Julie_Smits's picture
Julie_Smits from Antwerp is reading Stuff October 5, 2013 - 3:23am

I wanted to start this discussion because I was so impressed by the TV series Hannibal and the way they translated Red Dragon to the screen.

There is an introduction in my version of Red Dragon that Thomas Harris wrote in January of 2000. It's called 'Foreword to a fatal interview'. The way in which he describes his writing process and the circumstances, you recognize a lot of Will Graham. I thought that it was very interesting the way in which Will Graham can feel pure empathy for a killer and the way in which a writer tries to crawl into the heads and bodies of the characters he/she writes about.

Also what is the price of crawling too deep into your story or characters. Will Graham in the book has nightmares, becomes more distant and breaks away somewhat from reality. He feels like a haunted character.

In the TV version Will Graham is even more disconnected from reality, to the point where he comes too close to not being able to tell the difference. 

A question for this discussion. How do you as a writer empathize with your story and characters? How far are you willing to crawl or fall into the rabbit hole? Are there certain subjects or genres you'll avoid because you don't want to flood your mind with them?

On another note what did you think of the TV adaption of Red Dragon? I found the visuals stunning, the way in which it was filmed and the use of colour. Just the overall poetic language of it.

I was happy with all of the actors chosen and when I read the book afterwards it was in their voices (especially Hannibal and Graham) and it made me appreciate the actors work even more.

Overall I'm quite a big fan of Bryan Fuller and the work he has done on TV and I feel that he did justice to the source material.

Any thoughts?

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On October 6, 2013 - 11:38am

Those are interesting comments by Harris, and you pose an intersting question here. Personally, in order to do justice to your work, you have to be willing to plunge into the deepest recesses of the abyss. There are risks there if you're of a certain disposition (like myself, easily susceptible to depression), but how else do you get to the marrow of a character's motivations, especially if you lean toward writing darker fiction? Empathy is deeper than sympathy; it's knowing what someone is going through because you yourself have also experienced the same dilemma/emotion. That said, I'm sure there are limits.  I haven't done so or feel compelled to, but I don't think I can write a character killing a child for instance. I can probably do it "off-screen," and then brood over the aftermath, but I don't know if I can put myself in the mindset of that type of person and write it with any justice in terms of psychological accuracy. In the end, the best we can do is to extrapolate from experiences that hedge on the required mindset, and do our best.

I like "Hannibal." It's the only non-cable drama I can stomach (ironically enough). It really seems to want to delve into that pit area without wussing out,

Julie_Smits's picture
Julie_Smits from Antwerp is reading Stuff October 7, 2013 - 4:15am

For me the difference between sympathy and empathy is this. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone and caring about them. You want to help them and relate to them (or try to through your own experiences). Empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes and there are no boundaries to empathy. Just because you can empathize with a murderer doesn't mean that you agree or condone or that you would have done the same thing, it's trying to wear their feelings/situation/... Trying to understand the puzzle pieces that have made them who they are.

Like you said I don't know if I could crawl into an extremely dark mind, for example, I don't tend to read crime or a lot of drama, same when I watch TV, but I made an exception for the Hannibal series, because it's Bryan Fuller. After reading an interview with Fuller, in which he showed how much respect he has for the source material, I decided to read Red Dragon. It's interesting how much detail they lifted from the book and placed into the series.

But as a writer you do ask yourself how far you are willing to go.

Here's the link to to Thomas Harris's 'Foreword to a fatal interview' http://www.angelfire.com/celeb2/hopkins/foreword.html

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On October 8, 2013 - 10:42am

Julie: Thanks for forwarding that article. Good added points too about empathy.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 8, 2013 - 2:46pm

Hey, Julie, great post. I'm a big fan of Red Dragon, as well as Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser degree, Hannibal. I haven't seen the TV adaptation. But the films have been very strong, I think. 

The subjects I try to avoid writing about are rapea and any sort of child molestation, it just turns my stomach, both instances, really. BUT I have written about rape victims, and there is a rape scene in my current novel that my agent is shopping, Disintegration. I can remember writing that scene, it's at the real bottom for my protagonist, and I had a very hard time with it, wasn't sure I could write it, didn't want it to define the novel or my work. In the end, my protagonist and I both found our bottoms, but I can't say what that is, you'll have to wait for the book. But it felt honest and true.

One of my short stories, "Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears" is about a young boy and a monster that visits him at night. There are hints of what is happening, that this is not just his imagination, what's happening is in the real world, not his dark nightmares. I had a hard time selling it, but the end of the story does have some element of revenger and validation for poor Rudy, so that felt like it was a story that I could live with. It ended up in Slices of Flesh, alongside Jack Ketchum and many others, so that made me feel better about it, that it wasn't just a taboo subject, but handled well (hopefully).

As for immersing yourself in the character, yes, with Disintegration as well. One of the darkest things I've written, but some of my best work to date, IMO, when it ended I was a mess. I had to shake off his skin, which had wrapped around me. I felt sick to my stomach, thought I might throw up, and I even started crying. It was one hell of a journey, that novel. Dexter meets Falling Down. In time, I was able to separate myself from the story. I think part of the reason it really haunted me was that I set it in my old apartment in Wicker Park (here in Chicago) and several of my old bars and clubs, so there was a lot of me in that novel, falling apart, making a mess of my life. It was my own bottom in a lot of ways. I didn't kill anybody, though. 

I do try to write stories now that have a more hopeful and optimistic center, move love, and less death, even though they always turn out dark. The magical realism I've been writing lately has been less destructive, and more, well...magical, hopefully.

I stopped watching Law & Order SVU when I had my kids, too much violence against children.

I think I'm willing to "go there" if the end results isn't just tittilation, not just splatterpunk, horror porn. I need more than that. Books like American Psycho and The Girl Next Door and The End of Alice are very hard to read, but in the end, I felt like I learned something about myself, and what I want to write. 

What about you?

Julie_Smits's picture
Julie_Smits from Antwerp is reading Stuff October 14, 2013 - 5:52am

Red Dragon is a genre of book I almost never read, but Bryan Fuller said that the poetry of the show came from the book and that whenever there was a particular poetic line of dialogue, it came straight out of the book. Which was quite fun when I was reading it, because I got very excited whenever I read a small detail or line that I recognized.

The thing about writing is that you don't always decide what to write, it decides for you and something it drags  you into really dark places. But you have to write them, because you want to be honest to the process. Those are real things that happen in life and writing about them especially with honesty doesn't make you a glorifier of them. There will always be people that will comment on it in a bad way, but it doesn't matter as long as you are honest to the process and like you said not just there for titillating purposes. (Wow, I really used the word honest a lot in this paragraph, but you know it was honestly the right word)

I really felt that Thomas Harris suffered whilst writing The Hannibal books. There is this one bit in the letter he wrote where he tells of following the characters around and when Will Graham meets Hannibal, which is the first time for Thomas Harris, he wrote that he felt like Hannibal could see him. I thought that that must be such a disturbing thing, it did however spark an idea about characters interacting with their writers (observers).

I do feel that I'm too young to say which subjects I'll avoid writing about. There are subjects and genres that I dislike, but to say that I'll avoid them, I just don't know. And when you do write about hard subjects all you can do is handle them as well as you can and see how it lands when you start spreading it around.

When you set a story or character that close to home, it's hard to see the edges. I personally haven't had to go through a difficult character purge yet.

A few months I read American Gods. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but I read on regardless. After I finished and in the months after, I began to realize just how much it has inspired me. Just how many dark seeds were planted. So that for me is my hard, but grateful nonetheless read.

I have a mix of stories, some darker than others, some not dark at all and it's nice to switch between them. But with the dark ones I do wonder if I should be writing them. Like you're not just adding to the misery. But the thing is I'm a firm believer in unity and yin and yang. So can't have one without the other.

So you might write a dark story to draw attention to something dark in 'the real world' or to contrast the beautiful lighter bits in your story or just because you feel it's something you need to do.

I could go on about dark and light stories and the need for both, but for the moment I'd rather have your contribution to what I said.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 14, 2013 - 8:50am

I'm a fan of most of this stuff. I think Silence of the Lambs is the most perfect movie ever produced, have enjoyed the others at some level, and was thrilled with how good the TV series is. Like Dino, I don't otherwise watch network dramas anymore; they're too safe. Have only read the novels Red Dragon and Hannibal (which I still liked, batshit and indulgent as it was).

I do think if you want to write affecting fiction, you have to be willing to immerse yourself (mentally) in the world of the depraved. That doesn't mean you gotta go Daniel Day-Lewis and completely inhabit it. My most disturbing sequences tend to be written pretty minimalistically, not leaving the reader there for too long or piling on the details, because that feels sadistic. Same goes for me getting into character: I view it kinda like diving, in that you gotta come up for air, and I never take those characters to bed at night. It takes me longer than most to get into that zone and recapture the voice, but I can step out of it pretty easily. Most of my stuff is somewhat dark already, so I'm just refering to the worst of it, here. Also, you gotta remember, even the bad guys think they're the hero of the story, so it's important to get their motivations down. I usually give them fairly positive ones, with terrible decision-making or passive happenings that spiral out of control. Also, I have a tendency to write the most depraved characters in third-person, which I think helps with that distance, though I do otherwise write a lot of first-.

Our ability to empathize is one of the most crucial job skills. As with acting, I'd say you're probably not a very good author if you can't navigate those on/off switches skillfully. I don't find myself thinking like those characters in daily life any more than I might dream in a foreign language.