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Mask of the Abyss

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Posted May 11th 2013 at 10:19 AM by Mahray

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts

And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

Two quotes. From two vastly different people. Both have meaning in my life, and relevance to todayís topic. It was difficult for me to come up with a title for this essay. I struggled for many long hours when thinking this topic through, trying to work out how best to explain it in a couple of words for a title. A title that ideally should entrance the reader and draw them into reading as well, of course. It finally came to me, shorter is better, and from those two quotes came the title.
Ok, so the title does imply this is going to be a terribly dark and serious essay. It might get serious, there are little splotches of darkness here and there, but really itís not that bad. The title is more of a teaser, a little idea of what is to come. It demonstrates the dichotomy of an introvert playing an extrovert, and why I donít like writing dialogue.
As difficult as I find this bit, it's time to talk about myself. Now, I have serious issues with a lot of personality profiling. Particularly with those who hold a view that personalities are completely fixed from birth (or at least from adult development) - I had a lecturer in my education course who ran a subject that basically had this as the fundamental thesis. Fortunately, I managed to convince one of the admin people that a course I'd done previously was sufficiently similar and I got an exemption. There are also those who say that there is always one particular teaching style for every person. In my experience, as a teacher and as a student, different styles suit different people at different times. However, the broad strokes of personality types are likely to remain the same and do provide some useful guidance.
The strongest influence on my personality is introversion. I am strongly introverted. Basically, social situations and dealing with people sucks energy out of me, and being alone (often in my man cave) is the best way for me to recharge. (This is a simplification, yes, but it's a good starting point.) If you look at a typical Briggs Meyer result (which is based on the work of Jung, but most people know of it as Briggs Meyer results) I have INTJ. Which means: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging. Another way of putting it is that I'm an Eagle (bear with me here). I spent a memorable weekend learning about animal types for personalities, information that I've never really put into practice.
Mastery, Challenge, Independence
People of the Eagle temperament:
tend to be independent in their learning
hold themselves and others to high standards
respect others for their competence
dislike incompetence in self and others
logical thinkers who enjoy debates and complexity
often in competition with self and others
authority independent
make up only 10% of the population, only 5% of the female population are Eagles

Basically the Eagles soar above everything else, with defining characteristics similar to my Briggs Meyer attributes.
So what does this all mean for me? As I said, I'm strongly introverted. Very strongly so at times, there are occasions when I'm at a social event or going to a social event and I suffer from moderate to severe anxiety. I need my alone time to recharge and recover, and I find that on holidays in particular this is a defining characteristic. It's somewhat easier to maintain social contact via the internet as an introvert, as it is both distant and personal, immediate yet with the ability to suspend contact at a moment's notice.
Yet I am a performer, happy to be on the stage or in front of an audience. I also find it exhausting, after any concert I spend hours on an adrenaline high and then crash and burn. So performing, while an integral part of my life, is very draining. Just what you would expect from an introvert. I'm also in a profession that involves daily interaction with people. This has led to their being, in essence, two Tims. There's Teacher Tim, the outgoing, slightly nutty teacher with a big voice and bigger personality. And there's the other Tim, the Tim at home who sits there quietly, who freaks out at big crowds and social events. I have never claimed consistency, or any particular grasp of sanity either.
So while teaching, or performing, I wear the mask. But what of the abyss? That is a darker tale indeed, but one that I have already hinted at. With the abyss comes the second, related part of this essay. How do you portray a character who is vastly different from your own personality? I do not claim that this is the only way, or the best way, merely that this is how I work.
In the game I play as a character, who is not quite the same as the me behind the screen (with tan lines from radiation and everything). This character is, well, he's an elder god who would normally eat souls, but is now happy eating his BossLady's blood brownies with soul chips. It's complicated, there are moments of pure silliness as well as much darker fantasy. There are also times when I roleplay (RP for convenience) as different characters. What is interesting is the way in which those characters reflect my base personality, or otherwise.
It was quite interesting when I changed my name around two years ago. My persona changed significantly to match my name and image. My main persona has elements of me, loyalty, twisted sense of humour, concern. But he is much more extroverted, to the point sometimes where I do tend to lurk and just remain silent. Watching. At times I take on other roles, as in the Woodwind Invasion! storyline (yes, it requires the exclamation mark). There is a problem that I seem to have. To write or create as another persona, I have to know that persona. I have to know who they are, what motivates them, their history. How they talk, how they think.
For short pieces, this isn't too difficult, although I will tend to start talking in the same way that the 'real' me talks. For longer works though, this can lead to some interesting unintended consequences. A brilliant example of this was when I was writing Pain. I didn't do that work solo, but the way I collaborated was that I wrote as the protagonist (and I did start the work as a solo piece). The protagonist of Pain remains nameless, but to save time I think we'll call him Steven. Steven is... insane. There's no nice way to put it, he's completely bonkers. When I was writing as Steven, I had to believe what he believs. I had to think the way he thinks. I had to be Steven.
Being Steven was difficult. He has some very strange attitudes, his belief structure is internally consistent yet lacks anything remotely resembling a relationship to the real world, and he has a compelling obsession with pain. Basically he believes that pain is the defining characteristic of humanity. Now, in the 'world' that Steven inhabits, this is a potentially valid belief. But for me, being Steven was difficult. Not because I couldn't understand him. It was difficult because I could. For a while there, I was Steven. I lived his life, believed his beliefs, spoke in his voice. It was a difficult time. I was dreaming Steven's dreams. I started having nightmares, mood swings. I was not myself (which is a very true statement, on further reflection). To write as Steven I had to inhabit him, there was no other way to convincingly use his voice. In many ways I was glad when the story was finished. I had to leave it, abandon it almost, for days after completion before editing, to ensure that I was free from his influence. In many other ways, it was difficult to leave, to abandon Steven and leave him behind.
There are, as always, advantages and disadvantages to working in this way. Inhabiting a character, a persona like this can lead to very strong writing or RP as that person (elder being, in some cases). It leads to depth of character, a history that does not have to be explained or written because it exists. The disadvantages are obvious, primarily that you have to inhabit a character. This means that it can be very difficult to create a character a long way from my own personality, with a different voice. For example, I find it terribly difficult to write as a female character, because I simply lack the experience to do it. Not wearing a dress (that bit's easy), but other parts are difficult. It is common to see writers trying to write as the other gender and failing, a failure that I don't want to have myself. So no women characters.
This tendency for me to need to inhabit my characters is probably a contributing factor to the fact that, simply put, I can't write dialogue particularly well. Most of my creative work is written in the first person, with some third person stuff (a lot of I and me; or descriptions). This is a limitation. First person narrative can be strong, in fact some of my favourite works are written in this manner (recent examples would have to include the Dresden Files). However, a lack of dialogue is a bit of a problem. Small bits of dialogue, from my own characters, fine. In fact, Pain was essentially four and a half thousand words of monologue, with the occasional thoughts from the prisoner and some description. For the most though, it was monologue. Writing dialogue from multiple characters though, is a problem.
I suspect my problems with dialogue come from a number of sources. I tend to get involved in a particular character or persona, to the extent of living inside them. This obviously limits the dialogue opportunities, because it limits me to one character at a time. Having a conversation with yourself is so often frowned upon in polite society. However, I think my true problem with dialogue lies in my nature, that introversion. I can communicate with others, I would argue that I can communicate exceptionally well with most people. I just don't like to do it too much, and I feel this is reflected in my creative writing. How can I write dialogue when I am not interested, inherently, in participating in most dialogue? It is a challenge for me, one that I should try to overcome, but I find that it is a challenge that I'm not sure I want to overcome. For me, being introverted is a part of my core, a part of me that doesn't change, that I don't want to change.
That is the Abyss. When I wear a mask for too long, it tends to stick. When I gaze into the abyss, try to understand it, become it, it stares back at me, infects me. If I spend too long as a character, then I start to exhibit the behaviours of that character. Perhaps that is for the best. Maybe, after years of playing a competent, knowledgeable adult, the mask is sticking. In some ways I hope so. In others, I don't ever want to grow up, to wear that mask. I do not believe that is my fate, there is no way that a mask so different would stick, that an abyss so far from what I am would permanently leave me scarred.
Shakespeare said that we were all players, actors on a stage the size of the world. I would argue that yes, we are players, but our stage is not the world. Our stage is limited only by our boundless imagination. We can become anyone, but who we are does not change. Each of the characters I have created, no matter how abhorrent they may seem to be, have come from inside me, each reflect a part of me as a mirror does. The problems arise when the mirror is clouded, warped, or sometimes perfect, or when the abyss is too close to the heart.
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