This is my third and final essay tying in with the release of my new book, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The book has been released for about a week now, and I hope you've all had a chance to check it out. This story is something special to me, particularly the third part—which might be the most personal story I've ever written.
But how did it start? The Legion stories seem, at first glance, very self-referential. They are about a man who hallucinates a wide variety of characters—but unlike many protagonists of his ilk, Stephen knows that his hallucinations aren't real, and doesn't (for most of the stories) resist the fact that he is like this. Instead, he uses this ability to help him, acting like a one-man team of experts.
The parallels are obvious. Stephen is very much like me, in that he imagines a large cast of people who accompany him. It's quite the metaphor for being a writer, though when I was working on the first story, I didn't really see this connection. I just wanted to see if I could change something that is often portrayed in film as a huge liability into (instead) a huge advantage.
The original cast of hallucinations—specifically JC, Ivy, and Tobias—were based on actors. This is rare for me, as I don't often "cast" my characters in stories. But to me, it felt like Stephen would have used people he'd seen in film as a jumping-off point to create these personas, much as many of my characters have their roots in the pop culture I consumed when young. Ivy, then, looks roughly like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tobias like Morgan Freeman, and J.C. like Adam Baldwin—with the name J.C. being a reference to the fact that he's played multiple characters with those initials.
But, like any characters I create, these were just jumping-off points, used to spin me into unique characterizations. JC went into this fun mix of self-aware, playing up his quirks, while Ivy became a representation of the fight within Stephen between cynicism and sincerity.
The more I wrote, the more this became a metaphor for the complex relationship between a writer and the characters in their head. The voices that they know aren't real—but still depend on convincing readers to buy as real people. The stories deal with mental illness, yes, but the further I wrote, the more Stephen became a stand-in for the way our perceptions—and our hopes—shape the world we perceive. And maybe for the crisis that can be caused when we realize there's a misalignment between the two.
Going back to the points I made in the first essay, however, it isn't that I was trying to express anything specific by writing these stories. And yet, by the end of the third one, I had indeed expressed something that was deeply personal—and real in ways that it is still strange to me that a piece of fiction can reach.
But that's the point of stories, or at least one of them. A medium through which we can all connect in ways that we never could solely by explaining ourselves. Because art reaches inside us, and expresses aspects of ourselves that aren't deliberate, there's a truth and genuineness to it. A raw sincerity that isn't always about which part of the three-act structure you're crossing right now, or which part of a character arc this event is fulfilling. Those are important to give us a framework. But it is not itself the art.
The structure is the skeleton, but the art is the eyes. The part you can see into and feel it looking back at you. The part that somehow—despite my best attempts to quantify it—is a soul that lives on its own, and defies explanation.