Character Change: How Lisa Unger does it

We’re looking at the Inner Journey this week.  Here’s the inner journey (to my eyes and ears anyway) of the main character, Ian Paine, in Lisa Unger’s Crazy Love You (336 pages).

Spoiler Alert.  And Long Post Alert.

Crazy Love You is about Ian, a 30-something graphic novelist who writes Fatboy and Priss, heavily based on his younger, fat, ugly, and cowardly self, Fatboy, and his trouble-making childhood, now uber-hot, friend, Priss, who no one else can see.  When Ian meets Megan, a girl Ian sees himself marrying, Priss takes increasingly violent measures to sabotage the relationship and keep Ian to herself.  This is the main conflict.

PART 1: SETUP

1. Ian is capable of change.

We know this because he takes an interest in Megan:

She was not the kind of girl I’d usually notice.  Typical of the Fatboy turned fairly-decent-looking-moderately-successful guy, my tastes ran to the cheap and flashy. – pg 12

We also know this because Ian has changed once before, from a fat, ugly kid everyone was afraid of to an okay-looking successful graphic novelist people admired:

Anyway I wasn’t Fatboy anymore. I shed all that extra weight before I came to New York City….  When I look in the mirror today (okay, not today actually [because he’s hungover]), the angry, unhappy kid I used to be–he’s nowhere to be found. – pg 8

The only problem is that Ian actually is still angry, and this forms part of…

2. Ian is in state of Unknowing:

For one, Ian doesn’t understand his Flaw; he doesn’t realize that he’s a selfish, super-angry addict, who blames others for his problems.  And he doesn’t realize that the seed of his anger traces back to when his sister was born, and his mom had no time for him anymore and had serious postpartum depression.

Ian also doesn’t understand that his Flaw includes “blacking out” when he’s super angry; he never remembers all the horrible things he says and does to people.  As he tells it:

I wasn’t a total mess at the point of my life when I met Megan. I still drank too much–but what thirty-year-old single Manhattanite didn’t?  Maybe not everyone drinks until they black out, or wakes up with big black gaps in his memory…. But whatever.  I wasn’t doing drugs the way I used to with Priss…. At least that’s what I told myself at the time. – pg 22

For two, Ian doesn’t fully understand the conflict.  Ian blames the bad things that happen to him (as a result of his addictions and angry blackouts) on Priss, but in truth, Priss only comes around when Ian is feeling negative.  He thinks Priss is sabotaging him, but really, he’s directing Priss and sabotaging himself.

And Priss herself, is a third aspect of Ian’s unknowing.

“Priss is a mystery. Even I can’t quite figure her out.” – pg 10

In the course of the story, we are at first left to assume that Priss is real… then led to believe that she’s an imaginary friend… and then led to wonder if she really is real, but in the form of a poltergeist, or what Ms. Unger calls a haunting.  Ian steadfastly claims that Priss is real.

None of these unknown aspects are explicitly spelled out in the first quarter of the book; they’re just foreshadowed.

3. Ian is hopeful that things will work out with Megan.

Here’s how we know:

After talking to Megan in the park, I hustled back to my loft to take a shower and make myself pretty for my date. I was excited–giddy even. I felt a lightness that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. … This was the moment on which my whole life would pivot and I could feel the electricity building.  So it was something of a gut punch to find Priss sitting on the steps that led up to my apartment building. – pg 22

Which leads us to a showing of…

4. Ian is resistant to change.

Ian gets high with Priss, blacks out, and pretty soon it’s 11:00 and he’s missed his 7:15 date with Megan.

After he and Megan get together and start dating, he shows more resistance by cheating on Megan with Priss.  And when Megan asks him when she gets to meet Priss (three times), Ian pays Megan lip service, knowing full well that he has no intention of introducing them.

5. Flaw defining moments.

There are a couple of characters who see Ian’s or Fatboy’s flaw and spell it out for us.  First, Ian reflects on a memory of Priss calling out his flaw:

But you’re not a grown-up, Priss had said once. You’re a man baby. Your self-involvement is so total, you don’t even know that you’re supposed to think of something other than your own appetites and neuroses. – pg 59

And Ian’s editor points of Fatboy’s flaw, which–Fatboy being Ian’s avatar–speaks to Ian’s Flaw:

“I think it’s time for Fatboy to get Priss under control. … Fatboy is a grown man now. He’s a successful writer; he wants to get married. He’s not a victim of the world anymore. But he’s morphing into Priss’s victim. He has to man up and tell Priss that he doesn’t need her anymore.” – pg 76-77

Ian’s Flaw, in all it’s anger and blacking-out glory, is never fully acted out in the first quarter of the book.  The closest we get are Ian’s thoughts when he’s at dinner with Megan’s loving family:

My inner skeptic railed and raged inside. No one’s family is like this! he said. It’s an act! My own family, even at the best of times, had been the exact opposite of this one. I suppressed the urge to do something horrible, like knock over a glass, just to see how they all reacted…. But I behaved. – pg 61

AWAKENING

Ian’s awakening occurs when Megan takes him home to meet her wonderful parents, and he gets a glimpse of what his life might be like if he can get his flaw under control:

That afternoon passed in a happy blur… – pg 59

But he also sees how hard it’s going to be.  After asking Megan’s loving, rich-country-club, pulitzer-prize-winning dad if he can marry Megan, Ian reflects for a moment:

I look back on who I was in that moment–a punk, stupid, and arrogant. I am ashamed of that guy in ratty jeans and scuffed-up vans, a Death or Glory T-shirt. Even my tattoos, which I really loved, only seemed to prove what a child I was. … I think Binky knew that I could never make Megan truly happy. She wanted a man like her father. And I was half the man that Binky was, if that.

I could tell he wanted to say something more, but he didn’t. He just raised his glass to me.

“Welcome to the family, son,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. As we clinked Pilsners, the flames on the Dark Phoenix tat licked out from my cuff.

You don’t belong here, Priss would surely say. And you know it. – pg 63-64

PART 2: RESISTANCE

1. Ian is stubborn, refusing to change.

First off, Ian doesn’t think people do change:

[Priss says,] “People don’t change. You know that.”

“Don’t they? I think people change all the time.” I actually didn’t think this. People might change on the outside–they got old, they got fat. But the core?  It stays the same for life. – pg 85

He’s also still cavorting with Priss and blaming her for his anger issues:

She [Priss] wrapped her arms around me.  There was nothing in me that wanted to push her away, even though I knew I had to. …

“Let’s talk,” I said, unwrapping myself from her embrace. …

“You’ll always be a part of me,” I said. … “But your’e so angry. I need some space, Priss. I’ve changed.”

“And I haven’t.” … “I’m not the angry one, Ian,” she said. … “You are.” – pg 97

He’s still treating Megan like he would his usual stripper-like girls:

I bought her [Megan] a craaazy [engagement] ring–a huge diamond. The Tiffany Soleste, a carat and a half. Cost 30K–‘cuz that’s how I roll yo. …

The next day, she made me take the ring back to Tiffany & Co. We went together and she picked out a smaller, pink, heart-shaped solitaire that was a third of the price. I couldn’t help but think that Priss would have wanted an even bigger ring. And she probably would have wanted a car, too. – pg 98-100

He’s also resisting a “grown-up” relationship with Megan and her loving family–the same one he so admired in Part 1:

Megan didn’t like the loft. She wanted us to get our own place, something that we bought and decorated together. Binky and Julia [her parents] wanted to help, which made me a little uncomfortable. They were so tied into Megan and what was going on with her.  Was that normal? I didn’t know. I’d never had a normal family. – pg 117

And he doesn’t see the pot-calling-the-kettle-black-ness of seeing how “so tied” Megan and her parents are when he’s “so tied” to Priss.

Ian is also still blowing off Megan’s requests to meet Priss, still using drugs when Megan’s not around to know, and when Megan suggests that instead of keeping the loft they fix up his childhood home, Ian arranges to have the old home demolished so it won’t be an issue anymore.

2. Ian experiences his very own personal hell.

Arranging for demolition leads Priss to start making Ian’s life a Personal Hell (or at least Priss is who Ian blames).

First, Ian pops a pill to get through his comic book deadline, only to black out and miss an important meeting with his editor, miss a wedding-plans meeting with Megan, and miss a call from his mom’s mental institution saying she’s missing.  Ian blames Priss for turning off his phone and for luring his mom away in order to get Ian back home (even though his mom says it was Ian who called her).  Megan asks Ian why Priss would do all this.

“She’s angry,” I said. “Angry that I’m getting married, that I’m in love–that I don’t want her in my life anymore.”

Priss was angry that I was trying to tear down the house, to move on from this place once and for all.  But I didn’t tell Megan that. She’d have been angry, too.  Another decision I’d made without her. – pg 136

After this, Ian sinks deeper into hell when Megan is pushed onto the subway tracks by an unknown attacker.  The attack is awfully reminiscent of a Fatboy and Priss sketch Ian was just working on.  Ian thinks Priss pushed Megan, that the sketch gave her the idea.  Megan says:

“If it’s her, then your friend pushed me onto a subway track.”  Her voice had gone shrill, gone up an octave.  “I seriously nearly died the most terrifying, ugliest possible death.  Are you getting that?”

“Of course I get that.” …

“Then why aren’t you angrier?” …

“I am.”

But I was really more frightened, and I think she could see that. There was a flash of disappointment in her eyes. It cut me. No woman wants to know that you’re afraid. She doesn’t want to hear that you’re scared and not sure you can control the situation, and a little bit of a coward. – pg 153-154

3. Ian finally reaches exhaustion.

When Ian doesn’t stand up for her and call the police, Megan retreats to her parents’ house.  Ian goes with her and his personal hell reaches a peak.  While Megan’s Dad is trying to talk to Ian about being a bad fiancé because Ian is selfish–because Ian only talks about his own problems and never engages with Megan about hers, and because he won’t call the cops on Priss–Ian thinks he sees Priss on the beach.  For the first time, we see, acted out, how Ian’s blackouts happen, and this gives us an indication of his exhaustion:

Oh God, how did she [Priss] find us here?

“Why won’t they believe you, son [that Priss pushed Megan]?” Binky said. His voice had the gentle, level tone that people take when they think there might be something wrong with you.  “Make me understand that.”

I couldn’t answer him, just kept my eyes on Priss as she drew closer.

“Ian,” said Binky. …

I started moving toward the staircase. I had to get to her before she got to this place. if she came here, if these two worlds collided, I couldn’t bear it. Everything here at Binky and Julia’s was clean and good and right. It was safe. It was wholesome. i wouldn’t let her defile that. Before I could get to the stiars, I felt Binky’s hand on my arm.

I turned to face him and found that red veil of rage coming down over my eyes [emphasis mine, this is his blackout]. I don’t want to tell you what happened next. – pg 166

ENLIGHTENMENT

After Megan rushes to Ian on the beach and wakes him from his blackout, Ian finally sees how his flaw is impacting the achievement of his goal, a healthy relationship with Megan:

“Did you hit my father?” she asked. Her voice broke a little  “He wants to call the police.”

“No,” I said. Hit Binky? Had I hit him? “Of course not. I would never hurt you or your family.”

“I’ll meet you at the Scout,” she said. “I don’t think my parents want to see you again tonight.”

I sat in the Scout and waited nearly an hour. Megan finally came out. Julia and Binky stood in the doorway, but they didn’t try to stop her. Maybe they already had, and she’d prevailed. She’d obviously convinced Binky not to call the police. I didn’t remember hitting him, but the knuckles on my right hand were swollen and red, aching.

It was slipping away from me, this new life I’d created. Just the way Priss wanted it to. She liked me best when I was lonely and high, an outcast who didn’t belong anywhere. she didn’t want me loved and happy, building a life that didn’t include her. – pg 173-175

PART 3: COMMITTED

1. Ian is committed to change.

With this realization that things are slipping away from him, Ian is committed to change. On the way home he and Megan stop at a diner and he makes a gesture to show his commitment:

I ordered black coffee and wished I had a joint, something to take the edge off.  But there was no escaping this. I had to tell her everything now, or lose her. I might lose her anyway. – pg 175

“Ian,” said Megan. … “Are you telling me that Priss isn’t real?” …

“No,” I said. “She’s real. I’ve just never been able to prove that she was real.” – pg 181

2. Ian experiences a moment of grace.

A very short moment:  unlike anybody else he’s ever told, Megan believes him about Priss.  And this time when she asks him to call Priss so they can confront her, he does, further showing his commitment to change.

But from there…

3. Ian’s commitment to keeping it together is challenged again.

And he’s challenged mostly by the consequences of acting out his Flaw in Part 2.  When he gets home, he finds an eviction notice, effective Friday.  He calls the landlord:

“There’s no mistake, Mr. Paine. We’ve been over this a number of times.”

“Excuse me?”

A crackling silence on the line.

“You and I have been over this several times, sir….”

“Now,” she said … “I’m going to end this conversation, Mr. Paine, before you see fit to level any more verbal abuse at me.”

“Verbal abuse?” I said. “Do I know you? Have we spoken before?”

She emitted a little laugh.  “Are you for real?” – pg 187-188

In addition to being three months late in rent and on the verge of eviction, his graphic novel contract has been cancelled and all the money in his bank account is gone.  Next, when Priss fails to show up to their meeting, Megan says she and Ian should take some time off.  And when Ian gets home, his place is trashed.  He starts to blame Priss, but we see a bit of a change:

I stood, looking at the mess of it all.  Had she [Priss] done it?  Knowing I’d be waiting for her at the park, had she come in and done all this damage? Or in that blank space after I hung up with Natalie [the landlord] when the veil of red had come down, had I done this to my home?  Was there a part of me that wanted to destroy everything good in my life? – pg 199

He gets an answer to this question when a detective shows Ian the surveillance video of Megan being pushed on the subway.  Ian recognizes the attacker, but it’s not Priss.

THE DEATH EXPERIENCE

The worst thing that could happen to Ian is that he hurt Megan with his Flaw; all would be lost if she left him.  And this is just what happens.  Ian tries to convince Megan to run away from Priss with him.  When she says no, he gets angry.

Then she stood, and I did, too.  I grabbed for her wrist, but she pulled her hand back from me. And for some reason that act of withdrawal enraged me all over again; the anger came rolling back through me in an ugly, unstoppable tsunami of emotion.

She was abandoning me, taking herself, her love, our child, all the good she brought into my life–taking it all away. And the veil came down once more. What did I say?  What did I do?

All I know is that she was backing away from me then, her mouth an O of shock, her eyes wide with hurt and surprise. … Megan started to run. I don’t think I went after her. I don’t know. – pg 217

But Ian actually acknowledges the death experience later:

I’d say if there was a rock bottom, I was lying on it.

I’d all but lost Megan. I had been evicted from my apartment, was virtually penniless.  I would certainly be accused of assaulting, possibly killing, a police officer.  (Was he dead? Had she killed him? I had no idea.) I would definitely be accused of starting the fire I’d seen burning in my apartment.  In a million years, no one would ever believe it wasn’t me. Not even Megan. Especially not Megan. I just kept seeing the look on her face in the park, the surprise, the hurt. I was about as fucked as a person could be. – pg 233

PART 4: DESCENT

1. Ian experiences descent.

Ian starts his descent by going to the one place he doesn’t want to be: His childhood home.

There was no panic now, no wondering where I was headed or what I was going to do.  There was only one way to drive and one place to go.  And I realized, finally, that I couldn’t have gone anyplace else if I’d tried. – pg 220

2. Ian retreats back into practicing his flaw:

[Speaking to Priss.] “You burned down the apartment.”

did?” she said.  “That’s funny. When are you going to grow up Ian? When are you going to stop blaming everything on me?

“When you stop fucking up my life,” I said.  But the words came out as a roar, angry–no, hysterical, impotent. The rage was building, a heat that was growing from my gut, rising up my throat like reflux. I couldn’t control it. Who was I kidding?  I’d never been able to control it. – pg 231

But it’s not until the climax, when he learns that Megan is missing and everyone thinks he took her, that…

3. Ian finally chooses to change.

Ian is hauled into the police station and questioned, but he doesn’t know anything.  He does, however, think that he might be able convince a cop from his hometown, one he had a couple of run-ins with as a kid, to give him some leeway so that he can get Priss to tell them where Megan is.  And his decision to ask for this copy and tell him everything indicates his choice to change, to keep his anger under control and not be selfish:

I told him [the hometown cop] everything, really laid it all bare, the total truth about everything, then and now. … They were recording it all, I knew. And that was fine. I had nothing to lose at this point.  All I cared about was Megan. – pg 297

[On the way out, he passes Megan’s mom.]

Her eyes said: Please, bring my baby home. I made her a silent promise.  I am going to do that. I will give my life to do that. – pg 299

4. Ian makes a sacrifice.

Ian makes a sacrifice to find Megan:

“What do you want, Priscilla?  If you let them go, I’ll give it to you.”

… She moved in close to me, and I let her. … I put my hands on her dry and withered shoulders, and she whispered in my ear. But, of course, I already knew the answer, had known it all along.

“Yes,” I said. [We find out later that he agreed to Priss’s request that he move back to his hometown to be near her.]

She drew back from me, and smiled.  Then she laid herself down on the ground ….

When I looked back, I saw that in her place before me lay Megan. – pg 313-314

And through his improved relationship with Priss…

5. Ian is now able to resolve the conflict.

Ian saves himself and Megan from the fire Priss started, and he does it with Priss’s help:

“I have to get us out of here,” I told her [Megan]. I had no idea if I could. Above us I could hear a riot of sound, crashing and the roar of flames. I lifted her, and she cried out in pain. …

I was weak, and I started to feel overcome again as soon as I made it up the stairs.

But still I moved, one foot in front of the other as the flames raged and the house groaned around me. A beam from the ceiling fell in front of me, blocking my way to the back door. I wanted us to stay, to die here with Priss. But I turned and headed into the flames that seemed to block our way to the front. if we died here, it wouldn’t be because I had given up.

Then I saw her [Priss] everywhere, all around me in the flames, her shape, the color of her hair. Wherever I saw her, that was where I headed. And so, following the shade of Priss, I managed to move us through the fire. – pg 314-135

And, finally, when the dust settles…

6. We get a glimpse of Ian’s inner growth

Ian’s editor, Zack, isn’t happy with the series ending of Fatboy and Priss, because, instead of getting together with Megan, Fatboy walks off into a fire with Priss.

“It’s the right ending, Zack. Trust me.”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great ending–exciting, explosive. But emotionally, I think your readers are going to want more than this.”

He seemed really young to me suddenly. And I felt old and battle-worn, trying to explain the world I knew to a child. We don’t always get a happy ending, son, I wanted to say. Life is about compromise. Sometimes you get good enough.

Fatboy and I had parted company. After I wrote him walking into the fire, I felt him leave me for good. I released that part of myself that was afraid and filled with rage. I let him burn. – pg 319-320

Ian is also in rehab, about to complete the program. He and Megan are building a new home in his hometown, where his childhood home burnt down, and he’s restoring Priss’s old home.  He still sees her, but now she’s just a contented wisp in the trees.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Honestly? … I think Ian had too many flaws.  Does he need to grow up, like the defining moments in Part 1/Act 1 make explicit?  Or does he need to overcome the anger that Parts 2-3/Act 2 show us?  Or is he selfish? Or an addict? Or a coward? Or does he need to forgive? Or let go of the past? I don’t know, and Act 3 can’t seem to decide either.

I would say that Anger is Ian’s primary flaw, with the others being symptoms of anger.  The only problem is that being stuck in the past and needing to grow up and being selfish and being a coward aren’t really symptoms of anger.  They’re their own things.  I think this story could have been stronger if the flaw were more focused and the symptoms more tailored to and more reflective of that one, specific flaw.

Also … If Anger is Ian’s flaw, then there were some inconsistent moments.  In Part 1, Ian’s anger is never shown, it’s only vaguely hinted at. There is a clear opportunity to show Ian’s anger in Part 1 (during dinner with Megan’s family, see above), but instead of showing Ian getting angry, Ian’s anger stays safely in his thoughts; he makes a conscious choice to control his anger and to instead behave.

In Part 1, Character shouldn’t have enough awareness of his flaw to control it like that. Flaws should be so ingrained that they’re a habit, automatic, happening mindlessly.  It’s what makes the outer journey so necessary: but for the outer journey, Character would forever remain his unaware, flawed self.

A second inconsistency is in Part 2.  There’s a scene where Ian should be angry (when he thinks Priss pushed Megan), but he’s not and he passes off his lack of anger as being too afraid to be angry, which muddies his flaw of anger (if that is indeed his flaw) by mixing it with cowardice.

As I mentioned above, the first time we ever see Ian get angry is at the midpoint.  Up until then, we just see the consequences of his anger.  But since those consequences (his blackouts) are treated like setup, once they’re paid off as being caused by his anger (and we’re told that Priss is the personification of anger, only attracted to him when he’s angry), the flaw of anger reverberates back through Parts 1 and 2, giving new meaning to all those previously unexplained consequences.  This is why, even though the anger is shown only in the last half of the book, Ian’s primary flaw still feels, to me, like anger.

Anyway, just my measly two cents.

THE TAKEAWAY

The Inner Journey Map isn’t just a planning tool… it’s a revision tool.  Go through your own stories and pull out the passages where you SHOW Hero’s flaw… or flawssss, if they’re there… and where you SHOW his enlightenment… and where you SHOW his decision to change… and where you SHOW the various other steps.  Then read through those passages to make sure the inner journey is consistent.  (Crazy Love You is a suspenseful page-turner, but it wasn’t until I finished this exercise that I could put to words why, despite my engagement, it felt a little off.)

A second takeaway:  Think twice before being cryptic about your character’s Flaw as a suspense tactic.  If you’re using suspenseful, curiosity-inducing words to describe the Flaw, then, by definition, you’re not using words that clarify it.  And those ‘other,’ not-quite-the-flaw-but-close word choices will probably come back to muddy the Flaw when it’s finally fully revealed.

***

Well, that’s it for me.  Phew.  What about you?  Have you read this?  What did you think of Ian’s inner journey? Tell us in the comments!

Also, if you found this helpful, please feel free to Like it and Share it with people who might also find it helpful. There are Share buttons below. Thank you!

UP NEXT, ON FRIDAY

The Inner journey in our own work. See you then!

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