In fantasy, the line between the real and the unreal is intentionally blurred. The extent of the blurring may vary, but that line generally stays reliably outside the skull of the protagonists. The Infinity Bridge moves that line decidedly inwards. It strikes me that writing a believably insane character would be problematic for someone who is not themselves insane. We should be glad that Ross found writing those scenes difficult…
What it is about psychosis and dirigibles?
The opening text for the second chapter in my YA sci-fi / steampunk book Infinity Bridge reads:
Ever since he could remember Sam had seen monsters. That wasn’t quite true—he recalled the first time, so he must have been aware of the time before. His dad had just read him Not Now Bernard, a book about a boy who had found a monster in his garden.
Sam’s monster was actually shimmering behind the radiator, but the irony wasn’t lost on him.
He learned very quickly to keep quiet about it. If you told your parents about this sort of thing then they did one of two things: they either smiled then ruffled your hair or they made odd noises, like constipated hens.
Sam’s brother Ben had told them that he also saw monsters. He currently resided in a psychiatric hospital. That had pretty much made up Sam’s mind on the matter.
One of the core relationships in the book is that between Sam, the teen ‘hero’ of the book, and his older brother, Ben, who is being treated for schizophrenia. As we progress through the book we learn more about Ben and his subjective experience of his psychiatric problems, and also start to wonder whether the fact he, like Sam, sees ‘rifts’ into other dimensions has created confusion with the diagnosis.
I decided from an early stage that I wanted one of the key characters in the book to have schizophrenia, as I’d touched on other psychiatric illnesses in my epic fantasy series, Darkness Rising. It’s a condition that has fascinated me ever since I first treated patients with it during my brief stint in psychiatry. Yet being interested in it and writing about it in a believable, engaging and sympathetic way are two entirely separate things. How does one approach writing such a character?
The first is to try understand what the condition is and what it isn’t. I had some head start on this. There is a preconception, promoted mainly by crap films, that schizophrenia equates to (i) spilt personality, (ii) psychopathic serial killer or (iii) eccentric loner hobo characters. In reality it is a complex disorder, possibly caused by a mixture of neurobiological problems, genetic factors and environmental triggers, that may in fact represent a range of varying conditions. What it does involve is a break down in thought processes, altered perceptions, altered emotional responses and disordered beliefs. When I learned about it there was a division of symptoms into positive symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder) and negative symptoms (depression, emotional flatness, self-neglect, poverty of speech).
Ben’s symptoms are predominantly positive—he has increasingly active auditory hallucinations through the book, such as one point where he has a dialogue with a Sat-nav (GPS to the American readers). He has delusions about intelligences within computer systems, which ironically turn out to be true in the book. There is escalating paranoia through the book as he comes off his meds, and he also has ‘ideas of reference.’ This is where he misinterprets meaning within things as having a direct reference to him as an individual.
‘Ben flopped his belly on the bar and had a quick look behind it. There was a serviceable stereo system connected to an amplifier there, as well as an army of glasses. He smiled as he saw a packet of cigarettes and a lighter tucked next to a bar towel.
He tugged them loose and pulled one out. A tingle of horror ran through him. There were exactly six in the packet. That couldn’t be a coincidence could it?
Ben’s eyes darted to the far end of the bar. Sure enough, there were six beer mats on the end of the bar. He took a deep breath and looked at the optics above the bar. There were eight dusty bottles of spirits.
He stumbled back from the bar. His hand reached for the handgun tucked in his jean’s waist band. Six-six-eight. It was an omen, he was certain: a warning that danger was nearby.
Ben held the gun in his shaking hand then moved cautiously across the dance floor. Whispers were drifting like pollen on the breeze, tickling his ears, pinching his brain. Ignore them, Ben, he thought. They are working against you—making you more paranoid.
A poster was half peeled from the wall by the door to the stairs. It promised two drinks for three quid each Monday before ten’o’clock. Ben counted the words and then swapped the letters around in his head. It was a code. It really said—‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you.’
He ran. His boots pounded on the stairs in time to his racing heart as he hurtled to the first floor. The large room was cluttered with furniture, mostly covered in white cloths. Like shrouds hiding corpses.
The whispers were getting louder.
Ben retains insight into his psychosis throughout the book, which makes his deteriorating condition more manageable. Often he will have an internal monologue going, an argument between himself and another voice, often Sam, and this allows him to rein in his impulses and compulsions when the pair enter a Steampunk alternate.
One challenging part of the character was to write decent dialogue. Some individuals with schizophrenia display distinct speech patterns, which in severe cases become an unintelligible ‘word salad.’ If you have ever seen the (excellent) film A Beautiful Mind you can hear how Russell Crowe’s speech deteriorates in the latter parts of the movie. There are features of rhyming words (e.g. Sam, spam), neologisms (I.e. fabricated words), substitutions (e.g. Nick, to ‘shaving cut’), repetition and changes in context, which may display their underlying thought disorder. The ‘derailment’ of the theme of a dialogue, with very loose associations between topics, can make it tricky to follow what is meant.
I tried to create a balance which displayed Ben’s underlying mental state, illustrated his meaning and thoughts, and also showed his warm humorous character. At times it involved a lot of rewriting to adjust the balance, not least because there has to be some ability for the reader to comprehend what he means within his dialogue.
Ultimately what I wanted to create in Ben as a character was a likeable older brother who, on a background of mental health problems, is thrown into a bizarre world of clockwork androids, intelligent computer viruses and alternate worlds. In doing that Ben displays courage and reserve that drag Sam through some of his own demons and insecurity, and indeed guilt, to come through for his friends at the story’s finale. In future books there is a lot more planned for Ben, and as difficult as it is to write him I look forward to every moment of it.