Thursday, June 28, 2012

On my experiences with the serial killer fad in fiction

I decided to write on something that actually caused me to change track almost entirely in my approach to writing. A change I'm actually glad happened as now I write in a manner far more reflective of the many viewpoints of life and in a way that actually comes naturally to me. 

I'd been dabbling in writing stories for the greater part of my life but none for publication and many not finished properly. The stories I wrote ranged widely in genre as I was finding my way and place as well as enough confidence to be able to even try tackling a proper story, properly completed and edited. Finally though, after madly writing a thesis within the expected timeframe I gained the confidence to believe I could indeed write a large piece, edit it and hand it in. I even got a really good mark, one that would allow me to go back and study more but I chose not to for being thoroughly worn out with the whole studying gig. That was enough for me.

So confidence gained I went into the book world, took an editing and publishing course and also started work surrounded by books. I took on various different jobs and while I was at it continued to do a great deal of research on the state of the industry, the current genres trends and so forth and so on. There was much wishing and dreaming going on but even then I'd started scribbling up an idea for a book. 

What I wrote my thesis on was science fiction, or futuristic literature as it was known at the time. As science fiction was one of the genres I not only loved but knew the trends, plot devices and general story lines of I felt comfortable enough to approach writing through science fiction. It was a partial success/failure (depending on if your a positive or negative person re viewpoints) but less for the genre choice and more for the lack of plotting and skeleton construction. I learnt my lesson even as the energy of the book died off and I had to put it aside as another failed experiment to possibly go back to someday. And I might just once I get greater skills in writing new societies because the ideas weren't bad and are still marketable.

Next came a job unrelated to the book world but one that provided me with a great deal of insight into the world of marketing. Unfortunately it also took up vast swaths of my time, divided me from what I loved most and was a place in which I found I, with my odd personality, had no place. I wasn't one for actively marketing in person even though I could present myself well. Why? Too bloody honest and too prone to calling bullshit bullshit. Also, I couldn't swallow any of their babble as truth and I think they knew it simply looking at me. After a while I cracked (for other more personal reasons as well - some deeply upsetting). Big time.

I did what everyone advices you never to do. I quit my job and as I'd saved up a large whack of cash I decided to go follow a dream of mine rather than waste my life drudging through everyone else's. Oh, do not do this at all if you can't afford it because there aren't any guarantees of money. And the only way I could afford it was by having one of my other big life dreams shattered mostly to dust. A very painful thing. I totally agree with the advice of not quitting your job in expectation of being published. While I did quit I certainly didn't expect to be published for anyone piece of writing I worked on. Simply because so far I'd failed to complete and hand in any piece of fiction writing. There has been one great thing to come of it though and that is that I've become incredibly sunk into the world of stories. And I'll take that chance before I go back and get a job flipping burgers or some such (hopefully not quite this type of job but I don't expect great things because I took a break).

But there was a dream to follow while others were disappearing so I did. I sat myself down and constructed a skeleton properly, thinking about pacing and subjects and character motivations. I set it all out and then began writing a story that was flashing through my mind. Looking back, the market is too narrow for a beginner author. If I was published I'm sure it would sell well enough but as I'm not and no one knows me then there was too much risk. Still, it did blend together two rather popular topics: serial killers and the supernatural.

I actually wrote this book in full and almost completed the next while waiting for responses before realising I should move on. Also, life changed again and rattled me up enough that serial killers wasn't a subject I could approach with ease anymore. The entire experience also brought home just how overdone serial killers are in fiction.

Serial killing is interesting and in fact mind-boggling for many people. We're both spooked and intrigued, glued to the the subject purely out of morbid fascination. But have you noticed that most crime shows now list serial killers as though they're a dime a dozen? As though you could find one around your street corner? Actually, by population count serial killers don't pop up so much as we present them. Well, ritualistic serial killers. There are mass murderers and there are those in the crime life who have indeed killed more than three people but that's twisted business for you. Ritualistic serial killers, the ones that are being presented to us more and more frequently are of the rarer sorts of killers. Yet they are getting a greater than fair share of fiction time.

It is a fad that has actually escalated to fairly sickening proportions. Many stories portray the worst thing possible being a gruesome death at the hands of a serial killer or the most twisted human in existence being a serial killer. But actually, surviving such an attack would be worse and being one to care for the survivor or even have their loved one fall victim is worse. The perspective is off.

Also, having so many fiction works inclusive of killers blasted at us as highly popular has left many of us a little unresponsive and worn out with regards to murder. We have been rather desensitised to death and oftentimes when it occurs to someone you don't know and love it leaves you with little to no real reaction. Of course, many of us put on the appropriate faces but after seeing slaughter of one sought for hours on end how do you expect anyone to react properly to slaughter named real when it is again just a picture or a bunch of scribbled words? The distance created by having to constantly remove oneself in order to not feel such shock is scary thing, especially for anyone who has a feeling of dissociation in other aspects of their lives. The combined toll of being desensitised to many topics and events means that people don't function properly and some know it.

Death has become cheaper and cheaper in fiction and is no longer always there as the central focus. It's often there just as a sideline, a quick shock or an establishment of history as though it were nothing much. It is easy to bump people off in gruesome manners and call it reality. You can get away with this if you start quoting stats for the most violent occurrences in human history and you can get away with it by saying it was back in the day when life was rougher. But still, the majority of us now don't face death nearly as frequently in real life as we do in fiction, unless we're in the medical or war industries (and even then, with modern warfare being so different for many of those behind desks or using technology instead of a gun who would otherwise have been in the thick of battle).

I have actually grown rather weary of my characters dying off so rapidly, especially after taking care of two very much loved people as they faced their own deaths. Death isn't something easy to tolerate when you've lost people close to you. That desensitisation is completely ripped away. For me it was enough that I couldn't stand watching the end of Walking Dead, had to wait a good year before continuing on with Dexter and haven't approached Game Of Thrones at all because I can't stand the thought of so many people dying so quickly.

Now, I'm a hard core morbid fiction fan and have been since I bought my first book which included not only horror stories and mythology but short pieces of real murderers, whether mass murderers or serial murderers. It also had sections on plagues and the like. The road of desensitisation to death started when I was seven. And I've been able to watch real autopsies and surgeries without flinching for many, many a year. Doing these myself would be a different matter though, but I feel that with training whatever residual squeamishness (and there isn't much anymore) I have with regards to the mess the human body can get into would disappear. So says a doctor's daughter...

Yet I still haven't managed to watch Game Of Thrones. And to be honest it is really tilting towards I don't ever want to be bothered. Why? Because everyone I'd be interested in would die and I've just plain had enough of that, thank you very much. For now at least.

This doesn't mean I'm no-longer morbid. Far, far from it. Nor does it mean I'm suddenly into pure romance, eternal happiness or anything so far from reality. No, what it does mean is that I've started to write in a manner that reveals the gruesome and terrible along with the funny and idiotic. There is more of a balance and a free-for-all with every topic. The world I've written allows for it but what's best is that it also allows me to approach fiction with a level head and a balanced view. No bad aftertaste and no need to be angry at something to write.

This isn't the approach for many writers though. But I think it is actually desired in the marketplace right now. Purely because the images of death given to us just keep increasing. There's so much death that some of the finer approaches to story telling have disappeared from our daily consumption. The light sarcasm, smart comedy, witty reflection and the subtle revelation have been overshadowed but they are still desired. There is something in a work that raises itself above the more brutal aspects of life while still recognising them. Just take a chance on P G Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series and you'll see.

While there is a fad for including more wild and brutal death scenes or a greater death count I don't think it will last forever. Purely because it isn't possible to keep escalating such a topic. We've already wiped out the world dozens upon dozens of times, terrorised cities and countries, knocked off all the main political players and even eaten our victims in wine sauce. We've made them into furniture and leather body suits, strung them up with piano with and sliced and diced them with all manner of razors, knives, saws, hatchets and even wood chippers. We've even ripped them apart from the inside out with alien monsters, sometimes intensionally planted for just such a reason. While the human imagination can come up with a shockingly large number of ways to kill a person there just isn't as much room to accept or like absorbing these methods. The fragile inner child in us all that wants to explore everything and have fun only lasts so long under the onslaught of such terrible images.

This weariness caused me to change track with my writing and I believe develop a style more appropriate for my character, morbid side included. It made me avoid some stories I would have otherwise loved as well as view the world in a slightly different way, as does any realisation or change in perspective/opinion. Also, it made me truly recognise and appreciate a story without death as the central focus. There is an art involved in recognising realities without displaying them in gory detail.

Anyway, enjoy the stories your involved in or writing. I still love a good murder mystery as much as the next person, serial killers included. But the dosage has definitely dropped. Also, the only piece of advice I'll give you is that if there is someone you're caring for whom you love who's likely to meet their end then don't watch zombie movies.

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