The Storyteller Considers Robin Williams

I suppose it is the curse of fiction writers that we are doomed to be amateur psychoanalysts.

Stories – at least the best ones – are about people, and the people who appear in our fictions are made up.  They may be based on or inspired by real people from our own experience, but when we put them in our stories and start getting inside their heads and hearts and souls, we begin the process of invention.  We imagine their internal lives, including the things they try to keep hidden from the world.  We see what they do and hear what they say.  But what they do and say may be in conflict with what is going on inside.  And that conflict is an essential part of any good story.

We talk of our characters having an arc.  They begin here, and during the course of a story confront some kind of dilemma, internal and external, that transforms them in some meaningful way.  And they end up over there.

An example is the central character in my latest novel, The Governor’s Lady.  Cooper Lanier grows up in a political family and comes to despise politics as a thief that robs her of the people she should be able to depend on – especially, her parents.  But through twists of fate, she marries a man who becomes a highly-successful politician, and then becomes one herself.  How does she resolve the internal conflicts, the dilemma, that bring her to such a pass?  That’s the crux of her story.

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If you read the book and Cooper Lanier resonates with you, it is because you can find something of yourself in her.  If I’ve been successful in imagining her, you will feel her joys and sorrows, will agonize with her through her trials and rejoice with her in her triumphs.  I must present her honestly, warts and all, in a way that strikes you as genuine and authentic.

So in the process of imagining and presenting Cooper and my other characters, I have to be something of a shrink.  What they do, say and think has to be believable so you can take a leap of faith with me into a story.  If what I write about a character doesn’t make sense, you won’t make the leap.

I say this is something of a curse, because we fiction writers can’t help psychoanalyzing people – those we know and those we don’t.  And thus I found myself trying to understand the brilliant and troubled mind of Robin Williams in the wake of his tragic passing.

A couple of days after his suicide, I listened to a radio interview from a few years back.  He was a man of a thousand personalities and voices, every one of them both riotously funny and profoundly perceptive of what it means to be human.  After the interview was over, I thought, “How hard must it be to have that many people – most of them zany – inside your head?”

Williams’ good friend Dick Cavett, writing in Time Magazine, said it well: “Can this be good for anyone? Can you be able to do all these rapid-fire personality changes and emerge knowing who you yourself are?”  He remembered Williams coming off stage after a brilliant club performance saying, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people, but not to myself.”

Have you ever had a piece of music bouncing around in your head, unable to get rid of it?  Imagine having a thousand pieces of music in there, all going at the same time.  The shrink in me says that was Robin Williams, and that he was desperate to escape from that, to find some peace, and that he finally saw no way out but death.

I came to that way of thinking on my own, before I read Dick Cavett’s article in Time, but we came to the same conclusion.  I never met Williams, but admired him immensely from afar and marveled at the brilliance of his art.  And the psychoanalyst in me can’t help but imagine his great joy and his exquisite pain, and perhaps understand how it finally ended.