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The killer is me

I’ve often wondered where my fascination with the darker side of life comes from. My writing tends to reflect this taste and leads me into areas other writers might choose to leave alone. Although I’ve drawn on autobiographical material in the past, the old advice to write about what you know has never really appealed to me. As a writer, you have to follow your instincts. If you’re drawn to certain characters or situations, it’s for a reason. Your enthusiasm and interest in the subject will keep you going when the initial fascination wears off.

Writing schools talk a lot about sympathetic characters and the need for your heroes and heroines to be ‘likeable’. The guidelines around this have changed over the years, but the general consensus remains the same. In the days when censorship prevailed and the morality of the times influenced filmmakers and publishing houses, writers had to be careful who and what they chose to write about. These days it’s more open. We’re used to profanity and bloodshed in books and on screen. Today’s filmgoer doesn’t flinch behind the curtain as the knife goes in.

But you can’t change decades of conditioning overnight. Many of us have grown up with a clear, if a little unrealistic, idea of just what makes a hero or heroine. In the Hollywood version, the bad guy always gets his just desserts. The good guy triumphs – after being severely tested, of course – and we all go home reassured that the world is a just and righteous place. For years, film scripts and novels followed these predictable lines, until a handful of daring individuals decided to shake things up a little.

When Stanley Kubrick decided to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from general release, he did so with a sense of artistic disillusion. Instead of being repelled by the onscreen violence, fans of the cult film gloried in it, even dressing up as the futuristic thugs portrayed and acting out their crimes in real life. Whatever message Kubrick intended was lost completely. This highlights the age old question of the artist’s responsibility. How much influence does a film or a book have on the general public? We hear of copycat crimes all the time, where an individual claims to have been influenced by a scene in a movie, or even a piece of music. Would the Charles Manson murder spree have been prevented if Manson had ignored the Beatles and listened to the Beach Boys instead?

It would be naive to suppose that art has no influence at all on human behaviour, but is it not really the other way round? Now more than ever we are exposed to an almost constant stream of material both real and imagined. Newsworthy atrocities beamed onto television and computer screens from across the globe, and an unending choice of TV drama drawn from the same source.

Writers, we are led to believe, are living in a new golden age and have never had it so good, in spite of the fierce competition. We present the drama as we see it and expect the public to understand our motivation, even when the meaning is confused or deliberately misleading. We create characters who are inarticulate and full of rage, whose actions cause their eventual downfall, so who can blame us if the moral of the story isn’t always that clear?

For centuries, the idea of a villainous lead character was unimaginable. Then along came Tony Soprano with his compelling mix of psychotic rage and vulnerability. Yes, there were similar characters before him, but perhaps none who captured the public imagination in quite the same way. As the audience, our identification is hesitant, uneasy. Tony Soprano holds a mirror up, and reminds us how closely related we are on the spectrum of human behaviour.

In the final analysis, history decides which art forms survive and which perish. Writers and filmmakers are, generally speaking, the observers, standing on the sidelines, looking to document and illuminate the things they see, in much the same way as journalists and historians. The freedom to portray all aspects of life without censorship should be the inalienable right of all artists. Unfortunately, we are yet to live in such a utopian world, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.


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