Embrace the inner psychopath. If I could only teach ONE ‘trick’ for writing great stories, it would be this: The moral codes that make us excellent citizens make us terrible writers.
We have to remember the rules change when dealing in the realms of imagination. Fiction is NOT life, rather it is an imitation of life. It is life in distillate form.
To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, great stories are ‘life’ with the boring parts cut out. Yet, so many emerging writers forget this.
Novelists aren’t just good with words, novelists excel at using words to create a STORY. This is why so many first ‘novels’ really aren’t novels at all. Because being good with words isn’t enough.
If it were enough, then chefs could perform heart surgery because they’re ‘really good with sharp blades.’
Being ‘good with words’ has to be refined. Good with words…HOW?
Prose and description so glorious angels sing does not a novel make. What makes a novelist is how we wield those words. Yet, here’s the catch. If we want to write stories readers can’t put down, then can’t get out of their heads, then cant stop talking about?
We must embrace our inner psychopath. If we don’t have one, then we need to train one.
Great Writers Embrace the Inner ‘Psychopath’
The terms psychopath and sociopath are easy to confuse, yet they’re distinctively different disorders. Sociopaths have an antisocial personality disorder, which often leads them to ignore social and moral rules that guide an ordered society. They understand right from wrong, just don’t care.
So where does the sociopath part ways with the psychopath?
It’s believed that psychopaths are a more extreme version of the antisocial personality disorder. Thus all psychopaths are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are psychopaths.
The psychopath is, thus far, believed to be incapable of forging emotional bonds, whereas sociopaths can. Thus, the sociopath might not have any qualms about emptying a stranger’s bank account, but he wouldn’t do that to his best friend.
Psychopaths would make no such distinction and would empty anyone’s account they gained (manipulated) access to. The psychopath isn’t guided by any sense of shame or guilt. He or she doesn’t hold back, and is not hindered by empathy or sympathy.
Back to writing.
Superb fiction is an exercise in sadism. Why writers generally creep non-writers out is because we have the imagination to inflict so much suffering and pain.
The non-writer doesn’t understand HOW we can do what we do, but they enjoy it nonetheless…and they just make sure to keep their eyes on us.
***Refer to my post, Thirteen Reasons Writers are Mistaken for Serial Killers.
Millions of people watch (and read) Game of Thrones knowing they are going to be tortured hour after hour…but they can’t get enough. And bear with me, because this goes for ALL great stories. We don’t have to write stories with rape, incest, cannibalism, and mass murder to still torture an audience.
For the writer psychopath, not even CHRISTMAS is safe. Think of all your longtime favorite holiday movies, the ones you watch year after year. What do they have in common?
They all involve chaos, mass mayhem and destruction.
There’s a reason for that. Without chaos, mass mayhem and destruction, there is NO STORY.
Who wants to spend an hour and a half watching a movie about a well-adjusted family getting along? #SnoozeFest
No, we want the GRISWOLDS! National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is about a man whose only goal is to have the most incredible Christmas ever…but his dream is systematically dismantled in increasingly awful ways.
All of his dreams blow up in his face. His lights won’t work and when they do, he causes a massive blackout. His dream is to have the biggest best Christmas tree (good goal, noble goal), but the tree won’t fit in their house and then there is a squirrel and on and on. Nothing works.
Everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong…twice. Then catches fire.
Christmas Vacation is funny, but it isn’t in my top five. I insist that Gremlins is a Christmas movie, yet Hubby doesn’t agree Gremlins is a Christmas movie (because he is wrong).
Then of course there is…
But, monsters taking over a town at Christmas and a hostage situation in a skyscraper are pretty obviously full of overt conflict.
So I decided to talk about the movies that are plenty tense, yet the conflict has more to do with people, their relationships to and with one another, and how desires and false idols collide.
My two favorite Christmas movies are ‘A Christmas Story‘ and ‘The Ref‘. I’m specifically mentioning these two because the screenwriters certainly knew how to embrace their inner psychopaths.
A Christmas Story…from HELL
A Christmas Story is all about a young boy in the 1940s doing everything humanly possible to secure the gift of his dreams, a Red Ryder BB gun. Every good idea he concocts blows up in his face. This poor kid can’t get a break.
I’d like to take a moment to mention that what separates the mundane from the magnificent has to do with VECTORS. When a writer embraces that inner psychopath?
NO ONE IS SAFE.
New writers very often forget to USE their other characters as more than stage props (plot puppets). Why A Christmas Story is SO fun is because mayhem strikes from every angle. Trauma sucker-punches everyone.
When the MC is only in a struggle against a singular antagonistic force, the story falls flat and becomes tedious. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Yet, in this holiday classic, Ralphie isn’t the only one who gets smacked. Dad wins a PRIZE he insists on putting in the front window, and he’s oblivious to his wife’s mortification.
Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window. ~Ralphie as an Adult
The one thing the whole family—but most especially DAD—looks forward to is the Christmas turkey and the days and days of leftovers to enjoy. But nothing is safe from a writer who’s embraced that inner psychopath. Not even the Christmas turkey.
But look how chaos and destruction hammers EVERYONE (not JUST Ralphie).
Speaking of mass mayhem. The Ref is one of the few movies that can make even this Griffendork root for a ‘bad guy.’ Dennis Leary *fan girl moment* plays Gus, a cat burglar who robs the wrong mansion…and his partner abandons him.
With the entire city’s police force out hunting for him, Gus makes a snap decision to lay low by taking a seemingly nice family hostage.
Ah, but the tag line for this movie is genius.
They might be his hostages but what they’re doing to this guy is criminal.
Gus begins with a plan, a plan he’s executed flawlessly until it goes horribly wrong. What’s better is it just keeps getting worse and worse until the end when…catharsis.
See, all the great movies about the holidays present us with the MC’s ideal then the STORY smashes that ideal to pieces until the MC, and those around the MC, realize they’ve missed the entire point of something (family, love, peace, holiday spirit, giving, etc.).
YET, what I want to point out is this. The characters have to endure the torment to get the golden fleece. They cannot suddenly achieve enlightenment and say, ‘A-ha! I’ve had this all wrong! The holiday season is really about X!’
If they did, we’d call foul, be supremely ticked and tell everyone to avoid this movie more than the kiosk barkers at the mall.
Don’t make eye contact. Whatever you do, DO NOT let her buff one nail.
If we watched ninety minutes of a beautifully decorated home (description) with perfect people, we’d feel cheated and ROBBED if nothing went terribly, obscenely WRONG.
Why? Because if the MC doesn’t rightfully EARN revelation, enlightenment, etc. it’s a CHEAT. The writer cheated, which is why we feel cheated. Catharsis is what great stories offer. Release.
The harder it is for the MC (and others) to get to and through Act Three, the more intense the cathartic experience…and the better the denouement.
All righty. So Psychopath 101.
Make EVERYTHING Hard…No, IMPOSSIBLE!
As my friend and mentor, the incredible Les Edgerton taught me, ‘Nothing comes easily for your characters. NOTHING. Not even directions.’ Advice I used very literally in my novel The Devil’s Dance.
When Special Agent Sawyer asks my MC where the closest tire place is located, her response is:
‘What do I look like? Google Maps?’
One of the LARGEST problems I encounter with emerging writers is y’all are too nice. I was, too. Still can be (which I then go back and remedy…with a hammer).
Many new writers still possess a conscience and a moral code…and that’s a problem.
Moral compasses point to the Land of Nod NOT to the Land of Literary Legends.
I cannot count how many samples I’ve read where everyone gets along. If the MC needs something, he or she finds it with uncanny (and boring) ease. If an MC discovers she has magical powers, she learns to use them flawlessly and almost overnight.
NO! We need to make everything hard and seemingly impossible or ZZZZZZZZZZ.
***STAR WARS TRIGGER WARNING:
I know this is controversial, and is only my OPINION. Alas, one of the MANY reasons I wish the Star Wars franchise would just STOP is that, as far as I am concerned, the core storyline’ played out back in the 80s.
To keep trying to push the same storyline is making Star Wars more Space Soap Opera than Space Opera.
Seriously, the Star Wars universe is large enough to begin fresh instead of hiding leftovers in suspicious casseroles.
Why do I mention this? Because Rae learning how to use a light saber like a master with no struggle makes my left eye twitch. She didn’t have to EARN her skills. Yes, she was a master with a long staff, but seamlessly transitioning over to wielding a light saber with NO learning curve?
Which is why the training of Pai Mei in Kill Bill 2 is EPIC…
In fairness, Kung-Fu Panda got a rougher time than Rae.
The harder the MC has to work for the prize, the sweeter the victory. Even in Hallmark Christmas movies. Not even A December Bride can catch an easy break.
And yes, I did actually just write a blog that placed Kill Bill 2, Kung Fu Panda and A Christmas Bride in the same place at once.
Stop making everything too easy. Look over your WIP and search for spots where something was too simple…then throw a rock in it. Once you do that, then set it on fire.
Whatever the MC Wants, It Better Cost BIG
Humans don’t value free or easy. There’s a reason most parents have a back seat full of ‘free toys and games’ from drive-thrus that our kids have never even opened. If the MC wants something it has to COST something.
No, it has to cost EVERYTHING.
This is why writers must embrace the inner psychopath and steal, destroy or ruin everything our characters love. We’re doing it for their own good.
When we look at my opening example—Christmas Vacation—Clark Griswold has to give up his false gods/idols (what he believes makes for the perfect family holiday) and exchange them for the real deal.
In fact, this is a fairly common theme of all holiday movies. Likely why writers are constantly dreaming up new and improved ways to destroy Christmas.
The MC has a belief about what the holidays are really about…then the writer psychopath destroys everything in the MC’s life so they can see truth.
The story conflict (crucible) is what supplies our characters with insight they didn’t possess before we wrecked their lives. By the end of our torment, our MCs have new eyes and are able to tell the difference between fool’s gold and real gold.
KILL THE SHINY
Remember, we are embracing the inner psychopath, which means we can appear to care about our fictional friends. But we’re really using them. We only care what the characters can DO for us (or rather our story). This is one of the toughest parts of what writers—good writers—do.
We use various combinations of 26 letters to create ‘real’ people our audience loves, bonds with, and connects to…then we torment or kill those characters.
And this is tough. It’s like being a farmer who has to name all the animals that will end up on the table. It can suck. We can find ourselves getting attached to the characters because we created them from nothing.
We breathed life into letters–EVEN Q and X!—and created a LIFE. If our creations are funny, noble, kind, loving, and self-sacrificing?
It is because WE made them that way.
In life, bad things happen to good people. But, in fiction, the worst possible things happen to even better people.
If your story feels sluggish, my advice is to kill your shiny. If we don’t, the story WILL suffer.
We fall in love with characters so we start ‘helping’ them by making life too easy. Instead of tormenting our characters, misdirecting them, withholding any sort of lucky break, we butter them up so they can glide along.
This is when we’re no longer writing fiction, we’re playing Literary Barbies/Literary G.I. Joe.
If our characters exist for the sole purpose of acting out our own happy endings, we need a shrink not Scrivner. In the end it will be cheaper to hire a superlative psychiatrist than to produce and market a bad book.
Remember Storytellers Tell STORIES
If our job was to write amazing description, we’d be called ‘describers’ not ‘authors.’ We belong writing ad copy not novels.
Our main goal as storytellers is to tell a STORY, not have a tea party, shopping spree, dinner gala with our imaginary friends. Why? Because NO ONE BUT US (THE WRITER) CARES UNLESS SOMETHING GOES DREADFULLY WRONG.
Think of this in life. You go out to dinner at your favorite fancy restaurant. It has beautiful decor, soft jazz, top notch cuisine, and includes a room full of well-dressed, well-mannered people having a good time.
Do you really care about the other people in this restaurant? Or are they a backdrop you’ll forget as soon as the valet pulls up with your car? Will you remember this dinner for the rest of your life in fine detail?
Now, same restaurant, but the couple a table over escalates from a tense conversation to shouting to screams. The female suddenly bolts out of her chair, toppling the vase of roses and throws her glass of red wine in her date’s face. He’s doing his best to get her to calm down.
And since we ALL know the best way to get an angry woman to calm down is to TELL her to calm down…
SHE GRABS A STEAK KNIFE!
But her plan for unpremeditated murder is interrupted when strange woman tackles her!
…and it is the man’s WIFE!
Suddenly hair extensions are flying as the women wrestle in an undignified tangle of designer clothing and table linens. Then, when they take a breather both women realize…HE LIED TO THEM BOTH.
The girlfriend didn’t know her beau was married and found out, which was why she was breaking up with him. Thus, the new allies (the two women) descend on the babbling cheater with…ESCARGOT FORKS!
Guarantee you, most memorable dinner EVER 😉
Embrace the Inner Psychopath Because it is FUN
We can’t care about hurting people, killing people, or even crushing their hopes and dreams. We have to embrace the inner psychopath or we don’t have a story, we have a sedative.
One of the reasons fiction IS the most widely used form of escape is because, unlike cocaine and hookers, it’s legal.
But fiction also puts us in a world where the rules don’t matter and the consequences don’t either. Fiction permits the audience to embrace THEIR inner psychopath, too.
Consequences are for reality not fiction. Which is how movies like Lethal Weapon can exist. In reality, Riggs and Murtaugh would be riding a desk, and condemned to therapy until Internal Affairs finished their investigation…fifteen minutes into the movie.
In fiction, cops can level entire city blocks, drive the wrong way down a highway causing countless car accidents, blow up buildings, shoot at bad guys in the middle of public places and no one in the movie mentions the words law suit.
John McClane is not turned into a social pariah, and sued for damages by everyone impacted by his actions at the Nakatomi Plaza. The NYPD doesn’t abandon him and force him into early retirement because him leveling a skyscraper in Los Angeles is bad department PR.
Nope, because it is FICTiON so McClane is still around to die harder in Die Hard 2.
Why do we tolerate this bad behavior? And LOVE IT?
Because in life we have to follow the rules, the laws and moral codes. The reason we watch and rewatch the same movies, read and reread the same books is because they liberate us from the chains of morality. We LOVE these stories….
…because there’s a little bit of psychopath in all of us 😉 .
Before I ask for your thoughts, I want to make a little announcement…
Author Holiday Hotline
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What Are Your Thoughts?
What are your favorite Christmas movies? Do you see the theme of chaos and destruction even in classics like It’s A Wonderful Life? Which ones are your favorite and why? Do you struggle being ‘mean’ to your characters? I still do. So many times I have to go BACK and take that shiny away…then kick them.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
Also, check out the FANTASTIC HOLIDAY DEALS we have!
A lot of our On Demand classes need to be wiped from the server to make room for more training, so if you want professional training AT HOME? While in jammies during December when calories don’t COUNT? Grab you SOME! Gift it to yourself, a friend, YOURSELF!
ALSO, I’m offering my Write Stuff Special for a LOW holiday price. 20 pages of deep edit/critique for $55 and there are only 7 slots left. If you need some outside feedback to get you on the right track? Get a SPOT, TODAY! (You can use when you are ready).
In the meantime, opinions!
What do you WIN? For the month of DECEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.
Kristen Lamb is the author of the definitive guide to social media and branding for authors, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. She’s also the author of #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. She’s just released her highly acclaimed debut mystery-thriller The Devil’s Dance.
Kristen has written over twelve hundred blogs and her site was recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine as one of the Top 101 Websites for Writers. Her branding methods are responsible for selling millions of books and used by authors of every level, from emerging writers to mega authors.
My version of a Christmas semi-psychopath story:
“Damn.” Frickin’ holidays were hard enough. All his buddies were in lock down with their families, his relatives weren’t worth hanging up on and alcohol just gave him a headache. Not a damn thing to do until it was over. Now this. Cody gazed at the man dressed in red with white fur trim lying at his feet. Who’d have thought?
Cody swallowed against the urge to upchuck. The man was toast. No one could survive that kind of head wound. The long metal rod in Cody’s sweaty hand grew heavier.
Macho bullshit, defending home and hearth with a fireplace poker. From some guy popping out of that same hearth. Should have built a fire earlier.
“Okay buddy, you’re in it now,” said a voice echoed from the interior of that same damned fireplace.
Cody dropped the poker and raised his hand, the words barely registering over the pounding of blood in his ears. Enough was enough. For all he cared now, they could strip the entire house.
“You have any idea what you’ve done?” A diminutive guy in green and red stood inside the fireplace, hands on hips, scowling at the dead man at Cody’s feet. “An entire year of training shot to shit.” The little guy shook his head and looked up, wiping a wet cheek with the back of his hand. “Well, big guy, you’re the new ‘big guy’ now.”
Cody stared at the apparition. Not another burglar. Not the cops. Not part of his small bachelor world. “What do you mean?” Cody’s voice squeaked.
“You don’t think it’s been the same man all these years?” The green and red guy stepped out of the fireplace, slapping the ashes from his leggings. “Gotta replace him every decade or so. All that damned parallel time and space travel crap takes it out on you humans.” He looked Cody up and down. “Could use a little more padding. Hope you’re not busy.”
The little man knelt and started removing the dead man’s clothing. He glanced up. “Come on, give me a hand. We’ve got a lot of stops to make tonight.”
Another great post, Kristin!
Reminding us of the need to let out our inner-psychopath (at least when writing) is always needed. Always. Because every time I think — Okay, I get it now, I get it — I forget.
Loved the “ffffuuudddgggeee” from The Christmas Story. Things went so bad for everyone it was hilarious. Never thought I’d laugh at someone because their tongue was frozen to the flag pole.
And by the way, how’s the sequel coming for The Devil’s Dance? Looking forward to it already! Thanks again, Kristin!
My favourite Christmas movie is The Nativity Story. Yes, it’s got that Christmas-card moment at the end, but before that it’s blood and dirt and flies and a psycho dictator’s brutal reign of terror – you know, the real Christmas.
Your point about Die Hard reminds me of Hot Fuzz, where the scene after the big climax involves the main characters sitting round in the police station doing all the paperwork their mayhem has accrued. And then of course there’s the explosion, because paperwork is boring 🙂
The idea of embracing my inner psychopath has me itching to torture people… I mean start writing again.
Without conflict, there is no story. Without conflict, there is no way to create climax or resolution.
Christmas as a theme is ripe for conflict. Two lovers with different religions, one doesn’t celebrate Xmas. No money for Christmas. Thought an engagement ring would be for Xmas, but no…. and on and on. It has become such a commercial and sentimental behemoth…
Well, the holidays are a sacred cow. Many of us (wrongly) believe everything should be perfect and nothing go wrong even though, technically, the days were picked rather arbitrarily. For me (since I can’t speak for anyone else), I find myself saying things like, ‘Oh no! She passed away. And right at CHRISTMAS. How awful.’Like people don’t die 365 days a year? And anyway, it being a sacred cow where we believe nothing should go wrong, it’s a prime target for fiction commercial AND literary. It’s a soft spot ripe to be punched.
Oh Kristen, You are AMAZING. I loved that article and agree with you wholeheartedly, BUT…I am that age when I daren’t cough too much at funerals,and have written (not bad, indifferent, quite good…) ‘stuff’for years. Went through the Catholic/Chapel/Jewish mills…so was a ‘goody-two-shoes’ until I grew up (whenever that was…) If! Anyway, I wanted everything to be kosher; to please people and not upset the cliched apple cart so wrote ‘sweet’ tales and some poems you’d throw up over…It’s only in the last fifteen years that I fully realised that one should swear when needed and tell unpalatable truths and tousle the cute child’s hair a bit… It was very liberating I can tell you. I’ve had several things published over the years and particularly enjoy writing in a humorous vein. I’m working (slowly) on, possibly, my last book and it’s a meatier story. I’m hoping it’ll be all the better due to your excellent advice (Readers please wear flame-proof suits…)
Love, love, love all the movie refs and funnies. But, really thanks for reminding me to make life HARD for my protagonist. Merry Christmas.
All time favorite movie, Christmas and otherwise, is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Poor George Bailey just can’t catch a break. Appreciate your thoughts. I do think we can go too far with this. My husband routinely groans at stuff like you pointed out in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard (though not those particular movies) when it’s just too unrealistic.
Nearly 26 years of marriage, and I wasn’t sure if I could go on recently when I said to my husband, “Can you believe that 62% of people don’t think that Die Hard is a Christmas movie?” And he said, “It’s not.” SHOCK! GASP! Noooooo! #TheHorror Lol. Of course, it’s a Christmas movie!
But as for my favorite Christmas story, that would likely be A Charlie Brown Christmas. And it being Charlie Brown, EVERYTHING GOES WRONG. He can’t even get a decent tree. I never realized how mean Charles Schulz could be, but it turns out he knew how to tell a great story and get us rooting for the underdog.
Now I know why I need to take apart my story and do a complete rebuild. I am simply not crazy enough as a writer.
Maybe because my life has been crazy enough that I created a world where most people get along (at least everyone doesn’t live in Candyland…whew!), but I still need a lot more crazy- er, I mean chaos in my stories.
It’s not that I’m not imaginative enough- I have no problem planning for my husbands’ funeral the moment he’s running late (down the the menu for the repast afterward), but I just didn’t think that would be good enough in a story!
Even if my story has to do with magical characters that are near-perfect concerning training. Ugh.
Thank you for all you do to point out WHY my stories probably aren’t as exciting as I try to make them. Sometimes you need an ogre to pee on your head when you get too bogged down in the details.
I just realized I compared you to an ogre. The only reason I’m not deleting that comparison is that you might LIKE that. So in it stays. 😉
You know I love you and your insights, so take it as a compliment. Being an ogre isn’t always a bad thing!
Now I have a book I need to tear apart and redo. Bless you!
Hey, I say that bluntness is my super power. Sometimes we all need an ogre. My “ogre” mentors made me cry…but they also made me a heck of a lot better writer. ((HUGS)) And I took it as a compliment, LOL.
Ogres have layers…and those layers definitely make us better writers!