Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Brain Dysfunction Gives Great Storyline

Writers love to bash people on the head.

Figuratively, that is.

It is one of the perks of the job, getting to beat up on and torture people without going to jail for it.

In MakeBelieveLand, somebody is always getting knocked unconscious.  Villains thump the beautiful woman on the head and kidnap her.  Good guys knock the baddie's guards unconscious.  Our spunky heroine finds a lead pipe, or a bottle, or a vase, and smashes it over the enemy's skull.

This almost always renders the smashee unconscious.  (Digression: I'm thinking, real life don't work that way.  In real life, not only would I be unable to locate a helpful object to bash over somebody's head, but even if I did find one, even if I was able to sneak up on my intended victim, I would never hit the exact right spot.)

In cartoons you can even drop a safe or an anvil on somebody, and it won't kill them, just raise a lump with little birdies and stars circling around it.

Whatever you drop on somebody's head, however you knock them out, in MakeBelieveLand they are only temporarily incapacitated.

The hero always comes to, and despite a major concussion, is usually able to chase the bad guy across rooftops and then win a sword or fistfight.  Almost never is he lying in a corner, helplessly spewing his guts, as would happen with a real concussion.  Permanent, long-term side effects?  Fuggetaboutit.

Except amnesia.  We writers (especially on soaps) do love giving our characters amnesia, don't we?

But what about real effects on the brain?

I just finished reading Daniel G. Amen's Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, and although there were many, many interesting things in there, one of the aspects I found most fascinating was the idea that brain damage, such as a cyst or a concussion, can lead to long-term problems.

Memory problems, sure.  Changes in personality.  Impulsivity control problems.  Concentration problems.

Like the inner workings of computers, brains don't do well when met with force or sudden stops from great distances.  Many, many people experience traumatic brain events, from car accidents to falls as children.  If it actually made the person unconscious or gave them a concussion, it may result in permanent brain damage.

Since I'm a Gemini (aka the Twins, naturally split personality), of course I felt deeply sorry for people who were turned into space cadets or flaming assholes, through no fault of their own.

I also felt sadistically gleeful, because what rich possibilities this opens for a writer!  I can take the hero and heroine of one tale, enjoying their HEA (Happily Ever After), bonk him on the head (if he didn't already earn a concussion doing Something Heroic in part one), and turn him into a jerk.

I can break them up, because he's become so obnoxious, and then, later on, when they discover that his behavior wasn't really his fault, I can bring them back together (her feeling horribly guilty, natch) and have them work together with his doctors to treat his condition.  (Because even when there is permanent damage to the brain, there are methods of treating it and learning to work around it, as stroke victims do.)

Or maybe she's the one with the condition.  Maybe she's now a shopaholic because was dropped as a baby.  (Yeah, I'm stretching a bit.)  Point is, there are countless ways we can use the very real science of what we are now learning about brain injury and dysfunction, to create dynamic storylines and complications for our characters, without having to drag in the aliens or other unlikely outside forces.

And we can do it accurately and respectfully, both telling a good story, and educating people at the same time.  A win-win!

I'm thinking this is a vast, untapped area to explore.  How about you?
Have you ever used brain injury or a mental disorder as part of a storyline?
Did you treat it respectfully (get your facts straight) or did you just make crap up?

P.S. Coming on Monday, nationally best-selling romantic author Lauren Dane stops by on her blog tour for Once and Again.

P.S.S. - Shall we dance?  I'm participating in the SheWriter Blogger Ball (#6) with dozens of really clever writers.