Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Which You Need To Lock Up Your Stuff



by Bill

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!

11 comments:

Graham Brown said...

Bill - this brings up a whole new school of thought for me - what if you did learn about it the old fashioned way - when arrested you simply shout "research" hold up one of your novels and "They" have to let you go.

In fact - might make my next character a super model loving, sex addicted, race car driver who steals Ferraris for the thrill of it. The research will be risky but I think this "get out of jail free card" will work there too.

Bill Cameron said...

Graham, you may be on to something here. I look forward to your report, or perhaps the report on CNN. ;)

Tawna Fenske said...

This is fascinating! I loved Peter's klepto tendencies in LOST DOG and can't recall ever reading another protagonist with such an "issue." Thanks so much for the inside scoop!

Tawna

Gabi said...

Since it's a compulsion, I imagine you, sorry he, picked up some very interesting items. What's the weirdest thing your "protagonist" ever lifted?

Much as I hate to say it, if you are light-fingering the truly bizarre, Graham's idea of offering a research defense to the local constabulary might actually work. Swiping a laptop is clearly theft. Swiping an trivet, well, other than I was dropped often as a kid there really isn't an explanation that leads to a defendant competent to stand trial.

Bill Cameron said...

As it happens, Gabi, probably the weirdest Peter almost lifts is on page 78-79 of Lost Dog. He's interrupted before he can actually make off with the used condom covered in blood though.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Bill, great post. Then I read your answer to Gabi's question and...ewwww...Way to not glamorize the condition! Very thoughtful.

So, what's the second strangest thing your "protagonist" ever took? And have you seen my sunglasses? I last saw them when we had lunch at the last Bouchercon and I was thinking they might have fallen into your bag quite by accident...

Gabi said...

Yuk!

Now that Rebecca mentions it, I'm missing a pair of sunglasses, too. I haven't seen you lately but...well, you are still suspicious.

Bill Cameron said...

I wear your sunglasses at night, I wear your sunglasses at night . . .

;)

Shane Gericke said...

Hmm. Rebecca's sunglasses are missing. She hung out with me for a few days over the summer. Coincidence?

I used to steal comic books when I was a young'un. Wasn't compelled. Just greedy. Wanted the comics AND the penny candy.

Being a klepto must be a real pain in the ass. Or, a real high-on-a-tightrope . . .

Terrific post, young man :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Graham, steal me a Ferrari when you get yours, would ya? And a mechanic to service it?

Kelli Stanley said...

That scene in the park is forever SCORCHED into my brain as the most compelling depiction of kleptomania ever told. Makes the whole "compulsion" thing really clear, Bill-Bill! ;)

Now, if the mania was about bacon, I'd KNOW it was autobiographical ...

xoxo