How to write a (crime) novel #6: getting in touch with our shadow side

We British like a crime novel, so says Alistair Horne, of Cambridge University Press, http://goo.gl/KBPfpy, it is by far the best selling genre in the UK. Is this because we are a particularly heartless or ghoulish lot? Perhaps, or maybe, as suggested by Melanie McGrath in The Guardian Books Blog, June 30th 2014: ‘Crime fiction gives us permission to touch on our own indecorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we’re encouraged to pack away somewhere… where they won’t offend.’

I am a trained psychotherapeutic counsellor and have spent many years in therapy myself, and I believe we have many potentials. Just as we are capable of great loves and joys, we are also capable of great unhappiness, anger, envy, hate, fear. We are driven by all our emotions. I also believe that unacknowledged feelings are likely to surface in unintended ways.

Generally speaking in a crime novel, someone has to do something which hurts another person. We all know hurting others is wrong (even though we sanction our armed forces to do it legitimately, but that is probably another blog post). What I am interested in when writing or reading a crime novel is what drives someone to hurt another. I think most people who hurt others have some kind of rationale or logical/reasonable explanation for why they’ve done it. And I am interested in this too. Plus I think this is what makes a crime novel more than an excuse for nasty voyeurism.

We go back to the old question which keeps a writer writing: what if? What if? What if I sincerely felt this about another person? What if I thought this was my only way forward or way out? What would I really do if things began to unravel?

Here’s a writing exercise: quickly write down a list of all the things you are not and then a list of all the things you would not do. Pick one thing from each list. Begin to construct a character. Remember in their world what they do is completely acceptable.

This is what I did for my story Adrift (https://goo.gl/AcPKdk) I wanted to write in the persona of a man who could justify his violence towards women. It was an uncomfortable ride, but an interesting one.

We tend to assume crime arises from the less acceptable emotions such as hate or anger, but Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinalin my two novels in my series #ScarboroughMysteries, The Art of the Imperfect, https://goo.gl/JrGat2, and The Art of Survival, https://goo.gl/6RPzk5, the motivations are closer to love. What would we do for the person we care most about in the world?

Then there is the question of how much a social environment might cause crime. It is always an individual who finally makes the choice to commit a wrong-doing, but in some settings, in truth, how many options are there?

Neel Mukherjee, shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, suggests: ‘What should the novel do: be a mirror to the reader’s world, reflecting it back at her, or be a clear pane of glass, not reflecting but offering something away from the self, a vista of a bigger, wider, different world outside? The moral energy of the novel form derives from its capacity to imagine the lives of others. This empathy can be seen as the beginning of the moral sense.’

As writers and readers maybe it does us good to explore the shadow side of ourselves and society. Not so we can sit back and feel smug about how we are, but so we can have some fellow-feeling for others. Perhaps our appetite for crime novels says something optimistic about us as a nation after all?

What do you think? How do you find the protagonists, particularly the more challenging ones, for your novels?

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