Tag Archives: human behavior

Creative Mind Under Stress

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked my mind to return to my interest in what happens when psychological trauma rules a mind and life rather than the mind confronting it and healing. I didn’t know either Spade or Bourdain so I’m not writing about them specifically. But I chose to make the protagonist of the Perceval series a 30-something American man, Evan Quinn, who suffered severe psychological trauma as a child and who has an aversion to any kind of psychiatric treatment because in his America the government uses psychiatric treatment as an instrument of mind and behavior control as well as a way to make someone disappear. I wanted to explore through Evan Quinn the possibilities of untreated psychological trauma. How does the mind deal with the psychological trauma? How do the mental coping mechanisms affect behavior? How do they affect the person’s thinking? Just as the physical body has its responses to trauma, so does the human mind to psychological trauma.

When a person experiences a life-threatening situation, or a situation the person perceives as life-threatening, and the person is powerless in that situation, the mind experiences psychological trauma. Some examples (not all the possibilities) of such a traumatizing situation: natural disaster, car accident, combat in war, being the victim of attempted murder, being mugged at gunpoint, being raped, and especially for children, being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. Once the threat is over and the person is safe, it’s important for him or her to talk about the experience, to debrief. This includes talking not only about the facts of the situation but also how the person felt, what the person was thinking during the situation, and what, if anything, the person did in response to the situation. For example, I live in Minnesota, and during tornado season over the years I’ve heard of a small town being hit by a devastating tornado, and then witnessed residents of the town talking about their experience with the media, being heard and supported, helped and comforted. This is actually a very important step toward healing the psychological trauma of the natural disaster. But what happens when the traumatized person cannot talk about the event immediately afterward and receive support, help, and comfort?

Evan Quinn experienced abuse as a child growing up. He was a powerless, defenseless child abused by a person he trusted to protect and defend him. For any child, this betrayal and injury can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche including dissociation at the time of the trauma. When there’s no outside intervention to protect the child afterward as there was none for Evan, the mind copes by compartmentalizing the thoughts and emotions of the memory of the trauma. In other words, the mind puts the memory away in a closet. The memory isn’t gone, though. The mind takes steps of its own to protect itself and the child. So, for example, the child may become quiet, sad, afraid, and hyper-vigilant in contrast to previous behavior. The child’s thought processes change. It only takes one trauma to do the damage, and subsequent trauma reinforces the mind’s coping measures. Each person is a unique individual, and so each person will respond in a unique and individual way to a psychologically traumatizing event(s). There is a common coping mechanism, however, that manifests as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Evan Quinn has PTSD. He’s grown up living with his abuser, putting the memories of the abuse away in a mental closet even as he remembers witnessing his father abusing his mother and her response. He makes it to adulthood because of classical music and his friendship with the Caines, especially with his mentor in music, Joseph Caine. In Europe, he’s far away from his abuser and he’s finally safe. It’s usually at this point that PTSD begins to really make itself felt because the circumstances no longer require its coping and protective function. Memories will pop out of the closet in the form of flashbacks, also affecting mental function, sleep, and emotional control. For women, depression is common, as well as acting out in inappropriate ways. For men, there can be acting out, sometimes violence, paranoia, as well as depression. Hallucinations, auditory and/or visual, are not uncommon. A profound sense of hopelessness and uselessness, deep hot rage and short temper, and despair can pervade daily life. None of this happens all at once but develops over time. PTSD is a symptom of unresolved psychological trauma.

In Perceval’s Secret, Evan begins to become aware of his PTSD and it’s recognized by Klaus Leiner who offers Evan help. Evan receives other offers of help, but his aversion to psychiatric treatment and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with him prevent him from accepting those offers. The PTSD affects his thought process and the choices that he makes. How his life progresses after that is what the Perceval series reveals. My big discovery, as the writer that Evan chose to tell his story, was that power plays a crucial role — having power over others, being powerless vs. feeling powerless, and the desire to feel powerful vs. actually being powerful in oneself. And I feel often that I am only scratching the surface of this complex human experience and condition, as well as its relevance to current human life.

 

Creating Character: Flaws

Creating flawed characters in ink

Creating flawed characters in ink

For the last several months, I’ve been fascinated by Donald Trump. Not because I agree with him and I voted for him.  No. He’s a perfect example of a character with hubris. What is hubris? Pride and arrogance, full on demonstrated by narcissists who possess absolutely zero internal power, i.e. a healthy self esteem. They make fabulous characters in fiction, especially for tragedies. Why is hubris considered a character flaw? Well, the excessive pride and arrogance tend to fuel fantasy thinking rather than reality thinking. Watching someone with hubris is like watching an out-of-control train heading for a massive wreck.

Characters with flaws are far more interesting than perfect characters. Human beings are imperfect creatures, so to have a perfect character is to strain credulity. The challenge for writers is how to create imperfect characters without going to the extreme. Donald Trump is an extreme character. I suppose his wife sees other aspects of his personality as well as those he displays in public, but his choices still point to an extreme character. For example, he chooses to respond to something inconsequential but that he perceives questions something about him whether it’s intelligence, ability, or his “alternate facts,” as KellyAnne Conway so hilariously put it regarding Sean Spicer’s comments in his first meeting with the press as Trump’s press secretary. You can be certain that Spicer, as well as Conway, was saying what Trump wanted them to say. So, I’d say that Trump would be a warning against creating an extreme character, unless of course, the writer wanted to make the point that extreme personalities tend to lead to or cause tragedies.

Writers must notice human behavior, write notes about it, study it, explore it, all in the service of creating plausible human characters. People-watching, then, is part of a writer’s work whether that be politicians or people in an airport, restaurant, walking down the street. And what of human flaws?

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Start with “the seven deadly sins,” for example: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Greed is a wonderful flaw (Trump has this one too, in my opinion) and lust doesn’t need to refer to sex, but also could be a lust for power and/or control. It’s a good place to start. Nowadays, there are all sorts of psychological flaws that humans can have — narcissism, PTSD, mental illness whether mild or extreme. And there are physical flaws, also, of such variety and degree, and how that affects a character’s personality and/or psyche. Sometimes flaws become obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes they end up being what has strengthened the character to overcome the obstacles in his way. For a character to NOT have any flaws at all would nowadays be greeted with a certain amount of disdain for not being plausible.

When I was learning about the characters in Perceval’s Secret (or rather, they were teaching me about themselves), I would make lists for each character — one for strengths, one for weaknesses or flaws. Sometimes each played roles in the stories, sometimes not.  For Evan Quinn, his flaws are obstacles that he must overcome.  He is stronger than he realizes, as is true for most people. But he also possesses a flaw that is an effect from another flaw, i.e. the way he perceives the world and other people, as well as himself and what he wants. Because of this flaw in thinking, he makes choices in the moment that are motivated by the deeper flaw. So you see, writers can layer flaws, have one feed into another, and do the same thing with strengths. That will give depth and richness to the character.

Although I’m not at all happy about Donald Trump now being President, it will be interesting to see how he lives out his story as the deeply flawed main character.

Political Correctness in Creative Writing

Parents Carrying Child

“Political correctness” has gotten a bad rap.  These two words strung together have become a catch-all for some people who regard it as another way to say “oppression.”  These people want to be free to do and say what they want without regard to others or the civility of the society in which they live.  Do you know what political correctness really is?  Gina Hunter, at Eyes on Life in April 2013, posted her take on it, and I tend to agree with it.  I’d add now that people who stand against political correctness may do so in order to maintain their feelings of power over people they view as inferior in some way.  Usually people who feel power and control over others will not surrender that power without a fight.  They need to feel powerful and in control because inside they feel powerless and insecure.

This week over at “Charles Ray’s Ramblings,” Charles Ray posted about political correctness in creative writing — should writers be politically correct or no?  If so, how far to go?  When does political correctness restrict creativity, if in fact, it does?  Charles writes, “Writing holds up a mirror to the world.  I agree.

Gina Hunter wrote:

What is political correctness?  PC says that you can’t discriminate against someone for his or her age, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or race.  It’s about treating everyone with respect, no matter who they are or where they came from, what they think or what they say.  It’s about accepting that other people don’t think the way you do, don’t feel the way you do, don’t believe what you believe or want what you want, and their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires are as valid as yours are.  How boring the world would be if everyone were the same.  PC is about getting along with each other, agreeing to disagree, not holding grudges, and listening with an open mind.

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006As a writer, if you regard your characters as people, then you’ll want to be true to them as the people they are, accept them as they are, love them unconditionally, then portray them in their stories as they truly are.  That doesn’t rule out doing so with compassion and respect.  If you have a character who happens to hate Italian Americans and his speech and behavior reflect those feelings, then it’s part of his or her characterization.  I think creative writing has the potential to reveal just how ugly and undesirable speech and behavior is that is not politically correct, i.e. disrespectful and unaccepting of others.  How abusive such speech and behavior can be, and how revealing also of the insecurity, fear and ignorance that fuels it.

No one is all bad or all good.  Human beings carry within them the potential for learning, change and growth.  I would suggest that when creating a politically incorrect character to keep in mind that taken to the extreme, without any redeeming qualities or beliefs, that character would not be plausible.  He’d be more of a caricature than a person.  Maybe you have a character who is a better than average father, works hard at being a good parent, but can’t see his own prejudices against people of a different skin color.  How does that affect his parenting?  How does he behave outside his home?  Is he confronted at his job or other places with people who trigger his prejudice? Does his wife share his prejudice or no?  You can see the rich potential in this situation — lots of potential conflict and obstacles — far more than if he were only prejudiced against one group of people.

In the same way, someone who is politically correct cannot be all good.  What flaws would this person have?  Maybe being politically correct is a constant struggle that she’s very aware of and working at.  Or maybe she makes a terrible mistake that reveals how deeply entrenched prejudices can be.  A character can have contradictions and conflicts within herself, just like any person can.  I see dealing with political correctness in creative writing as an opportunity to give my characters speech and behaviors, beliefs and attitudes, that readers can relate to as well as grapple with themselves.

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