Friday, July 30, 2010

Psych Saturday: Questions Answered!

Welcome to the first Psych Saturday. As I mentioned before, I'm hoping to answer reader's questions about their writing and psychology.

Psych Saturday can only work if people send me questions, so far I haven't gotten a great response - so please if you have a psych question. Please email me at with 'psych Saturday' in subject line :)

Huge Thank you to the reader who responded with the following questions - I hope my answers are useful to you :)

1. well isn't everyone a little crazy? ;-)

In my opinion, there is no such thing as 'normal' we're all a little 'crazy', it's all just a matter of degrees and this is what makes us interesting :)

2. so is there a purpose, is it fair, to label your characters as such, especially if it's the narrator, as opposed to just making them behave the way the behave (in a certain type of novel that is...), except in the case where... hmm... like it's someone labeled as such in the world of the book... and then to still make them relatable....

I think as a writer you have to decide where you stand on this issue. Personally I don't think a character should be defined by a 'label'. In my mind, issues such as mental illness or conditions should be considered during character development but shouldn't overshadow the actually character development itself. A great example of marrying the two occurs in the book 'The curious incident of the dog in the night-time' where we have the story told from the first person perspective of Christopher Boone, a 15 year old boy with Aspergers syndrome. Within the the actually text of the book, it is never specified where Christopher falls on the autism spectrum,
the author, Mark Haddon, doesn't necessarily 'label' him. But we get a sense of his condition, which is reflected within the structure of the novel itself (chaptered numbers) where the author uses Christopher's fascinations with numbers as a technique to tell the story and through the narration of the story.Like all great narration, we see everything from Christopher's perspective which is naturally filtered by his condition and his personality.

Therefore I think that you need to decide yourself about your character. If your character is going to have a 'label', then you need to decide how much impact it will have on your character and whether you want to actually explicitly label them. For instance, you can have a character with a lot of quirks or someone who has a mental illness, it is entirely up to you how important quirks or illness will be for your character. But if you are going to write a character with a mental illness such as schizophrenia or depression then some of the characteristics of these illnesses need to be incorporated but not overshadow your character. For example, if you have a character narrating who is bi-polar, the way they narrate/tell the story will differ between their depressed and manic stages - one chapter might be short sentences and have a 'down' feel to it while the other could be rambling, exciting, stream of conscious with long sentences and reflect a narrator who feels 'elated'.

3. and in the cases, the a gothic novel- like patrick mcgrath's, and arthur phillips "angela" and many others, to use the "unreliable narrator," to build the suspense...

As society is always labeling more and more, and pushing more treatments (with corporate interests in mind), don't you think the most compassionate way, and the truth, would be not to let an illness define a character, so maybe not to define them that way at all... unless it is a psychological study, or a memoir of a struggle, or something, because it's hard.... I mine what I'm writing is sort of like that, but I don't label myself anything... I think writing about psychoanalysis is very interesting...

Like you mention, Patrick McGrath's Books and Arthur Phillips 'Angela' use unreliable narrators as a plot device to build suspence. The unreliable narrator can a] be revealed as unreliable up-front and immediately or b] be revealed slowly as the plot unravels or revealed at the end for a twist. For example, in a book i read a while ago (can't remember the name), the character is living with her father and older sister after her mother died in a fire. Her older sister is very prominant in her life and tells her what to do, but then people (her boyfriend) begin to be murdered and she believes her father has something to do with it. Then she realises it is her sister all along, the twist is that her sister died in the fire and she has actually commited all the murders when her other personality took over. As a narrator, she is completely reliable (or so we think) right until the reveal, which leaves the reader reeling (in a good way). The character is never labelled because she doesn't realise that she is mentally ill so how could we know that she is an unreliable narrator until she realises it!

Back to your question, I believe that as a writer, you have decide what way to define your character.
Sometimes as a writer you do need to step back and away from your characters and see which is the best method for telling your story. I don't think that a person should be defined by their illness but I don't think portraying them without the symptoms of that condition would be fair either. As a writer, you yourself need to decide about whether you wish to use a reliable or unreliable narrator and whether you wish to be upfront as say 'Hi my name is xx and i'm have xx' or whether you want it to be hinted at and revealed slowly or whether it should be revealed at all.
I think that you also need to decide what message you want in your writing. It's obvious that you feel strongly about labels - therefore, you probably don't want to assign a label to your character, and you don't need to either if you don't want to. Remember there are no rules when it comes to content of your writing! It is entirely up to you how you portray your characters and the world of your book!

4. Do you think one needs personal experience in it to fairly write about?

I assume you mean 'it' as in psychology/mental illness? Alot of people talk about 'write what you know' but you can know lots if you put your mind to it :)

If you have personal experience, that is sure to help but if you don't I don't think it should hinder you. Plenty of people write about serial killers etc. without being profillers/cops/killers, you just need to research it! Talk to people in that field, get their personal experience and read up about it! Half the fun is actually reading up and researching (what a nerd i am) because you never know when a new idea will pop into your head. e.g. Phillipa Gregory was researching a book about Trade and ships and she came across a ship called 'Mary Boleyn' - she researched more and found out that Anne Boleyn had a sister - viola - 'The other Boleyn Sister' was the result.

So to sum up, to label or not to label is entirely up to you as a writer. Only you know your characters and the world of your novel inside and out so do what you feel is comfortable and right.

I hope this has been help to the reader and to others. Please email me if you have an follow up questions to this or have a question (s) for psych saturday :)

Thanks for reading!


Anne R. Allen said...

Lots of info and thought-provoking stuff here, Emily. I love the idea of a bipolar narrator. Dog in the Nighttime did such a great job of getting us into the head of somebody with a mental disability.

I think a lot of classics are written about people with characteristics we call "mental illness" now that were just considered quirks in earlier times. I've heard people suggest Sherlock Holmes had Asperger's. And certainly Becky Sharp had a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Bathwater said...

I don't think you should label your characters as the narrator, let them speak for themselves.

xoxo said...

This is really cool I'm going to have to send you one of my own questions :D


Scarlet-O said...

I finally read this though i was looking forward for weeks! I love your answers! I knew i put in some of those questions and they were deliberately kind of oblique... to say the least... and you really answered them and did an amazing job!! I need to read to "Dog in the Nighttime" now too and hope you can remember the name of the second book you mentioned about unreliable narrators!!

Thanks :-0


Emily Cross said...

Scarlet - I'm glad you liked my answers and I'm delighted if they are of any help. My friend read the book also so I'm going to find out what the name is! There is also another book which is really good called 'I am the cheese' by Robert Cormier

Anonymous said...

Hi Emily

I came across your blog and thought that while I really enjoyed the content, it took me ages to read as my eyes were so sore from the white on black....*sigh* It looks awesome, admittedly, but is not particularly kind to the retinas.
Just wondered if anyone else has mentioned it.

Tuesday Kid said...

This is pretty facinating. I've seen that Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time in a few shops. You've made me want to read it.

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