Thursday, September 23, 2010
In Which You Need To Lock Up Your Stuff
In Lost Dog, protagonist Peter McKrall takes things, not as the result of criminal intent but due to compulsion.
Peter is a kleptomaniac.
Kleptomania isn't something you have alone. It's not its own disorder, but an expression of other disorders, and typically accompanied by other negative behaviors. Peter's real problem wasn't taking things—impulse control was his struggle. But the most visible expression of his disorder was such that you'd better hope your stuff was locked up when he was around.
When Lost Dog came out, a common question at events and from readers was, "So, how exactly do you know about kleptomania?" This question was typically accompanied by a chuckle with just an edge of nerve hanging on the back end. Because, after all, we've all heard the dictum, "Write what you know." So, um, how exactly do I know about kleptomania?
The good news for your stuff is I learned about kleptomania the old-fashioned way; I stole things.
No, no. That was a joke. Heh heh?
In early drafts of Lost Dog, Peter was not a klepto. He was mostly just bitchy. Which was not working for my early readers. The problem is his bitchiness wasn't well-motivated. We all know people who are simply assholes, and there have been compelling assholes in fiction, but in proto-Peter's case it wasn't enough.
My first thought was to make into someone with permanent foot-in-mouth disease, a sort of lovable troglodyte. But that wouldn't work with the tone and theme of Lost Dog, which was a story about child abuse and murder, nor would it work with the incipient romance Peter would have with Ruby Jane Whittaker. Whatever I did with Peter, it needed to be dark, something driven by grim forces beyond his control.
And that was the key phrase. Beyond his control. Peter's problem would be a compulsion, something which came out of him despite his best efforts to keep it inside. Impulse control can express itself in so many ways, ways I could use to enhance the essential tension and the dramatic arc of the story: binge drinking, oppositional response to authority, and, yes, taking stuff. Furthermore, the kleptomania presented the opportunity to add another layer of conflict in Peter's already dicey situation. After all, you steal shit, and you get caught, the cops will have something to say about it, as will the people you steal from.
Once I reached that conclusion, all that remained was to show readers what it felt like to have no choice but to take what you see before you, no matter what it is, no matter how hard you try not to, no matter what the consequences may be.
And that nervous question, "So, how exactly do you know about kleptomania?" suggests maybe I pulled it off.
If you happen to be in the Portland/Vancouver, WA area on October 2nd, please consider coming out to hear me natter about character-driven fiction at the Vancouver Writers Mixer, Cover to Cover Books, 1817 Main Street, Vancouver, WA 98660 at 5pm. Tickets are free!