Fictional Reading Lists: Yute and Samal

I recently saw an exercise online where authors wrote up lists of real-life books that they thought their characters would like to read if they were brought into our world. I thought it’d be fun to write up lists for two of my characters: Yute, a psychopathic immortality-seeker who disarms people with his wit and charm, and Samal, a sea-wizard and vagabond who has devoted his life to becoming a selfless, benevolent survivor.

Yute

Yute, as I’ve explained in detail in a previous post, is meant to be a charismatic psychopath. He’s charming, worldly, well-read, self-reflective, inquisitive, intelligent, and deeply egocentric. As I was building his list, I realized that it was really a syllabus for a bizarre kind of self-education: Yute doesn’t read for pleasure, he reads to learn things, hence the large amount of non-fiction titles. His choices in Western philosophy reveal a strong interest into the nature of being and self, which connects to his obsession with the soul and immortality.

The 48 Laws of Power would be one of his bibles. Because Yute is an inherently manipulative and egocentric person, he views others as tools for his own advancement. He has a strong desire to control others, and he accomplishes this through his glib charm and charisma. Everything he does around other people is part of a performance, meant to advance his own ends, and 48 Laws reflects this mindset. The handbook on interrogations characterizes his intent when it comes to conversations and manipulation–instead of reading a book on clear communication, he goes instead for a book on how to provoke confessions and guide discussion through deception and coercion.

With his need of a ‘mask of sanity’ to hide his intentions, I realized Yute would be drawn to Montaigne and David Sedaris in order to familiarize himself with popular commentators’ wide-ranging views on daily life and experience–as a hermit and scholar, he needs to fill gaps in his knowledge of the world outside scholarship and be able to relate to more common folk. At the same time, he’s interested in the extreme ends of human experience, from enlightenment (there are two Zen titles, by Alan Watts and Lin Chi respectively) to absolute depravity and cruelty (120 Days of Sodom).

  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers
  • The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions by Gisli Gudjonsson
  • Sein Und Zeit by Hegel
  • A Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  • The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day
  • The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
  • Three Hundred Mile Tiger by Lin Chi, translated by Soke-an
  • H.P Lovecraft: the Great Tales by H.P. Lovecraft
  • 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
  • The Fractal Form of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot
  • Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension by Benoit Mandelbrot
  • The Secret Teachings of All the Ages by Manly P. Hall
  • The Mystical Qabbalah by Dion Fortune

Samal

I was surprised when I composed this list–I didn’t expect Samal, a sea-wizard, to lean so heavily towards tales of survival, but the more I thought about his interests and aspirations, I realized that what draws him towards books like Into Thin Air and Endurance is the idea of individuals overcoming death through sheer force of will (or being conquered themselves). Samal is influenced heavily by his belief that a wizard is meant to be a pillar that holds up the rest of the world, and as such, must be able to survive anything. Despite his well-developed sense of humor and tendency toward being an extrovert, I found that his personal reading would reflect his constant quest to become a bona-fide sea-wizard.

I added two books related to martial arts: The Art of Peace, which informs Samal’s approach toward conflict and his interest in a fighting style that is benevolent and effective, and Vagabond, which parallels his journey to understand what it means to be a bona-fide wizard. Like Samal, Inoue’s Miyamoto Musashi meets old masters and struggles to understand them. One of the most relevant parts of Vagabond is probably the scene where I’nei and Sekishusai meet Ise No Kami, who tells them that “his sword is one with heaven and earth.” Embedded in this scene is the essence of Samal’s quest to understand the true meaning of being a wizard, just as Musashi searches for the meaning of invincibility.

Samal’s choice of fiction reflects his interest in sea tales and adventure (Robinson Crusoe and Monte Cristo), but Ficciones speaks to his sense of imagination and wonder. As a sailor, his travels take him to unimaginable and exotic places that expand his mind, and I thought he would be interested in Borges’ explorations of the bizarre and wondrous. Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, speaks to Samal’s deepest fears: the betrayal of one’s own humanity and one’s inherent kinship with other human beings. The fact that it takes place on a deserted island makes it even more relatable to him, as a sailor. I imagine Samal having nightmares of his own pig-head, telling him to despair and abandon his desire to save others.

  • The Encyclopedia of Russian Prison Tattoos, Vol 1 and 2 by Damon Murray
  • Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba
  • Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue Inoue
  • Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey by Alfred Lansing
  • Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  • Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Fictional Reading Lists: Yute and Samal

The Occult Triangle Lab Reading List Vol 4: The Mind of a Psychopath

This is Vol. 4 of the Occult Reading List, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week. Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

This is a special edition of the Reading List that deals with building a picture of a psychopathic mind. This is not the clinical definition of a psychopath, as defined by the DSM–this is the popular idea of a psychopath. I’m working on a new story that deals with a Mephistophelean character who’s a liar and master manipulator, and I wanted to delve into some material that could flesh out his mindset and worldview. I also asked my friend, Joel Clapp, to help compose a sketch of Yute based off the infamous photo of Charles Manson:

No one should romanticize real-life serial killers or cult leaders, but there’s something fascinating and deeply disturbing about delving into the mind of a psychopathic character. Trying to capture the essence of that sort of person ended up leading down interesting paths, especially ideas about the self, including Zen, Jungian archetypes, and German philosophy.

 

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers

Reading the highlights of this book was like finding the Cliff’s Notes for American Psycho. Written in 1998 after observing the behavior of Hollywood’s power elite, the book is a apparently a big hit among celebrities, prison inmates, and corporate Machiavellian types, the kind that read The Art of War in order to get an edge in the boardroom. Some of the laws include things like “Court Attention at all Cost”, “Keep Others in Suspended Terror”, “Think as you like but Behave like others”, and the best one of all, “Assume Formlessness”.

Despite supposedly being a guide to the laws of power, the central tenets of the book revolve around the idea that appearances, not substance, are what really matter. You are who you appear to be, and your reputation is the most important thing you have. It really is a new Machiavellian handbook, and the worldview it espouses closely resembles nightmarish, uber-wealthyworld that Patrick Bateman inhabits in American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman is going to be an ongoing touchpoint for the reading in this week’s list, and the video above gives a great interpretation of his fictional character. As for the character of Yute, The 48 Laws of Power offers the bedrock for a master manipulator’s view of the world and his relationship to the world: everything is illusions, and the world is a zero-sum game that must be played every waking hour.

The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook

Everyone knows there’s a certain way to frame a conversation so that you’ll always win in the end. For police interrogators, the key is following certain techniques, like the Reid Technique, which consists of seven (sometimes nine) steps. All of it’s based on psychology and the mental stress of a guilty conscious (and imprisonment). At the same time, reading through the book made me realize just how much police offers can deceive you, trick you, and abuse your rights in order to get a confession–one passage essentially says “don’t remind a suspect of their Miranda rights against self-incrimination” and encourages the officer to keep the suspect away from a lawyer. It’s all about pressuring someone and manipulating their emotions to break down their will, which is disturbing.

At the same time, the methods and techniques in the book offer a good primer on how to structure dialogue and character dynamics in a story, especially when someone is being subtly (or overtly) pressed to reveal something they don’t want to. For the story I’m writing, it offered a body of knowledge to draw upon when trying to show that a character was an accomplished liar.

The Matrix and Meaning of Character By Jacqueline J. West and Nancy J. Dougherty

I read the first chapter of this book, titled “Schizoid character structure:
Encapsulated in ice”. I’ve never had any love for psychoanalysis in practice, but as storytelling inspiration, it’s a great resource. I actually came across the idea of the “schizoid” in Emmanuel Carrere’s biography of Philip K Dick:

“The source of all evil, he thought, was withdrawal in the self, into one’s shell—a symptom, in psychiatric terms, of schizophrenia…A schizoid thinks more he feels. His comprehension of the world and of himself is purely intellectual and abstract, his awareness an atomistic aggregation of a number of disparate elements that never cohere into an emotion or even truly into a real thought…”

This idea is expanded in the text of Matrix and Meaning:

“The schizoid patient experiences a terrifying emptiness, a nameless dread, an inner landscape unpopulated by human figures. She frequently turns to endless dreams and fantasies, which may be rich, symbolic, and mesmerizing. She may find solace in a well-developed intellect and develop an internal crystal palace in which she lives alone, safe but frozen. However, she may also find dangerous depths, unpredictability, and deadly horrors.”

It’s a fascinating idea, and good insight into what a twisted mind might look like. One of the most uncanny and frightening things about psychopaths or serial killers is that they appear to be normal people, but their minds often seem completely alien to “normal” people. It evokes the title of one of the most famous books on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey M. Cleckley.

Hegel’s Theory of Self‐Consciousness: Deducing the Necessity of Inter‐Subjectivity by Julia Batty

This was an honest-to-god MA Philosophy thesis from the Universiteit van Amsterdam that I found online, published in 2009. It’s on Hegelian phenomenology, the most complicated, confusing, and absolutely unintuitive brand of German philosophy possible. I studied some of it college, and it turned out to be not as bad as I remembered, though it was still a labyrinth to read.

The central idea of the essay (and intersubjectivity) is that “the self only becomes fully self‐aware by seeing oneself through the eyes of another in mutual recognition…” Subject-object relationships are the big thing for Hegel, where the self is the “subject” and everything else is an “object.” The problem arises when the self tries to examine itself–who is the little voice in your head talking about your thoughts? Well, that must also be you. When you examine yourself, you make part of yourself into an observer and part of yourself into an object of observation, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to “get outside yourself” and see everything.

This is supposedly solved by viewing yourself from the perspective of another person–but, as the essay says, you can never understand anyone or anything except in your own terms:

“…Hegel’s interpretation, consciousness is never in direct relation to an object, but in relation to an object only in a self‐relation.”

If “man is the measure of all things,” then each person is their own measure of the world, and of themselves. When we see other people, we aren’t really seeing them, we’re seeing aspects of ourselves. Strangely enough, a great articulation of this idea comes from American Psycho again, in his monologue on Whitney Houston.

Hegel doesn’t seem to be too troubled by this infinite loop of the self seeing the world as reflections of itself, but it raises some terrifying questions, especially when it comes to the ego-driven world of the psychopath. The whole subject-object relationship Hegel puts forward reminds me of the 48 Laws of Power, and how much emphasis it puts on the self being totally dependent on other people–not just socially, but existentially.

Alone Down There by Modest Mouse

This is the song I’ve been listening to while writing this new draft with Yute. The lyrics fit the story scarily well, especially this one:

The Devil’s apprentice he gave me some credit
He fed me a line and I’ll probably regret it

It speaks to the Mephistophelean nature of the character: the lyrics “fed me a line” can refer to both a line of credit, which is a great tool for putting someone in debt, and the line of a fishing hook, which catches someone in a trap. The lyrics “I don’t want you to be alone down there” makes me think the song is talking about Hell, and that the singer is trying to make sure he fills Hell with plenty of victims so they won’t be alone.

On top of that, the song’s lyrics are sung in a sort of seductive lilt, while the chorus is shouted, which makes it sound more abrasive, desperate. It sums up the story and the character well.

Alan Watts: The Void Pt 1

Zen is a constant inspiration for my writing and my worldbuilding. A lot of my stories start from ideas about self, illusions, reality, eternity, and the human relationship with the universe, even if those ideas aren’t explicitly brought up in the course of the plot. When thinking about the character of Yute, I realized that The 48 Laws of Power and Zen Buddhism both share a central tenet: formlessness, or the Void. The Zen idea of the self is mu, or emptiness, as explained in the video. There is no innate self, according to Zen, and the experience of realizing mu is the feeling of annihilation. Upon the annihilation of the self, one experiences enlightenment, which is the realization that one is not an identity–one is the universe.

So formlessness can be the birthplace of a manipulative, psychopathic mind that consumes and tricks people to further itself, like The 48 Laws of Power, or it can birth a mind that sees no division between itself and the rest of the universe, where any injuries it inflicts on others are really injuries to itself. This ties into intersubjectivity, and the idea that your sense of self is inseparable from those around you.

Patrick Bateman and the DAO of the Psycopath:

I think psychopathic characters, like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman, are fascinating because their internal world is so foreign and alien to other people that they end up functioning like broken mirrors on humanity. You get a sense of vertigo when you read them, like you’re looking through a window into another world. That’s the heart of the uncanny attraction, I think. But what makes them frightening, in an existential sense, is that it may be a thin line between ego-driven, manipulative madness (like Charles Manson) and transcendental enlightenment (like Zen Buddhism).

The difference, I think, is one’s perception of oneself and one’s relationship to the world, which is where phenomenology comes in. Hegel seems to say that we can only truly understand ourselves through the eyes of others, but can anyone really see into the essence of someone else? Can we even see into our own essence? As Patrick Bateman claims in the chilling ending monologue of American Psycho, the “inside” of people, the substance or essence, may be of no consequence–an absurdity.

According to the Hegelian view, the self is only beholden to the beliefs and bounds it submits itself to, and it decides what it should submit itself to. With nothing guiding the self but itself, self-defintion becomes an ouroboros–your definitions of the world and yourself may be completely incomprehensible and unintelligible to anyone else, and what you perceive as your “self” may be a bunch of incoherent babbling with nothing at its center and no meaning, even to you. Self-examination may be a futile exercise, since there’s nothing to know or understand that you didn’t already know on some level. This is what Bateman may be expressing when he says “I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

So what is at the heart of a person? What makes their identity? Bateman says early in the movie:

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.”

This would be a profound and positive realization for a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, but for anyone else, it’s absolutely alien. Of course Patrick has a self–who’s talking, if not Patrick Bateman? It’s a similar question to the one the Emperor of China asked Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism: “Who is speaking before me?” Bodhidharma’s answer was “I don’t know.”

If you’re a Zen Buddhist, having no self is the gateway to enlightenment. And there is a name for a person that comes back from the self-annihilation of Nirvana and tries to enlighten others: a Bodhisattva. It’s the highest good you can achieve in the Mahayana view of Buddhism, and it all starts with mu, the Void. But this sense of no-self, of emptiness in the soul, can lead to the opposite: someone who desires to inflict suffering and anguish on anyone and everyone, with no reason beyond the fact that there are no reasons not to:

 “My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.”

I think when anyone writes a “psychopath” character, they’re only making their best guess. But even if those characters are only simulacra of the minds they’re supposedly based on, they can still cause us to ask difficult questions about what it means to be a human. It’s unsettling that, of all questions, that one has never been settled.

One of Joel Clapp's initial sketches of Yute, based on Charles Manson

 

Link

24 Characters in 1 Hour: Improv D&D NPCs

I’ve never been a fan of timed writing prompts, but somehow this happened this past March. The following is a transcript of a Facebook conversation within my D&D group (formerly known as “The Orthodox Church of Tesalasism”). All of the posts occurred over the course of one hour.

DM: I’m working on a list of NPC’s that I can use for later games. Anybody have some suggestions? Looking for something not too bizarre (loxodon horizon walkers need not apply), but still with a unique quirk to set them apart (bandit chief that obsessively collects shoes or such).
Thanks!

Chris Mahon: A young, handsome man who plays harmonica with a dancing monkey. In reality, the harmonica music is a distraction so that a second monkey can pickpocket the listeners.
February 8 at 5:15pm

Chris Mahon: An old man who sells funnel cakes from a cart or a stand. He gives out fatherly advice to all who sit down to eat his funnel cakes, and tells stories about his son, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. In reality, he never had a son. His entire backstory is an elaborate personal fantasy.
February 8 at 5:18pm

Chris Mahon: A dashing young female rogue who has a terrible habit of falling off of buildings. She is now afraid of heights, and only robs people at street level.
February 8 at 5:18pm

Chris Mahon: An insane magician who walks around with a sack of potatoes. He hands them out to the beggars, who are grateful for the food. In reality, he is a master transmuter, and all of the potatoes turn into gold when cooked.
February 8 at 5:20pm

Chris Mahon: A blind tavernkeeper with preternatural hearing, able to hear all of the conversations in the bar, and hear anyone who pulls a knife.
February 8 at 5:21pm

Chris Mahon: An eight foot tall mercenary with sandy blonde hair and boyish charm. He has a wonderful singing voice, and wishes he were a sailor, but never learned to swim.
February 8 at 5:22pm

Chris Mahon: A necromancer who raises up dead cats and dogs on the street. He uses them to ferry messages to his other cabal members, and is known to have ears and eyes in every alley.
February 8 at 5:23pm

Chris Mahon: A skilled archer who has fallen from grace, traveled the world as a carnival performer, and now makes his living as an unhappy, drunken hitman. His accuracy never suffers from his inebriation.
February 8 at 5:26pm

Chris Mahon: A young bard searching for his long lost father, who went mad when he thought his son would never come from his travels. In reality, he is a demon whose sole pleasure derives from driving the funnel cake man insane.
February 8 at 5:27pm

Chris Mahon: A lowly rookie town guard who has been practicing every day to master his slingshot abilities. He is in love with the rogue with the fear of heights.
February 8 at 5:28pm

Chris Mahon: An old sailor who has finally ended his sailing days and decided that what he really wants is to be a professional boxer. He is too old to compete, but he does anyway, and gets the shit kicked out of him time and again, but it’s the only thing that makes him feel alive.
February 8 at 5:29pm

Chris Mahon: A beggar woman searching for the man who made her destitute by stealing her family fortune. All she knows is that he trains monkeys, and is the most soulful harmonica player she has ever heard. She will kill any harmonica player on sight.
February 8 at 6:14pm

Taco: A master magician who can’t stop jumping face first into walls no matter how many jump spells he uses.
February 8 at 5:34pm

Chris Mahon: A female sorcerer who runs a dance club and a drug-running operation. Anyone who crosses her has a fireball stuffed into their urethra. She enjoys hurting people, and spends all of her time in a sauna.
February 8 at 5:33pm

Chris Mahon: A group of six men who are prophets of a new saint. They silently hand out flyers and charms to anyone who will accept them, praising “Saint Olvidar.” Olvidar, they say, is the flesh incarnation of all the worlds pain and suffering. He takes all of it upon himself so that others can heal themselves by forgetting. Any supplicant can attend a ritual, and have memories wiped from their minds forever, transferred to Olvidar.
February 8 at 5:36pm

Chris Mahon: An old beggar who doesn’t know who he is, where he came from, or what he’s doing. He spends all of his time sitting at a fountain, crying silently. He is Saint Olvidar.
February 8 at 5:39pm

Taco: Jesus Christ Chris was this all on the spot?
February 8 at 5:41pm

Chris Mahon: A wizard who faked her own death four years ago, and has become a maker of porcelain vases and cups, weaving magic into her creations. She listens to the eight-foot-tall mercenary sing sometimes, and they have become good friends.
February 8 at 5:42pm

Chris Mahon: A young woman who sells necklaces and trinkets on the street. In reality, she takes the trinkets/jewelry off dead people. She’s afraid the town guard will figure out her scheme.
February 8 at 5:43pm

Chris Mahon: Two men in bandannas who rob people at night, then spend the money on nicer shoes and bandannas. They spend a lot of time in different bars, trying to get laid, but the have bad teeth.
February 8 at 5:45pm

Chris Mahon: A witch who can eat and drink almost indefinitely. She never gets full, and doesn’t know why. She has eaten almost every kind of cuisine, and has a vast knowledge of alcohol and exotic drinks. She is a legend in the taverns.
February 8 at 5:47pm

Chris Mahon: A drug smuggler who has crossed the sorcerer who runs the nightclub. He is addicted to his own product, and is now in a self-destructive spiral downward, trying to take the entire criminal underground down with him a bloody vendetta.
February 8 at 5:50pm

Chris Mahon: A cleric slowly losing his faith in his god. He is visited every Friday by a powerful demon, who challenges him to a game of cards. The cleric always loses, and finds himself deeper and deeper in debt to the demon. For some reason, the demon always has funnel cakes.
February 8 at 5:56pm

Chris Mahon: A silent assassin who wears a white mask all of the time. He plays with matches, and can be recognized by the smell of smoke on his clothes. In reality, his hit victims are the source of the young trinket-woman’s jewelry supply.
February 8 at 5:59pm

Chris Mahon: A carnival ringleader searching for the man who stole his trained pickpocket monkeys. All he knows is that the man is the most soulful harmonica player he has ever heard.
February 8 at 6:16pm

Chris Mahon: A former adventurer who spent all his time looting old ruins. His clothes his burned flesh and dozens of gashes from traps and enemies. His prize possession is a glass eye that lets him see through walls. He is known as “Dingy,” but no one knows why.

DM: I love you Chris Mahon.

 

24 Characters in 1 Hour: Improv D&D NPCs