Story idea: The shell

I had an idea that doesn't fit into any of the current stories I'm developing, and basically wants to be a novel in its own right, so I'm probably not going to be able to write it. So I'll write about it here instead. For fun, I'm going to describe it in the order I thought of it.

It started with the idea of destroying a person's mind. Zir body still functions, and ze can even still talk a little and give basic replies, but most of zir personality is gone, ze doesn't recognize people ze used to know, ze's completely cold and unfeeling, and ze barely bothers to fulfill zir basic needs. This kind of thing can happen in real life, but it's more common in fantasy settings, especially horror-fantasy; I was thinking about it because something similar happens in HP:MoR.

I've got a lot of respect for good horror stories. After all, what is writing if not an attempt to effectively convey an image or idea, and what is horror if not a very specific, very powerful image or idea? The destroying-someone's-mind thing fits right in; it's been done a lot of times, because it's effective. After all, the standard advice for horror fantasy is that the closer something is to reality, the more horrifying it is. Or, another way to look at it is that humans usually have a very strong fear of losing people they know, and they tend to be somewhat numb to actual death because there's lots of death in stories, so when you find a way to destroy a person that isn't actual killing, you get the full horror with much less resistance.

Back to the story. At this point, it was only a germ of an idea, and not a particularly strong one, because technically, doing that to a person is pretty much the same as killing them, and “somebody dies” isn't really the basis for a story. But I was fascinated by the idea. It's got an obvious question in it: What to do with the non-functional person? To me, the answer is easy: It's not a person anymore, just a shell. If it causes you inconvenience, go ahead and kill it.

But whenever something is easy, I try to make it hard. So I thought, what if a little bit of the original person is left? So little that you'd barely think they're the same person, so little that it'd practically be revolting to make the comparison, but just enough that if you knew who ze was, there can be moments where you almost think ze's back again. And then the moment passes and ze's the shell again. I can get a big variety of different reactions from the people who knew zem before the change: There can be one who wants to kill the shell because ze's an insult to the memory of the original person, there can be one who thinks ze can be brought back somehow (hah!1), there can be one who tries to be nice to the shell anyway, but gets nothing in return because the shell has no sense of gratitude or empathy anymore (and because even if ze did, ze'd be able to tell that the kindness was sort of condescending). Ze sometimes acts weak and vulnerable and oblivious and naive, sometimes cynical and jaded and violent, and nobody can tell what the pattern is (I'd know how ze worked, but the other characters wouldn't). This kind of thing is great fodder for a story, because it's got lots of natural conflict built into it.

But there's still something in the corner of my mind, something I feel like known the whole time but can't put my finger on, that makes the idea yucky and incomplete.

And then it hits me.

Like any good fantasy story, what we're really talking about here is real life. Sure, in real life, there isn't a villain with magical powers who destroys your mind, but what we're really talking about is a person who develops major psychological problems over the course of zir life, for reasons we don't understand. And the story I've just described is a strong story in technical terms, but it's also a pretty condescending story. It's the “Look at these poor people who have to LIVE with a DISABLED person, see what THEY have to DEAL WITH” story. The story that leaves out what the disabled person zemself has to live with (one, a disability, and two, non-disabled people who aren't nice). What my germ-of-an-idea is missing is the perspective of the shell.

And yeah, the shell's perspective is really messed up. Half the time, ze can barely even tell what's going on around zem. Sometimes ze's aware that something's wrong; when somebody insults zem, ze feels like ze's supposed to be angry about it, and wonders why ze doesn't feel anything. It's like being half-asleep in a dream, and only being vaguely aware that things aren't the way they would be if you were awake. Other times, ze feels like ze knows what ze has to do, and has a strong impluse to hurt another person, and does it without wondering why or even feeling angry. And then there are those eerie moments of lucidity where ze knows exactly what's going on, and can talk about it, but doesn't know how long ze can stay that way.

But there's just enough of zem there to still be a person. Ze knows how ze feels about things, even though ze usually can't express it (especially because, before the change, ze didn't have the same feelings and didn't need to figure out how to express them). Ze can carry on a conversation, although ze tends to lose interest quickly, because most people try to talk to zem about things ze doesn't care about anymore. Ze can feed zemself, and dress zemself, most of the time.

The story goes like this:

The main characters are two siblings of the same gender, if any (I'm imagining them female, but it could be anything). The first is calm and calculating; the second is emotional and aggressive. The first likes comfort, the second likes fun and excitement. The first has a strong sense of tactics, the second has a strong sense of justice. If I don't mind the cliché, they're identical twins. They complement each other perfectly, and they have a really strong, loving bond.

Then something happens (industrial accident? battle with an evil wizard?), and Twin 2 isn't the same anymore. The first thing Twin 1 notices is that Twin 2's facial expression is wrong. Twin 2 is usually either grinning or furious, or both, but now, ze's expressionless and quiet. Twin 1 asks what's wrong, and Twin 2 ignores zem. Twin 1 pesters Twin 2 for answers until ze turns and says, “Shut up. I don't like you.”. And means it.

The rest of the story has two main conflicts.

The first, the more obvious one, is Twin 1's internal conflict. Twin 1 has to deal with the loss of zir sibling – probably the most important entity in the world, to zem – and worse yet, the presence of this... thing in zir sibling's body. But there's just enough of zir sibling left for zem to cling to the hope that it'll come back. So ze keeps going back to Twin 2, trying to talk to zem, trying to get zem back somehow. Twin 1 keeps telling zemself that Twin 2 is gone, and trying to convince zemself not to keep trying at it.

But the real story is Twin 2's story. The story of someone whose brain doesn't work the way everyone else thinks it's supposed to. The story of someone who has to figure out what to make of zir life, when ze doesn't feel like ze fits into any of the stories everyone else is telling about zem. When Twin 1 tries to tell zem what zir life was like before, ze only feels alienated.2 Twin 2's memory is still there just enough that ze knows ze's supposed to be sticking with Twin 1, but the feeling of connection is basically gone, and the only reason they stay together is because neither knows where to go from there. Twin 1 clings to Twin 2 like ze's desperately holding on to the side of a sinking ship, while Twin 2 stays with Twin 1 like ze's hanging around a crime scene out of morbid fascination. Each of them needs to realize that it's not healthy, and cut off contact with the other.

And it's all made much, much more complicated by the fact that there's just enough of Twin 2's original personality remaining that you can't say ze's just a whole different person.

In a bunch of cool things like feminism, there's the concept of “agency”. An agent is a person who does something, so agency is when a person, or character, plays an active role in deciding what happens in zir life, rather than being a hapless victim. One part of disability-conscious writing is to make sure your disabled characters have agency – make sure they're not just victims to be pitied or monsters to be avoided.

And so Twin 2 is ultimately the one who moves on first. Ze finally manages to find a group of people who accept zem for what ze is, and moves away from Twin 1 for good.

– Eli

  1. Of course, that kind of thing (people getting messed up in one way or another and then being fully cured) happens ALL THE TIME in conventional stories. I hate it! Not just because it's unrealistic (in real life, brain damage is brain damage and there's usually no way to recover the bits that are lost), but mainly because it kills the impact of the thing. After all, if it can be completely undone, it can't ultimately be a very significant event, and if it was supposed to sound significant, I feel kinda cheated. back
  2. Twin 1 is taking a personal sense of loss, which is a valid feeling, and turning it into a coercive way of interacting with another human being. I really, really don't like the way Twin 1 behaves in this story, although I can understand where it comes from. back
Approximate readability: 8.77 (7315 characters, 1733 words, 84 sentences, 4.22 characters per word, 20.63 words per sentence)