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Writing Tips: Psychic death

Posted March 01, 2014 in character, conflict, motivation, plot, psychic death, tension

If a story is to work properly, the main character needs a strong goal and they must do everything they can to reach it. Everything they do to get what they want creates plot. 

The protagonist won’t have it all their own way. They will push against an antagonist who is also doing everything they can to get what they want. Only one can win. When one wins, the other loses. 

Characters must strive again and again to get what they want. If they fail the first time, they have to try again. They have to keep trying no matter what. 

If they don’t get what they want, they will suffer a kind of death. This is not death of the body but a psychic death. This psychic death is far more serious than a death of the body, which is why the character will keep on trying to get what they want, no matter what.

In The Bourne Identity, a Hollywood action thriller starring Matt Damon, Jason Bourne has lost his memory and wants to know who he is. He does everything he can to find out who he is. He follows a  trail of clues that leads him ultimately to Conklin, his former boss.

While searching for his identity, Jason must fend off attempts to kill him. He doesn’t know who this enemy is – he has lost his memory and all the information that would have led him to identify his foe. His enemy tries again and again to kill him. Yet despite that, Jason continues to try to find out who he is. This is how the narrative reveals that his psychic death is more serious than his bodily demise: no matter what the risk to his life, he continues to try to find out who he is.

This idea of psychic death is still there in narratives that work at a different emotional register. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth wants to see her sister Jane married to Mr Bingley. Her aim doesn’t involve physical danger. She doesn’t risk bodily harm, or worse, by pursuing this goal. But the threat of psychic death is the same. Her sister’s happiness is more important to Elizabeth than her own.

Not only the protagonist is driven by the risk of psychic death. All the important characters in a story will, or should, be driven by this fear of psychic death. They will do everything they can to get it. They will try again and again to get what they want. They must try again and again. If they don’t, they will suffer a psychic death.

When only some of the main players in a narrative are driven by this need to succeed or suffer a psychic death, the story will seem weak or uneven.

This drive that impels characters to get what they want and avoid psychic death is the thing that makes a narrative compelling.


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Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction.  Sydney's next blog comes out on April 1.

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