Monday, 13 April 2015

Writing Psychological Drama

'I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations.' David Lynch

Think you know me?

People do the strangest things, don't they?

You live in a street for years and then, suddenly, you watch the arrival of a police car and see your neighbour being cuffed and escorted to the back seat, police hand on head, quiet as a lamb, while his wife stands on the driveway crying and his older son screams that he'll cut off his father's balls for what he's done to his younger brother.

This is the same man who borrowed your lawn mower and cleaned it carefully before returning it; the same man who planted out a Christmas tree for next year; the same man who polished his car every Sunday afternoon, listening to R.E.M. on his in-car sound system.

It's probably not a great idea to wonder too much about what lies behind the eyes of the people you know.  Except, that is, if you write books.  Books about real people.  Books that delve into the psychology of an ordinary human being and come up with aspects that might not be all that admirable or even desirable.

What is an ordinary person, anyway? Someone who goes to college, gets a job, marries a man who loves her and lives in his beautiful house? Maybe.

Think you know her?  Think you know what she is capable of?  Of course you do.  There are no thoughts she has had that are new.

In literature, what it boils down to is genre.  Is this character going to fall in love and live happily ever after?  Is she going to overcome an incredible obstacle and save herself/her loved ones/the world?  Is she going to batter her husband with a leg of lamb and serve the murder weapon, roasted, to the police? (Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl).  Is she going to make us laugh?  Make us cry? Scare us half to death?

The point is that we don't know what's going to happen.  In dark psychological drama, we know there is something awful that is going to be exposed at some point.  We imagine what it might be. Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong.  That's the fun of it. We are rarely happy, though, if the plot is too obvious.  We like our twists and turns.

Although the following quote is related to scene setting, I think it also applies to unravelling the hidden psychology of a character.  

"To me a mystery is like a magnet.  Whenever there is something that's unknown, it has a pull to it.  For instance, if you were in a room and there was a doorway open and stairs going down and the light just fell away, you didn't even see the bottom, where the stairs ended, you'd be very much tempted to go down there."  David Lynch

We want to find out what the protagonist is really like, so we allow ourselves to be lured.

Of course, characters from literature are not the same as real people.  How can they be?  We know something about them, but detail can never be comprehensive.  Perhaps we are told that the protagonist has had a difficult life, a privileged existence, or a sublime childhood.  We are fed information that will create interest.  We fill in the gaps.  And, when we are reading a psychological drama, we make value judgements.  Oh, we can't help it! The protagonist's actions, her thoughts and decisions are fair game.  Usually, we want to like her, to admire her, to see her get through.  But she must not behave badly all the time if she wants us to travel with her and hold her hand.

My neighbour didn't say much when they took him away.  He didn't look at his wife, or his son. But, as the police car pulled away, he looked at me and I saw, just for a moment, into his black heart. Everything I'd thought I'd known about him was re-written in that split second.  He was evil. He would be punished, and rightly so.  There could be no mitigating circumstances for his actions. I had made my judgement.

If his story were told, we would despise his crime.  If he were a character in a book, we would search for empathy until we finally discovered what he'd done.  There are people who would be able to forgive him and there are people who would not.  One thing is certain, though, most of us would be fascinated to know how an ordinary man, a neighbour who was just like everyone else in the street, could have turned out to be such a monster.

“I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there's somebody nobody knows about.” Alfred Hitchcock

Alex Crane, the protagonist in My Grandfather's Eyes, is a complicated woman.  Most of the people who have reviewed this book have found little to admire in her.  They have filled in the gaps and made their judgements.  But they have found both Alex and her story fascinating.  

Psychological drama is one of my favourite genres.  I'd love to see Alex on the big screen, lit at an unexpected angle, semi-hidden from view, inviting us to follow her through the open door, down the stairs to where the light fades.  How much would she show us?  And how much would she hold back?

That would depend on the reader, don't you think?


  1. Bev, being a writer is really just a brilliant excuse for nosing about in other people's lives!! Isn't it FUN! Like you, I've seen strange things happening to people, or witnessed odd conversations and thought: there's a story! Sometimes, it then becomes a story...!!!!! But I have to change the names, of course. Great post!

    1. I don't know whether I'd call it fun. Writing is more of an obsession, don't you think? In fact, if I didn't have too many pots on the boil already, I'd be trying to write this character into some deeply unpleasant short story.
      Thanks for reading my ramblings.