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.


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.