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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Treatment Tuesday - Sympathetic Antagonists

This week's character on my couch comes from Raquel, a returning customer! :) She's writing a 1840s historical romance and wants some insight into her antagonist. She wants him to formidable, yet sympathetic, the best kind! Jeannie = excited.

Her antagonist is Kent*, a man who grew up with the hero Mike* and thought of him like family. They were outlaws together, but Mike has a change of heart when he is shot and nearly dies. He disappears from Kent's life, but Kent finds him a small town, living a quiet life. But an associate of theirs goes to Mike for help, and Kent realizes Mike's loyalties have drastically changed. Mike even stops Kent from trying to shooting the associate by shooting Kent's gun out of his hand, resulting in a painful injury. Angry and betrayed, Kent wants to "rescue" Mike from his "delusion of tranquility" and small-town monotony. He wants Mike to taste freedom and adventure again--with him, of course--so he comes up with a plan to force Mike into pulling off a dangerous heist.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Raquel wants to know: How far would Kent go to do this? Would he be driven enough to have Mike return to him to go so far as to destroy the life Micah has built? At what point does anger replace the feeling of loss enabling Kent to go so far as to physically harm Mike or those Mike loves? Would a man who basically raised himself have the emotional understanding of brotherhood or would Mike be more of an extension of himself? Would he give up?

Readers out there....these are the type questions I like getting. SO specific. I can't wait to dig in.

My first question for you to consider would be: how far do you want to take Kent? Basically, the answer to any of your questions could be yes, but you'd have to add some additional facets to Kent's portrayal to make him realistic enough to carry this off.

For example, my best friend from high school and I rarely talk. As a normal thinking individual, I can rationalize that this is because we went to different colleges. She's in Kentucky, I'm in California. She got married and started a family before I did. As an individual with a psychological disturbance, I absolutely could believe that she did this in purpose, that she abandoned me, that she didn't love me as much as I loved her.

The above describes a fairly borderline individual. But I could also take it up a notch to a more antisocial personality, which would be in fitting with an outlaw-type, but maybe a bit overboard for the purposes of your story.

A borderline individual who perceives a cut or emotional distance from someone they love would react with intense anger and instability. I could see Kent going to this small town and seeing Mike for the first time and absolutely being in denial about it even being him. I mean, how could Mike have left him? He wouldn't comprehend it. But once he saw that it was Mike, via some quirk or defining physical characteristic, he'd literally go postal. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.)

Borderlines don't have to be in a romantic relationship to undergo this perceived feeling of abandonment. It can be bro-mantic. They wold go to great lengths to avoid that abandonment (and in Kent's case, Mike's abandonment was real, not imagined). He'd be frantic to bring Mike back, in essence, to make sure Mike still cared about him the way Kent does Mike.

But if Mike made a solid choice of his quiet life and the heroine over Kent, Kent would definitely fall in and out of devaluing his relationship with Mike and Mike himself. Of course, he'd be feeling empty and alone, which would affect how he views himself. He might have a very low self-image (i.e., I'm nothing, which Mike saw, and he left me) or unstable identity, (i.e., If only I could have amounted to something successful, Mike wouldn't have left, therefore I need to conjure up this huge, amazing jewel heist to prove my self-worth). See where I'm going?

So if you're reading this and Borderline Kent fits, here's a few suggestions to add to his character to be more in keeping with this kind of diagnosis.

1) He'd need a vice - preferably something that is self-damaging and brought about by impulsivity, such as binge drinking, reckless dueling, etc.

2) He'd need to have difficulty controlling his anger - like once set off, it's fireworks or fight to the death. Likely he'd be a big fighter, and his anger would be very inappropriate and intense, probably rarely befitting the situation.

3) He might benefit (read: come off more real to the reader) from a self-mutilating behavior, like picking at his skin or possibly burning himself with cigars (I'm trying to think 1840 period here). I don't think I'd go with suicidal behavior, but this third is just an option if you want to make Kent a bit darker.

I want to touch on a quick version of Antisocial Kent so you can see which might better suit your needs. Antisocial Kent obviously doesn't conform to social norms. He's an outlaw. He's deceitful, cons people out of money/uses aliases/lies, has lots of impulsivity and doesn't really plan ahead. He has a reckless disregard for safety of himself or others, thus shooting people is not a problem. He doesn't have remorse about it, either. He probably doesn't honor financial obligations and can be irresponsible. He's aggressive and irritable, constantly getting in physical fights.

I know what you're thinking: those aren't all that dissimilar. You'd be right, too, because Borderline and Antisocial are in the same Cluster of personality disorders. But an Antisocial Kent would be harder for readers to have sympathy for than a Borderline Kent. However, the root of the sympathy for your antagonist will be found in Mike's perceived abandonment, given that Mike was Kent's only "family."

I found some informative articles on the childhood symptomology of both antisocials and borderlines. There are similarities, again, but maybe something will strike out at you as more feasible for your poor Kent. See, I'm already feeling sorry for him!

I LOVE this idea for your antagonist. Awesome. Good luck!

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Raquel Byrnes said...

You are the go to GURU for writers everywhere! Love your insight and you've made my antagonist more clear. Never thought of his needing a vice, but it totally fits.

Thank you for the reading material also. I'm going to probably go with borderline personality because I'm not looking to make my book too is a romance after all.

You've been helpful, as always. Thank You, thank you!
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i'm so glad it was useful! hmm...go-to-guru....really like the sound of that. :) thanks.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.