Muse Abuse YKTTW Discussion

Muse Abuse
(permanent link) added: 2010-03-05 12:04:04 sponsor: kenning (last reply: 2010-03-08 20:20:02)

Add Tag:
Former titles: Portrait of the Artist as Emotional Vampire, Suffer For My Art, Artists Suck.

Updates and examples invited, and will be added on launching if this gets enough response to be tropable.

Muse Abuse occurs when artist exploit their real life and the people in it for the sake of their art, often to the serious detriment of the people around them and their relationships to other people in general. Related to The Muse, but more general - it's not just how the artist treats a particular other or others, but can spread through their entire life. Also, if really unlucky, they get alienated from themselves and their own experiences this way (see the example from Neil Gaiman, below).

May or may not involve serious breaking of confidences and trust, and always involves being at some emotional distance from Real Life, consciously or obliviously.

Generally Muse Abuse works as an inversion of the Pygmalion Plot in relation to people around the artist: Real Life gets turned into art, not the other way round, and it does not end happily, primarily because the artist, in the Muse Abuse case, relates better to the statue than the live version of the Galatea, whom they may neglect or actively ill-treat. (Not that the Pygmalion Plot always ends happily either, of course.)

The artist does not have to be any good at their art for this trope to apply, mind you: Muse Abuse is compatible with a lack of talent on the part of the person who sacrifices their real life and the people in it, as well as (potentially) their personal growth, for the sake of their art. (Obviously, people tend not to be any more mollified at discovering they've been exploited by the merely Giftedly Bad, or for the sake of a work So Bad Its Horrible.)

The trope accordingly tends to come in two main types:

A) The (wannabe) artist is resorting to Muse Abuse due to lack of imagination and actual talent. For bonus points, the artist will also get frustrated and stuck if the Real Life people and situations they are exploiting fail to develop or take different directions than they had hoped.

B) The artist is genuinely talented, but just for that reason, compelled to treat everything and everyone as raw material for their art. Quite often, there will be some suggestion that this comes with the territory, and is necessary for the person to pursue their art, so there may be a side of Blessed with Suck or Cursed with Awesome.

Of course, artists in category A often imagine they belong in Category B, and Muse Abuse as Take That to The Muse can occur in either of these categories - great artist are not above holding grudges.

This trope is not uncommon as a self-critical claim on the part of Real Life artists (writers, filmmakers, songwriters, etc. - Seen It a Million Times), though it often tends to have a ring of It's All About Me and Wangst. By extension, it is also very common, especially on the part of the Author Avatar, in fictions, often by the same authors.

Often (for extra irony) a source of True Art Is Angsty. May lead the artist (if self-aware) to Shoo the Dog, or Break His Heart to Save Him, at least if they want them to have a chance of a good life. Sometimes, of course, the would-be love object is Genre Savvy enough to spot them coming, put off by the potential for Muse Abuse, or just plain not interested. Or the artist, if unlucky in love, may turn to Muse Abuse of the unresponsive loved one, often with more or less subtle TakeThats and, not least, the implication that the "art" version of the loved one will be what people remember.

And, of course, some genres (blogging, confessional literature, the Roman Clef, satire) have this basically built in.



  • In Preacher, Amy tells Tulip about her failed relationship with an author who mined their pillow talk for information to use in creating his female characters. (His book also sucked, according to her, but that did not prevent it becoming a bestseller. For obvious reasons, this trope in general has potential to overlap with Writers Suck.)
    "Never date writers, honey. Writers Suck."
  • Both the artists in Neil Gaiman's "Calliope" (from The Sandman). Also a theme in some of Gaiman's non-graphic fiction works, and he has also spoken about the Real Life version of this. Specifically (from The Sandman Companion):
    "As for my take on Shakespeare, I'm basing a lot of it on what I personally find scary about being a storyteller. When something terrible is happening, 99 percent of you is feeling terrible, but 1 percent is standing off to the side - like a little cartoon devil on our shoulder - and saying, "I can use this. Let's see, I'm so upset that I'm actually crying. Are my eyes just tearing, or are they stinging? Yes, they're stinging, and I can feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. How do they feel? Hot. Good, what else?" That's the kind of disconnectedness I wanted to explore."
  • Ibriel, in Mike Carey's Lucifer series, is either an oblivious version or a very, very deluded one.
    • Meleos, from the same series, deals rather better with his Magnum Opus, the Basanos, as art than as the living, plotting, power-seeking creature it becomes. Lampshaded by the title character.


  • Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game invokes this trope, complete with an in-universe Creator Breakdown when the lead character realizes what he's done to his muse.
  • Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked plays extensively with this trope, mainly through subversion of the idea of The Muse
  • Also from Hornby, a partial subversion: in High Fidelity the lead character and his record store colleagues crush on a woman singer-songwriter, discussing the hope that maybe if one of them got together with her, she'd write a song based on it.


  • The Beautiful South's "Song For Whoever" is written from the point of view of someone who does this for profit.
  • Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen both use this theme (in Cohen's case, also in novels)

Real Life

  • Ibsen apparently explicitly invoked this in his Real Life as well as his plays.
  • See also the Neil Gaiman example, above.
  • Howard Stern, according to himself, ruined his first marriage and a large number of his long-time friendships due to his mockery of them on his show.


Replies: 20