Lee Child: thoughts and insights from the creator of Jack Reacher

This weekend I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to the author Lee Child do an interview as part of our city’s Readers and Writers festival.

I confess I was a little concerned it was just a part of an authors promotional tour and was just going to be an unsubtle plug for Past Tense but luckily as per Child’s own admission he doesn’t need to tour to promote his work and the purpose of the tour was to say ‘thank you’ and to give back to his readers.

 

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So what sorts of things did Child have to talk about? Well in no particular order…

He cautioned against authors falling in love with their characters. 23 books and (presumably) millions of dollars down the track one could understand if Child did develop some sort of emotional bond with his titular character Jack Reacher. Nonetheless Child was adamant that loving your characters was the path to ruination, at least for the readers’ enjoyment and the success of the series. In order to create stories about a character that satisfy, Child says you have to present them honestly “warts and all”, as much as Reacher seems to have a flawless quality in terms of his physicality and morality – Child points out that he is essentially a serial-killer.

Child believes that falling for your characters leads to ruin because you stop wanting bad things to happen to them, you want to guarantee a pleasant reception for your loved one to their audience. At first brush this doesn’t seem that bad right? But the theory makes sense, many author advice lists suggest torturing your MCs, that if ever stuck thinking of your next plot point just think of the worst thing that can possibly happen to your MC. Not to mention all the various forms of advice demanding characters have flaws, if not are totally flawed.

Put simply its hard to torture and create flaws in a character you love!

Child also put much emphasis on the interaction between author and reader. He acknowledged as an author one does ‘half the work’ and the other half is done by the reader. This is something which I have reflected on myself, that a writers job isn’t to “storyboard” their imagine for consumption for the reader, its to write words that prompt a reader’s imagination (a much harder task to be honest).

Finally the author talked about the impossibility of predicting success. Child was pretty up-front about his success, mentioning his 4th home and such, yet he was quite humble in admitting that one really just writes and hopes. His stance is you can’t choose to write a characters that’s ‘cool’ its up the readers. I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to look into writing something different to Reacher anytime soon, but respected his democratic approach (essentially it doesn’t look like there are many out there keen for anything else from Child but more Reacher).

Overall it was great to see Child sharing his thoughts about his writing career, it wasn’t specifically aimed at other writers, but more of a sharing of a long career but I appreciated what the mega-successful author had to say.

 

 

The Psychology of Stories: Genre

As I mentioned in my earlier post I’ve been wondering about the reasons that we use genres in our writing. Obviously there is a certain marketing or categorization factor e.g. how best to market, sell and organize books by genre, but that isn’t the side I want to examine.

 

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I want to examine the why genres have emerged in fiction and more specifically why the major genres that have emerged have been the genres that have done so – assuming of course that fiction, as a both an art and an entertainment, is shaped by some form of natural selection/market principles – an assumption that suggests there is actually some coherence behind genre and its not just happenstance and chaos (or at least there is some rhyme to the chaos.)

Before I go any further it may be wise to narrow the range of genres I’m talking about, as least for now, according to BookSTR the top five book genres (from a financial perspective) are:

  1. Romance
  2. Crime/Mystery
  3. Religious/Inspirational
  4. Sci-Fi/Fantasy
  5. Horror

For no dubious reasons I won’t dive into religious/inspirational, as firstly its not fiction and secondly it probably speaks for itself somewhat that human beings are somewhat religious and somewhat more in need of inspiration.

I also don’t want to dive into a debate about successful sales versus genuinely successful writing, that’s a massive debate as old as words and even more broadly a discussion more complex than my brain can handle these days.

So what the heck am I talking about?

I’m interested in why exactly Romance, Crime, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror (and maybe in the future some further genres if I can muster enough interesting to say about them) have settled in as lucrative and popular genres of fiction. What is it about the tropes, structure or perhaps image of these categories that fits with our taste in fiction?

Each genre will get tackled in their own separate posts, however I thought it may be worth throwing around some ideas of why genres develop at all.

First of all I think when it comes to stories there is a strange dialectic tension in an original work, that being a reader wants something familiar enough to find comfort in reading, while still maintaining enough originality and strangeness to give the piece a unique feel, and some tension to experiencing it. Genre provides a convenient way to capture comfort while oddly providing quite a wide potential for originality. It’s weird genre is often seen as a tropey way of restricting one’s creativity, yet often genre fiction has some of the most off-the-wall material that only works because its packaged in a genre (I’m looking at you 50 Shades).

And I suppose it just makes sense that if this pattern is real that we’d see certain genres gather and maintain popularity just as any individual mega-success breeds several clones, the success of a genre leads to further material produced within that category. Kinda makes me feel respect for the ‘firsts’ Like Tolkien was for Fantasy the authors that really dragged their genre into the spotlight and paved the way for entire generations of authors.

Similar to the first point genre creates elements of predictability. Sure most people won’t claim they want to know what happens ‘in the end’ of their books the reality is the vast majority of fiction works aren’t exactly unpredictable (well this could be the subject of a future post too) by which I mean people keep buying romances knowing essentially what they are in for. I liken this to the old restaurant/take-away conundrum: try something new, or get something familiar?

Genres provide a familiar fictional meal for us, you might be asking how this second point is different from the first – but what I’m trying to say is in the immediate sense of consuming fiction we want one food in the familiar and one in the novel (pun intended) AND when looking for fiction to consume we want an element of predictability.

Finally I think genres tap into certain elements of human nature that spark the emotions that authors aim to stir. I will get into this more with the different genres but I don’t think its a coincidence that popular genres seem to correlate with serious and consuming issues of real life, romance is obvious, crime never far from the newspaper. You might ask how Sci-Fi and Fantasy relates to real issues but let me ask you this: how often do you find yourself thinking or talking about different times, or how the world could be vastly different? Horror is perhaps more visceral, and perhaps too more taboo, we don’t often talk about fear yet its a ubiquitous part of our experience.

Anyway I plan soon to dive into each of these genres on their individual merits, we’ll see how the creativity well goes for diving through genres beyond the “top five” I’m also more than happy to tackle genres that readers want to see discussed, rather than just the money-makers!

The Psychology of Stories

So I kinda had this idea of writing a blog theorizing about why I thought the different popular genres: fantasy, sci-fi, romance, thriller, action, were indeed popular genres. However I came across a stumbling block, namely that I didn’t and continue to not have a unifying theory of why we even like written stories. Don’t get me wrong there is a tonne of material about the function of stories, about how they tend to do us good, I even did a Couple of Posts about the importance of stories.

And its not hard to pontificate on the matter, written stories allow us to communicate ideas, share experiences, teach lessons and entertain. But those are all goods rendered by the service, its hard to understand the why of a story being good, why do we like to see a sympathetic character overcome great odds, the girl and the guy get together, good triumph over evil (or in rare cases evil succeed).

Why do we even read at all?

I suppose I could be lazy and go down an evolutionary psychology path and claim that all those useful things that stories do helped human beings survive as a species and thus is entrenched in our psyches for all eternity. But I like to go a little more eccentric than that.

For a start Daniel Kahneman as described in The Undoing Project described an unusual line of research where he looked at the sort of fantasizing people did, both in the regretful instances of wishing they had done differently and how people hoped for the future. An odd feature of our fantasies seems to be that we don’t actually wish that far from the truth. We often think about how life would be different with comparatively tiny changes, usually to the tune of ourselves making slightly different decisions. For example people who thought of regrets like accidentally rear-ending another car tended to focus on the few decisions close to the event, like reacting faster, not being in such a hurry and so forth. What Kahneman found odd is that technically your imagination is limitless, why not fantasize about the person you rare-ended not being there at that time, or an asteroid hitting just before you did to absolve the guilt, or being a multi-millionaire who didn’t need to work or commute. The point being people tended to obsess over the minutiae of their decisions that lead to whatever happened.

Now you could point out that I’m still a bit stuck in evolutionary psychology, but it seems like we’re obsessed with decisions or perhaps more simply put how our choices lead to consequences (which may or may help us survive as a species). Since good stories are often hyper-focused on characters choices and where they lead this makes sense. I would go on to say that our particular gaze on choices that are close to ‘reality’ relates to how stories need to feel real to us, it doesn’t matter if the story is set in Middle-Earth, The Death Star, or is about a young woman being wooed by a unbelievably rich sicko, its whether the narrative feels as neurotically focused on individual choice and consequence as we are.

To take this theory further, I think personal narratives are how we make sense of the world. It would be nice to think that we sat down and crunched numbers in order to make sense of the life universe and everything, but something that lawyers, salespeople and non-fiction authors have known is that personal stories are what really sway people. It seems somewhat redundant to claim this but I want to emphasize the making sense part of my statement. I’m just as I write this trying to imagine creating a work that builds tension and resolution just like most fiction, however isn’t a personal narrative. It seems almost impossible to fathom, no matter how objective, intellectual or cold we might try to be, what we understand most is personal experience.

It would foolish to not touch on the role of empathy at this point. Personal narrative may be how we make sense of the world, we also often put ourselves into the heads and hearts and bodies of the characters we read about. This feels a little contrary to my point that we seem to like fantasies not too far from the beaten path of reality, however there is a weird duplicity at work here that does make sense. Yes we want stories that provide the same laser focus on individual choices that our own brains do for our own lives, however at the same time I think we like to be projected into something completely different from reality.

It’s kind of like we want to holiday somewhere different from our usual haunts, but don’t actually want to dive all the way out of our comfort zone. Storywise we don’t mind being in a new reality, just not out of the familiar paradigm of choice being important.

So just to recap, I think we like stories that capture what is important to us (the choices we make) that still make sense (centred around a personal narrative), but toy with the arbitrary stuff we don’t mind being toyed with (what planet we live on).

What I can’t quite get my head around is why we like stories of tension and conflict about characters overcome great odds to succeed. It could just be that this is just the most successful way to present all the stuff above, that once you have a reader relating your characters conflict and climax is just the most interesting way to present written material. Although fascinatingly enough other areas have the same paradigm, while radically different in medium, music shows the same patterns of good music having building tension that resolves towards the finale.

That might be another topic for another day (and probably several more lengthy hikes to get my head working on the subject). At the very least hopefully I’ve laid down a small amount of theory to at least set some context for my next few posts about why I think different genres are so successful. Although its worth pointing out that really the basis on this post is one unusual psychology line of research and a lot of wild guesses!

Moreso than any other posts I’d be keen to hear others thoughts – why do you think humans like stories?

What about stories make them good?

 

 

 

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Veracity somewhat unclear – I think the numbers and red lines are just there to look interesting (or someone scribbling over a picture)