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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Wearing Masks

I really appreciate all the emails I've gotten of late for character therapy! I'll be answering them in the order in which they came. Today’s assessment comes from Susanne, and focuses on the hero from her WIP, Luke,* a 26-year-old living in 1818 in Britain. (Finally got a man to work with!)

So I’ll jump right to it with Luke’s backstory. This is a time of rigid class structures as well as the “golden age” of smuggling. Luke’s father is Scottish and his mother the daughter of a English duke. At 11, he goes to a British boarding school where he is made fun of for his Scottish brogue. Luke buries the accent, but also learns how to be a good fighter defending himself (i.e., quite the chip on his shoulder). This chip gets even bigger when, at 20, he learns his childhood sweetheart married his brother.

Six years later, Luke has found God and is working for the Revenue Service as a secret agent (read: a spy). In order to do this, he’s had to bury all his aristocratic upbringing and hang out with lowlifes, trying to bring down the brains behind the smuggling operations. He wants to escape his “double life,” but he has to bring down one really bad guy first. But the heroine gets in the way of this final case inadvertently, forcing Luke to accompany her back to London for the Season, essentially as a bodyguard. This means he has to reacquaint himself with a society, manners, and eventually a love he has been without for years.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Extensive history, I know…but imperative to understanding Luke’s psyche. Here are Susanne’s questions: How would compartmentalizing parts of a self damage a person? How would the buried parts of one manifest themselves? How easy would it be to slip up? He's pretended to be someone else for so long...what if he's that new person now, and can't find himself anymore?

Susanne and I emailed a bit about Luke, and my first impressions were this: Luke’s probably a very angry guy. All that childhood trauma and heartache would be hard to get over. And then he wears a mask as a spy for six long years. I reworded Susanne’s question this way: What damage occurs inwardly when you wear a mask for so long you lose sight of what you look like underneath?

Ah, now that’s something every reader should be able to identify with…wearing masks. I gave Susanne permission to steal that metaphor, because it does speak to us today. Pretending to be something or someone we’re not is hard work, both physically (for Luke, since he’s like a 19th century version of a Navy SEAL), emotionally and mentally. I’d probably diagnose Luke with Dysthymia Disorder, which is like a low-grade depression present for over two years.

Luke is the opposite of integrated; he’s disintegrated. He’s not in touch with all the parts of himself. This happens in real life frequently, but oftentimes goes unnoticed. Luke, however, notices and doesn’t like it. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” could ring true for him. After six years, it’s likely that he doesn’t remember some social graces when he tries to reenter society. He’ll have a few gauche moments. He’ll have to retrain himself, which will be frustrating and angering. The buried parts of himself will reawaken, but this will be painful. To reintegrate—take off the mask—is uncomfortable. He might abhor his mask as a spy, but in truth, it’s like a comfy old shoe. (Think Man in the Iron Mask when Leonardo is freed of the mask, but still puts it on when he doesn’t think anyone would see him.) Luke might even resent the heroine for being so at ease in an environment he’s not. He’ll probably treat her gruffly, especially since she got in the way of his freedom from being a spy and sent him headfirst into a society he had forgotten. Standoffish would be realistic, angry even more so.

Dysthymic Disorder has some other symptoms that go hand-in-hand with it. Luke might also suffer from insomnia (too little sleep) or hypersomnia (too much). Some other symptoms and how they could play out in Luke’s life would be a poor appetite – he could only eat to stay strong, low self esteem – maybe he thinks he’s not cut out for polite society anymore, poor concentration – his thoughts could be jumbled…when working he wants to be free and when in society he just wants to be working, and feelings of hopelessness – he’ll never be free.

So hopefully you learned a little about Dysthymic Disorder as well as how wearing a mask could lead to a depressive disorder like I’ve diagnosed Luke with.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Jody Hedlund said...

Jeannie, you do such a great job providing this detailed info.! I can really see how much time you take! Thank you!

And BTW, I don't exactly know the dates for the Genesis and TBL, but I do know with the Genesis, finalist hear between May 1-15. I'd love to know when the rest of us will hear. If you find out anything more, let me know!

Jeannie Campbell said...

this from katie, who couldn't get the comment form to work:

and I want to see the movie immediately after reading the book!

has anyone else had trouble?

Katie said...

Jeannie! You are amazing! This stuff is SO helpful! I must email you... I am having Jeannie withdrawal.

Jessica said...

Jeannie, I came by three different times today and your comment form wasn't working. I'm so glad it is now.

This was really fascinating! I loved reading it. So what percentage of the population do you think suffers from this? And can a person form successful relationships before facing their inner problems? Any advice on how a character should work through this in the book? Like situations that can encourage him to grow and become more integrated?
Cool stuff, and you sound so professional! :-)

Jeannie Campbell said...

jessica...thanks! i'm glad what i'm doing is helping other writers think through these things. dysthymia is more common with women (as is least reported cases), and according to my diagnostic manual, about 3% at any given time can have this disorder. as for how a character works through this...that would be as varied as the characters themselves. there is no one road to mental health. :) (how's that for a wishy-washy, send-me-your-individual-questions type answer?) :)

Jill Kemerer said...

Hi Jeannie, I couldn't post a comment yesterday either, so I'm glad it's working again.

Thanks for telling us the types of things the character may be dealing with due to this disorder (insomnia, appetite issues, etc...). Those are great details to add to a book.

Love it!

Susanne Dietze said...

Thank you so much for offering therapy to my character! He's better off for it!

I appreciate learning more of what's going on with him, and I'm gratified that I had already incorporated some of his symptoms. Thanks again!

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