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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Breaking Point...and Beyond

Have you ever seen the TV show nip/tuck (2003 - 2010)?  It's an unusual show, because you're watching along, and they imply that something really edgy is going to happen.  A main character is feeling kind of turned on by the super-expensive sex doll modeled after his business partner's ex-girlfriend. A plastic surgery patient character has threatened to perform her own mastectomy.

Most writers would turn away, getting their characters out just in the nick of time. Of the few writers who decided to go all the way, most of them would never show the actual event. In nip/tuck, they Go There. All the way. And they show all of it. The sex with the doll. The woman who does the mastectomy on herself with an electric carving knife in the doctors' waiting room. And then they show the fallout. These characters never get a break.

Going There is what intrigues me. Not what happens when the hero gets there in the nick of time, but when the worst the hero can possibly imagine happens. And then sometimes...that's not all. Next come a few things the hero couldn't possibly have imagined in his worst nightmares.  And then, of course, there's the fallout.  Shattered relationships. Grief. Nightmares. Depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder.  Suicidality. And the humiliation of having had all those reactions in front of other people.

Maybe it's having been on the frontlines and counseled people who have had things worse than they could ever imagine happen to them. Maybe it's just having lived through a few things in my own life.  But I Go There in my fiction. A lot.

I don't see it as torturing my characters. I see it like this: Life can really, truly be that ugly.  Human beings do horrible things to other human beings, and sometimes they even do them intentionally.  I don't pretend otherwise when I tell a story.

One of the best ways to learn about the dark side of life is to be willing to be open, and to listen. Everyone has suffered indignities, and some have suffered horrors.  But those things are invisible unless you're open and willing to other people, including the really nasty, awful bits.  Like Mary Lindsey once said to me, the people who seem the most benign are often the ones who hide the most.  Because they've had to learn to seem benign to be accepted by a world too horrified by the realities of their lives.

The same thing is true with your characters.  You have to be willing to really listen to them, and if they have to Go There, you need to be brave enough to go with them. Carl Jung talked about how we all have a dark side to our personalities (which he called the Shadow), but only a few of us are willing to confront that side and integrate it into the Self.  I've always believed that part of what makes Stephen King so great is that he faces his own Shadow and then writes about what he finds.

So how do you do that , avoid giving in to the urge to look away from the dark stuff? 

The most important word in your story is NO. Whatever your character wants or needs, the answer must always be NO. Once in a while, it may seem that the character is getting a yes, but in reality that yes must ultimately drive them farther from what they want or need. I believe strongly in the NO.  It always leads to a better story.

Have you ever seen Cool Hand Luke?  No matter how many times they drag Luke back to the chain gang, he always takes off again. He can't seem to help it. After the second time he escapes, the boss makes him dig a trench.  Then fill the trench.  Then dig the trench.  Then fill the trench. Over and over and over, until Luke finally breaks down, half dead, and begs to be allowed to stop.  But they keep pushing him. The other inmates turn away, horrified by what's left of this free spirit they all admired.

Still, later in the film, Luke escapes again, this time with another inmate.  The friend laughs, crowing that Luke's groveling was so convincing that "They didn't know you was foolin!"  And Luke says "Foolin, huh? You can't fool them about somethin like that.  They broke me."

So forget a little spilled milk, a few broken eggs. For me the real question is...what does it take to break your character, and what happens to him after he's broken?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Anonymous said...

Hi Carolyn,

What an amazing and enlightening post! First of all, I absolutely know what you mean by Nip/Tuck. And I'll go you one better. Game of Thrones "goes there" as well. In the season one finale- they stay true to George RR Martin's material and kill off their main character (Eddard Stark) and biggest star (Sean Bean).
I've been going back and forth about a couple of scenes in my current manuscript. Trying to decide JUST how bad to make things for my characters. This post has helped me decide, and I thank you so much for it. As you mentioned, stories like Cool Hand Luke, (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is another) that take it all the way, are the stories that stick with us for years to come. That's what I want. Thank you!

RaShelle Workman said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you for such a great post!

Erin Kane Spock said...

This was a very timely post. I just wrote my final scene and deleted the part where the antagonist backhands his wife, everyone is uncomfortable, but no one does anything about it (historical setting). I thought it might not get through to readers, but it does 'go there.'

Unknown said...

Carolyn, what a great post. I love nip/tuck. I see this in the Dexter series too, which I'm addicted to. When I first watched Dexter, I turned it off and thought it too graphic, but one night I watched it because a visitor begged me to leave it on. I got hooked. and though the MC does what he does, your rooting for him. It's so bizarre and the humour is weird, but the best show and the best acting I've ever seen. I've learned a lot from that show, from all the characters, the sneaky, the weak, the psychopaths, the charming, thieves, the good. Their reasons for what they do is all there. A great show for writers to learn about characters.

You've just reminded me about your book, The Writer's Guide to Psychology. It's been in my wish list basket on Amazon for ages. I've finally ordered it, Yes! Oh and I also ordered another book that has a real live character. I had a copy, but someone borrowed it and then bought it off me. The MC keeps getting knocked down and sometimes knocks himself down, but no matter what is thrown at him by scoundrels, he bounces back, even when he's nearly killed on a dark street. This character is amazing and though he calls his story a novel, I think it's a biography. This is the first in a series and I can't wait for the next book. It would make a fantastic movie. It's on Amazon as an eBook or paperback called Boxer Hobo. Oh, I forgot to mention that it's hilarious as well as sad and I want to read it again.

I also loved Errol Flynn's book: My Wicked Wicked ways and Man Against Himself by Karl Menninger.

I'm really looking forward to reading and studying your book, Carolyn. I'll review it too. I think your book is a must for all writers.

Though my books are children's stories, I love making my characters suffer before the happy ending. I also love adding mean antagonists. Once I had a reviewer say that eight-year-olds couldn't be mean or competitive like my characters, but I guess she hasn't watched kids of that age lately. The MC's in my stories always have a bad side, they are never perfect, but I always give them an endearing side too. I don't know why some reviewers think that child MC's should be perfect. Life isn't like that, plus the story would be boring to other children if that was the case.

Carolyn, you rock! I always follow your posts and you've helped so many authors with what you write. I personally thank you. We're so lucky to have a psychological take on things.

Unknown said...

Oh, Carolyn, I forgot to say I twittered my purchase of your book and added it to Facebook. I hope other writers will buy it as it will help with their characters.

Thanks so much for writing it. I hoe you write more.

Trisha said...

I have only seen a little bit of Nip/Tuck, only a few episodes. It did seem cool but I was only at the beginning.

I definitely think it's important to 'go there', in order to be more realistic. You don't have to do it relentlessly and make the story entirely unenjoyable (at least, I don't love that kind of story), but suffering is definitely a real part of life.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks for all the great comments! It always feels good to know a post was particularly timely and/or helpful to someone! And Trish, it always makes me happy to know someone is checking out my book!

Unknown said...

I can't wait to recieve your book in the post, Carolyn. I've had it in my wish list for ages and your post reminded me to buy it. I hope you don't mind, but I think it's too good a book not share it so I've blogged it. If you would like me to remove the picture let me know. I know that was a bit cheeky of me. Here is the link to my post: http://trish-mollygumnut.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/writers-guide-to-psychology.html