I DON’T WANT TO SEND MY DEEPLY TROUBLED MAIN CHARACTER TO THE FUCKING SCHOOL COUNSELOR TO TALK ABOUT HER GODDAMN PROBLEMS THAT’S NOT ANGSTY ENOUGH
There’s this notion that us writers can write ourselves into a corner. We can set things up for ourselves in such a way that there is only one way out, and the implication is that it’s a way out that we don’t want to take. I find myself in this situation right now, and because I’ve spent all day waiting to be able to play the Heroes of the Storm alpha only to find that it’s undergoing extended maintenance and probably won’t be available until tomorrow and have therefore gotten precisely fuck all work of any kind done, it is a corner that I very much want to write my way out of, right the hell now.
Now, there is a very simple way to avoid this cul-de-sac where writing enthusiasm comes to die: write something else. See, this corner that I’ve written myself into is not set in stone. It’s made out of thoughts and words, not physical matter. I can turn it into a highway, or a meadow, or a fucking swing-set if I so desire. In every important sense of the word, there is literally no problem here.
Except for the fact that, as somebody who is a stickler for “realism” … certain things have to happen.
And because of that, this corner that I’ve written myself into is, in fact, unavoidable.
Unless I stop caring about realism.
This was actually something I got excited about a few days ago; I felt actual EXCITEMENT at the merest NOTION that I could potentially not give a fuck about what makes sense in real life and instead use story-logic to solve my problems. The giddiness that almost swept me away at that prospect was really quite delightful. And now it’s gone, because I am a miserable perfectionist and I really wish I was not right now.
But okay. Self-awareness time. I mean that’s our thing as human beings, right? Self-reflexivity and shit? Surely if I know what the problem is, I can work out the solution to it.
Surely if I know that I’m in a corner, I can leave it.
But is there any choice in where I end up?
When I started re-reading Twilight this year, and then stopped soon afterwards, two things struck me at once. The first was that Bella had depression and possibly social anxiety.
The second was that Stephanie Meyer was not aware of this.
Other than suddenly feeling very concerned for Stephanie Meyer, I really did not like that there was this very obviously mentally ill young woman on the page who was not getting the help that she needed from the story that she was the central focus of (thus I was also prepared to be very angry with Stephanie Meyer). Mental illness is something that our society is still really shit at helping people cope with in a healthy, safe and respectful way, because our society is not healthy, safe or respectful in many ways that it desperately needs to be. The last thing that I want is to perpetuate this toxic ignorance in my own works, especially as somebody who at least had and possibly still has depression and at least mild social anxiety (hence why I identified what Bella was going through, even if Stephanie Meyer didn’t), and I can’t help but think that if Bella had gone and talked to a counselor …
What am I even thinking. No mere trained mental health professional could ever understand why a nondescript 16-year-old white girl, whose parents are separated and has just moved to a new town to live with her father while her mother goes on a baseball tour with her stepfather, feels the way she does. How could I be so crass as to even suggest such a thing.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a positive depiction of a counselor in a film or book; I’m sure they’re out there, but I have yet to see one. The closest you generally get is the Wise Old Mentor character. Dumbledore was a pretty blatant example of this, with each book save the final two ending with what I came to call the “post-traumatic-chat-with-Dumbledore”. Dumbledore then turned out to be a manipulative utilitarian asshole, so once again the counselor character fails. And that’s only assuming that the Wise Old Mentor is anything like a good substitute for an actual counselor, which they aren’t. It’s a parallel at best.
Because here’s the thing: getting an answer to your problems is not exciting, not by conventional narrative wisdom anyway. You gotta have tension, drama conflict. I think that’s probably why so many counselor/therapist characters end up being useless in mainstream media: the people who are creating these stories aren’t trying to be true to life, but true to the agreed-upon rules of storytelling. It’s cheap and lazy, as far as I’m concerned, but I do get the logic behind it, assuming that “logic” here means “doing what you’ve been told you’re supposed to do”.
It seems as though, if you’re going to write about mental illness at all, the corner is written for you already, and it’s only a matter of time before you end up in it. And as far as I can see, there only seem to be two ways out of it:
- Have the counselor be dysfunctional in some way (for a particularly chilling example, see Dressed to Kill or play Alice: Madness Returns) to create drama
- Have all problems solved and lose all stakes
That seems to be the dichotomy that storytellers feel they are faced with when attempting to incorporate these kinds of issues into their work.
Here’s the thing, though: actually seeing a counselor is anything but a magical solution to your problems. It’s a whole story in and of itself. It’s probably the most Hero’s Journey scenario you will ever enter into in real life: you come from the Ordinary World (your life before seeing a counselor), get a Call to Adventure (making an appointment), and perhaps you end things there and never see the counselor again (a lot of people know that there’s help out there but simply don’t want to seek it out, often because of the ridiculous social stigma around even admitting to having mental health issues, let alone seeking help for them) – but if you do go back, then it’s straight up crossing of Thresholds and confronting Gatekeepers (working through and confronting your issues) and finding the Elixir (hopefully – this is the part where your counselor helps to identify what’s bothering you and what steps you can take to make things easier for yourself); and after that you’ve still got to go back to the Ordinary World, taking the Elixir with you while you are Pursued on the Road (to recovery, in this case), and then sharing that Eilxir with the world, changing it forever (putting what you’ve learnt into practice). “Getting help” is not synonymous with “solving all of your problems effortlessly”, especially in the case of dealing with something like depression. Because quite often, people see multiple counselors, or see the same counselor over a long period of time; people relapse or find themselves stuck in different ways – life is messy, and some solutions are not permanent. Many are on-going. If that’s not enough drama for a story, I don’t know what is.
So by this logic, Twilight could have had a counselor character in it who just came in much later because Bella didn’t want to accept that she had a problem that needed looking at in that context – maybe they could have been a sort of less awful Van Helsing kinda person, if we’re going with the Wise Old mentor archetype – and still kept the story moving. In fact it might have made the story move quite a lot more if that were to happen.
And okay, there’s one instance of showing that there’s far more than one way out of the corners we can write ourselves into; that’s good, yes? I can now apply this insight to my own writing and proceed with renewed confidence because I have seen that I am not locked-in to just one outcome, right? That’s what’s happened?
Is that what’s happened?
It’s not, is it?
It’s been an ambition of mine to be less of a perfecitonist; I seem to sort of yo-yo on that front, sometimes able to suspend my pedantic fastidiousness and still enjoy what I’m doing, other times paralysed by unappealing choices that seem like the only “right” way to proceed.
It’s infuriating. But I’m sure, eventually, I’ll think of something. It may mean coming up with new stuff. Maybe I’m okay with it. I mean I was pretty excited for that a week ago.
It’s just that, if I’m going to do that, I may as well just write an entirely different story.
Maybe I should just write an entirely different story.
UGH fuck this shit I’m going to bed.