In the medical television drama, House, the English actor Hugh Laurie portrays a curmudgeonly bastard of a maverick antihero, Dr. Gregory House. “House,” as he is called not so endearingly by his team of diagnosticians, has the extraordinary gift of assimilating seemingly unrelated symptoms and diagnosing rare diseases, often in an ingenious and surly manner.
As a matter of course, House invariably gets the first diagnosis wrong and then proceeds to misdiagnose a second time and—apparently because the writers and producers have to fill an hour-long TV slot—usually botches the third diagnosis and so on. By the time House finally has figured out what’s wrong with the patient (typically after the patient has suffered through a multitude of near-death seizures, graphic skin manifestations, and an onslaught of pokes, prods, and verbal assaults), the dour doctor has managed to exasperate his staff and associates, the patient’s family, and anyone within earshot of his acerbic diatribes.
So why on earth are viewers so drawn to this despicable character? Is it because he is brilliant and able to articulate what many folks would love to say aloud but don’t have the nerve or vocabulary? Partly, yes, and partly too because Hugh Laurie is just so damned good at being clever; he was born for the role. But House taps in to more than just people’s admiration of disarming intelligence and biting sarcasm. House represents an outlier whose attraction is his repellence.
The idea of House, the character, works because House is the antithesis of clinical. He’s messy, he’s unpredictable, he’s gritty (unshaven), he’s irreverent, he’s insubordinate, he’s moody, he’s obnoxious, he’s outrageous. And he works in a hospital, a place where people must adhere to rules, where employees, visitors, patients all must conform to civilized society’s fragile facade. House openly pops pain killers while on duty and we watch in awe—not because we advocate his behavior, not because we think drug addiction is funny, not because we think he’s cool—we watch because the sheer notion of thumbing your nose at authority while you’re the authority is good theatre (and a secret dream of every dormant adolescent mind).
The idea of House, the TV show, works because it messes with people’s equilibrium. The world’s not supposed to work this way. Doctors are not supposed to misbehave in public. Sure, some doctors are notorious louses and social misfits, but poor bedside manner is one thing. We can live with that, unhappily, but we deal with it. It’s part of the trade-off. I’ll accept your indifference, Doctor, even your rudeness, as long as you’re competent. Outright anarchy, though, that’s quite another thing. That guy House, yeah, he’s crazy, he belongs behind bars, he’d never get away it. People don’t act that way. That’s why we love him.
In real life, people sometimes ogle over wretched individuals and make them celebrities because train wrecks are never boring. Hateful personalities possess a complexity of nature that drives people to stare. Others look away for fear of what they may see, but despite their best efforts to bury their heads in the Dow Jones Economic Report, the Bible, or the latest Harlequin romance, their imagination will not allow them to completely ignore the collision, nor the resulting wreckage. Adversity and tragedy invoke critical thought and reflection; it taunts the idle, the complacent mind; it demands a reaction of some sort. Revulsion, perhaps, but never boredom.
When a writer invents multi-layered fictional characters who are compelling, we tip our hats to the creation. We readers enjoy believable characters. We revel in rich story lines with plot and purpose. We hunger for character arcs and clean resolutions. Cliffhangers and choose-your-own endings, on the other hand, are frustrating. The writer copped out, we think; there’s no magical bedtime finality. The closet door was left open, the monsters are still under the bed, there will be no sleep tonight. Damn you, Daddy.
Creative writing is not meant to be clinical. There is no manual. There is no one right method of getting to the land of milk and honey. Some writers agonize over pacing, word choice, transition. Others spill their guts on the page until the massacre leaves a countless number of ill-conceived metaphors and fractured body parts. They leave piles of prose and dead bodies so high they’re not sure where the editorial cuts should begin and the killing should end. Editors can only do so much with that amount of carnage.
Some readers are up to the challenge of following a writer’s train of thought, while others choose a different mode of transportation. When a certain writer’s train leaves the station without them, they’re glad because that train never gets them to where they want to go. That train has been derailed. It’s still operating, they say, but the rails are made of breadcrumbs and the path to Grandma’s house is meandering and unpredictable.
When master storytellers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King create psychological horrors too terrifying to fathom, readers expect them to pull out bags of tricks by the truckload. But the bags are never the same old bags and the so-called tricks can never be found in any magician’s handbook. Fiction writers who are respected for their craftsmanship will tell you that the only way to get better is to practice daily. If you are tired of hearing that mantra, remember this: sage advice always serves more than one purpose and it should be savored like a potent shot after last call.
A professional athlete, a golfer, let’s say, must practice his swing again and again (ad-Tiger Woods-nauseum) until the motion is fluid and consistent, textbook-like in both approach and delivery. In contrast, a writer of make-believe should not seek a textbook solution to developing a narrative voice. Yes, they should religiously work at their craft, but many genre-based writers (sci-fi/fantasy, horror, mystery), in particular, seem stuck in a formulaic hole with no magic beans to be found. They assume the answer to their quest for authorial immortality lies in the Shakespearean field of Golgotha, the cursed place of dead men’s skulls. Multiple deaths—no matter how surprisingly and inventively you slice and dice the body parts—do not always make for ghoulishly suspenseful spellbinders.
Writers first need to seek depth, most of all, in their characters. They also should be careful not to refine their writing to such a degree that it becomes clinical in nature. Take a tip from House and his ilk. Life on the page (and on the screen) tends to be way more interesting when the main character’s actions are wildly unpredictable, especially when they’re offset by an unlikely staid environment.
So, you ask, why would viewers have any compassion for House and his self-destructive ways? Why on earth would we care about a character who clearly could not exist in these politically correct modern times? As sure as the lakes of the legendary Loch Ness Monster are murky, I submit that we believe there’s a place—a swelling underground—in our lives for the morally bereft and criminally insane. And as long as these miscreants stay on the playful, outer edges of our imagination and they occasionally exhibit a semblance of what it means to be human, and as long as the closet door remains open just a sliver and Daddy keeps the monsters under the bed at bay…
Photo Source: Joel Hopkins
© 2011 Dan Cafaro. All rights reserved.