Writing Leap #74
WRITING ABOUT NARCISSISM
Wikipedia. “Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes.”
Most of us have had some acquaintance with narcissistic personalities, either personally or in fiction or in public figures in the news. Narcissism can reach across a broad spectrum from “self-involvement” to serious psychiatric disorders.
This is rich territory for writers. Do the characters in your story get pulled in by your fictional narcissist? Do they fight it? Do they suffer from it? Each response to the narcissist can reveal deep layers in your other characters. Why are they responding this way? How does this affect the plot?
Here’s my narcissist.
Richard spun completely around when he spotted the sleek orange car parked on the cobblestones near the main piazza. He let out a long, low whistle. “Man!” he said. “That’s a brand new Ferrari convertible!” He pushed his hands into the pockets of his Virginia Tech baseball jacket and peered inside. The dashboard, steering wheel, the whole interior gleamed up at him, an awesome, lustrous saddle brown nest for two.
“Can you imagine winding around the narrow coast road in that car,” said Richard’s friend, Maudie? “Yikes.” She pointed to the steep cliffs bordered below by a ribbon of a road that looked down onto an aquamarine ocean. “I bet you’d give anything to drive that car.” Richard ignored her. He seemed mesmerized.
Their student group had just arrived in Ravello, down from Naples in the Gulf of Salerno on the Amalfi coast. It was the last leg of their tour. Maudie played the part of Richard’s buddy since he had informed her straight out, in front of some other students on their tour, that he and Maudie were friends, just friends, nothing romantic. He had given her a glance that said, “My girlfriend? With a jellyroll behind like yours? I don’t think so.”
Maudie was smart. Richard cut her off every time she talked about medieval Italian history or spoke a few words of Italian. He would just budge in and mimic an Italian accent in English. Richard wasn’t learning a word of Italian. He had trouble with languages, a fact he denied to himself. Only idiots bothered to learn a language they would never use, he claimed.
Richard walked around and patted the back of the orange Ferrari where the huge engine lived. A Ferrari was sheer power with a capital “P.” Ferrari’s ruled the road. And guess what. Richard made damn sure he ruled his universe. His gaze was slightly threatening, his bearing straight and unyielding. He WAS the Ferrari, irresistible, he thought, unconquerable.
A young man with a sweater tied around his shoulders in that nonchalant Italian way came into view. Maudie just knew he lived here, was born here. He walked down the narrow sloping street as sure-footed as a graceful mountain goat. Maybe he lived in one of those big white stucco houses in the steep cliffside gardens high above sea level? “So beautiful,” Maudie thought, as her eyes swept across the cliffs bursting with wild purple orchids and big stretches of moss green olive trees dotted with pink blossoms. She had done her botanical research.
“Hey, that’s the son of the owner of our hotel,” said Richard. He showed his palm to Maudie and traced out a dollar sign. “They have big bucks. His father owns lots of hotels.”
“Ciao,” said the young man approaching the car. He put his hand on the door handle.
“Ciao,” said Maudie. Naturally he had big brown eyes and dark curly hair and a smile full of Italian sunshine. Did her new white jeans make her look too fat? Yes, of course they did. Everything made her look fat. Because she was fat. Not huge fat, but clearly chubby. Richard had actually said in front of the whole group at dinner last night that she should lay off the pasta, ha-ha, and once again her face had flushed humiliation red.
“Uh, ciao,” said Richard. “Really cool car.”
“No Inglese,” the young man laughed, but reached out to shake hands with Richard and Maudie. “Beppe.” He pointed to himself.
“I’m Richard. We’re staying at your hotel.” Beppe concentrated. “Ah, l’albergo di mio papà.”
Maudie nodded and stuck out her hand. “Maudie.”
Beppe swept his arm out to offer a ride in the Ferrari. He put up one finger to show there was only room for one passenger.
Even though Maudie had made an effort to appear carefree and continental and had put a flower in her hair, she made no attempt to get in the car before Richard. “Beppe is dynamite-looking,” she thought. “He would never want to take me anyway.”
Richard pushed her slightly and slid into the low, curved passenger seat. It wrapped his body in utter comfort. He ran his hand across the leather on the side of his seat. Soft as butter. He tapped Beppe on the shoulder. This will be so funny, Richard thought. He pointed to Maudie and acted out being sick to one’s stomach. He pretended to throw up all over the perfect leather steering wheel. He pointed to Maudie’s stomach and shook his head, “No, no.” Beppe shrugged his shoulders, smiled at Maudie in an embarrassed way, and pushed the red thumb start button on the wheel.
What a steering wheel, full of controls and the Ferrari insignia, a yellow and black prancing horse. “Cool, so cool.” Richard said. They buckled up and took off, a lightning bolt skirting around the busy piazza. Maudie heard the initial roar of the incredible motor settle into a low hum of contentment. Richard waved at Maudie without turning around. She heard him shout, “Sorry Maudie!” I bet she wishes she were me, he thought. Within ten seconds he had completely forgotten about her.
Richard is a real narcissistic jerk, right? He wants to ride in the Ferrari and he WILL ride in the Ferrari. Why? Because this is what he wants, that’s all. He humiliates Maudie just because he can. Empathy is not an option for him. Her feelings? He has no idea about them. Besides, Maudie’s intelligence may show him up at any given time.
Narcissistic characters in your stories can sneak into the lives of your other characters and cause chaos, puffer fish that poison unsuspecting diners. We dislike characters so blatantly self-absorbed and cruel. However, authentic antagonists deepen our story. We just have to watch out that our narcissistic character doesn’t become one-dimensional, an unbelievable caricature. So maybe Richard could rescue a wounded alley cat, bring him to an animal shelter and not tell anybody about it? Then we ask, does he do it to feel magnanimous or does he just do it?
Go ahead writers! Create your narcissist. He or she will open up a treasure chest of possible reactions from your other characters. Maybe Maudie goes back to the hotel and organizes a group of her fellow students to shun Richard? Or maybe a friend helps her to really understand that her humiliation in the piazza was Richard’s problem and not hers? Let’s have Maudie get her ride in that sensational orange Ferrari. Let’s have her laugh with her friends and fall in love with Italy.
Doing the research for a piece of writing is for me one of the best parts of the whole process. Thank you to my sister, Laurie, an enthusiastic connoisseur of Italy, for giving me a picture of the geography of the area. Thank you to my son, G.J., a passionate car person if there ever was one, for deepening my appreciation for the incredible Ferrari. Our “research trip” together to a Ferrari automobile showroom to see the actual car, chit-chat with a salesman in love with these cars and get caught up in the Ferrari mystique was more than fun.
And finally, I have been floating around in a semi-haze of writer’s block for three months. The current political news, and my writer’s obligation to respond to it (indirectly), snapped me out of my creative fog. I am so happy to be back. Thank you New York Times. You are definitely not fake news.
Happy Writing Everyone,
LINKING THE ARTS
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890
Look what happened to poor Dorian Gray, the quintessential narcissist.