I’d be able to scoop him up, as it were, and start digging out the porcupine needles. And he would have had to leave his wife, as their relationship was based around him being a helpless, angry mongrel type of person. Not a lot of tenderness at all between them. They were dysfunctional.

Anyway, but what I would have done, if I’d been a super-duper rich person at the time, and had the sorts of social clout that make eccentricity seem reasonable, is lured him into some sort of film production and then systematically started the extraction of the spines, and then the deep release of the infected emotional sores.

Once he was clean, I would have started working on the addictive behaviors, and he would have become a famous actor. All the skill sets were there, and he can do the social management and fame-building shtick in his sleep.

I offered to do a little preliminary work on him once, and he wanted to say yes. He knew his wife would have flipped her shit at him if he’d taken any moves to get better, and he really wanted to say yes, so he just didn’t say anything and we never spoke to each other again.

If he’s still alive in forty years when I have the eccentric mansion and all the shit, I’ll swoop around and glare at him from a distance to see if his energy has any functionality under the addiction and the energy infection.

Because picking up old prospects in a kind of eventual fulfillment of imagined work is a fun hobby, I think. And he’d be able to breathe normally for a bit before he actually died, which would probably be nice for him. He doesn’t breathe properly at all. His, um, his spine, up between his shoulders and against his bull vertebrae is clenched in a muscular net of resistance to the lure of drugs.

He never learned how to actually change his dependence, so he just resists with muscular tension, deep against his bones. I’m sure it’s deeply uncomfortable.

Example

Miranda has been Abducted without Fanfare:

The ship was blue and gold, and had little swoops on the forward bow that made the vessel look like a hunting creature of the deep sea.

The aliens inside the ship were not at all like hunting creatures, and their bodies were a strange contrast to the vessel they’d created. They were tall, but not tall enough to look willowy, and they were muscular, but in a way that almost made them look insubstantial. Their chests were flat and broad, but there was a kind of frailty to their structure, a manner of floating motion between the jointure of their ribs and waists that gave anyone watching a sense of impending collapse, as if the aliens would, at any moment, cease to be able to balance the several parts of their forms and crumple into helpless balls of arms and thick faces.

Miranda stood in her cage at the farther edge of the bridge and studied their faces, which were all completely the same to her. Their eyes were slightly different, in the spreading of their pupils or the tinge of color that hugged the wide black circle there, but their actual features–all the same. She found some variation in their bodies, and had started to label them by the shifting motion of their muscles beneath their clasping robes.

She’d given three of them names. Thin Wrists was the one with flicking, twisting hands who kept rotating his left elbow and wrist and gesturing as he talked. She thought they were all male. If there were females among them, they were indistinguishable from what Miranda saw as maleness. Fake Back was the slightly taller one who kept walking around with a stiff, swiveling action, as if he wore a brace or had a replacement part built into his body.

The last alien Miranda had actually named, the third in her short list of interest, for the others were too similar, too exactly like one another for her to feel it was productive to thread them apart in her mind, was the one she thought of as Brainy Pants, because his ass was perfect, what little she could see of him under his clothes, and his shoulders were exquisite as he moved around between his fellows, and his legs, though he technically walked and stood with the same precision and strange care as all the others, held the very slightest whisper of a swagger, as if his  muscles knew things theirs didn’t, or as if he took more pride in his essential sense of self.

Miranda liked Brainy Pants the most, and felt a slight sympathy for him. Not wishing to reflect upon her current captivity, she had made up, as the hours had passed since they’d picked her up and put her, with businesslike lack of emotion, into her cage, a story about Brainy Pants, making him the real captive and victim.

He’s a secret genius, and no one understands his feelings, Miranda told herself, and she spun a pretty elaborate and admittedly unlikely web of fancy about his past as a spy (she had no grounds at all to suspect that he was a spy), and about his secret love affair with a beautiful alien from back home (though Miranda had no idea where he’d come from or if these aliens had what she would recognize as females), and about how he was just about to murder the captain, if there was a captain, and become a sort of war hero.

She had no idea if the aliens were at war at all, and she was pretty sure, in the back of her mind, that Brainy Pants was just another average grunt doing whatever it was they all did on the bridge, passing with apparent unanimity among the strange controls, but the process of telling stories about him made her feel a lot less alone, and the more fantastic her imaginings, the less power her own fear and wonderings about her actual situation held over her.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Vince is breaking in and developing the initial bonding groundwork for his private hunting pack. And in my other novel-in-progress, Claire is about to get very firm with Caleb the dragon. He has it coming, though, and he deserves anything she dishes out, as he’s being shallow and rude.

Incorporating Dysfunction With Style

I knew a really rude woman a long time ago. I avoided her for quite a while, and we ended up being in the same show together. I avoided her then, too. Her life was a train wreck, and she had no personal boundaries and some really strange ideas about how to go about getting what she wanted (fame, fortune, and glory).

She Was An Actor

I didn’t ever want to work with her because she was a trailing comet of destruction wherever she went, but my husband talked me into it. He thought I would benefit from a study of her dysfunction.

So I studied her dysfunction, and I worked with her for a while on her wild schemes. She’d been trying to do things by herself for a long time, but she had no discipline and zero people skills, so she never got anywhere and made a lot of enemies.

Victor Poole Has Discipline!

Anyway, long story short, I studied her for a while and cobbled a few usable theatrical ideas out of her incoherency, in the name of learning things.

I learned things.

Partway through this social experiment, I wrote a short script that detailed our actual interactions, this woman’s and mine. I wrote down almost verbatim things that she had said to me, though I softened them a bit to make her sound less insane and harsh, and then I had her read the script.

And What Did She Say?

She didn’t recognize herself. In fact, she told me upon finishing it that I needed to rewrite the character based on her, because, in her words, no one in real life talks like that or is that mean.

That was the end of our actual relationship. I started the gradual fade-out and extrication of my work from her messy life. I was startled by her ability to lie to herself, to cohabit reality and her own fantasy version of events. I mean, she was practically insane, in her determination to ignore contextual and social cues and rewrite events in her own mind.

Crazy, crazy lady. Very unhealthy.

Back To Business

Now, as promised, here’s how to incorporate dysfunction with style.

  1. Everyone is dysfunctional. Acknowledge foibles.
  2. Most people don’t want to be dysfunctional. Honor a character’s internal drive to be whole and special.
  3. Characters become good or evil to the reader when they are confronted with their dysfunction and choose either to grow towards healthy, moral behavior, or to sink further into willful depravity and emotional decay. Show consistency in the ethical progression of each character.
  4. Your job as the writer is to capture the context of dysfunctional behavior and consistently track the upgrading or downgrading of each character’s moral progression.

Samples

BAD Writing:

Rob was a bad boy; this is what he told himself when he brushed his hair in the morning, and he dreamed of motorcycles and adoring fangirls when he rode his beat-up bicycle home from his job at the ice cream store.

Rob’s mother hated him. He pretended not to notice, and when Rob got a girlfriend, he practiced hating her the same way. Rob learned to be hot. He cut his shirts off at the midriff and tangled with cruel boys after school.

Rob’s ambition was to be a tyrant of small business, but Rob could not add. This caused problems for Rob’s business ambitions, and Rob avoided the idea of accountancy or arithmetic with an assiduity that ruined his grades.

GOOD Writing:

Rob watched the neighbor girl leaving her house for the umpteenth time and slipped out the back door to meet her across the street.

“Oh, it’s you,” Rob said casually, slipping his hands into his pockets and tensing his arms.

“Nope,” the girl said without looking around. Rob glared at her and turned around, scuffing his shoes and telling himself that she’d be sorry when he did get a girlfriend. The girl glanced over her shoulder when she was sure he wasn’t looking and checked out his ass.

Rob pretended he’d only come out for some fresh air and wandered down the street with burning cheeks and some impotent fury in his heart. He had no idea that the neighbor girl had been stalking him with almost as much assiduity as he’d been watching her.

And So

Let us remember that all people have energy foibles, and that handling characters with empathy and hope leads to a smoother, more enjoyable reading experience for the reader. Also let’s remember that context, wider context, is required for good and evil to fully become engaged in character development (as in, you either need to touch on established social norms or else do some world-and-character solidifying work before the reader will get drawn fully into your moral dilemmas. But all that’s obvious.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, galactic politicians are metaphorically tearing their hair out over my leading gangster’s sudden and unprecedented alliance.

Shakespeare Bloopers

So I was formatting my Shakespeare files today and I needed to be typing the full title for Henry IV part I, and the full title goes like this:

The First Part of Henry the Fourth,

with the Life and Death of HENRY

Sirnamed HOT-SPVRRE.

Cool title, right?

So I’m typing along and not paying attention, and then I look at my screen, and this is what I typed:

The First Part of Henry the Fourth,

with the Life and Death of HENRY

Sirnaked HOT-SPVRRE.

I’m giggling a lot right now.

Sir-naked Hotspur. Ha.

Anyway, that’s my story. I fixed it, so poor Percy is no longer a naked knight, but now I’m going to laugh every time I see the Henry IV p. I title.

BTW, Shakespeare came up with fun titles. I like this one:

THE TRAGEDIE OF IVLIVS CÆSAR.

It’s cute because the Julius part is so difficult to read. It looks like “Iv-lives!” And then, of course, the question becomes: who is Iv?!

This one is fun, too:

The second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke HVMFREY.

I like that one because … it’s so darn long, because Humphrey is cute, and because it’s really, really fun to say “Sixt!”

Try it. “Fift!” is almost as fun. All the plays are like that that have five, six, or eight. We don’t get the pleasure of “Fourt” but “Fift”, “Sixt”, and “Eight” are totally there. “Eight” doesn’t sound odd until you read the whole thing: “King Henry the Eight.” There you are.

Anyway. Have a nice Tuesday!

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, John is having a minor emotional hiccup in the upstairs student room of a hair salon.