The Silence of the Lambs

I have to say for a person who scares easily, The Silence of the Lambs did not scare me. I am not sure if it was because I was dissecting the book while reading it or if it is just not that scary. I remember seeing the movie a number of years ago and being petrified, covering my eyes was a necessity, especially in one of the last scenes when Clarice Starling, the protagonist, is walking through the dark, gun at the ready, listening for Buffalo Bill, the serial murderer, who is watching her through night vision goggles ready but waiting to kill her. His game became Hollywood’s game.

I am still trying to figure out the entire reason why I was not scared while reading this novel. I am someone who can’t read Stephen King because I get too scared. I was even scared when I saw the movie Stand By Me and the kids are walking up on the dead body. Dead bodies freak me out. So why am I writing about such things? Maybe to face my own fears and no longer allow them to control me.  I am controlling them.

The only aspect of Thomas Harris’s novel I could pick apart was the fact I was not scared when I should have been. On the flipside, many aspects work very well and sometimes even border on the line of brilliance.

For instance, Harris is able to leave the reader wanting more at the end of every chapter. Occasionally a few of his chapters linger for a bit too long, but if the reader can just hold on until the last sentence or two, Harris will tip you upside down or at least turn you around. At the end of chapter three, Clarice has just started talking to Dr. Lecter about a murder case. No one else can get him to talk. She is a rookie, and he plays with her, like a cat with a mouse. But he gives her a present, information, which allows her to work the entire case. He knows she will continue to talk to him and give him information, the only thing he values and loves, evidenced by the jailer’s punishment that seems to work, taking away Dr. Lecter’s books.

Harris continues to drop clues at the end of each chapter. They make sense to what the reader knows about the story, but they also make the reader try to figure out who the killer is or where the killer will strike next. At approximately three quarters of the way through the novel, Harris switches POV. He tells the story from Buffalo Bill’s POV. Buffalo Bill has taken his next victim and he walks the reader through the abductions and preparations for creating a bodysuit, complete with breasts for the killer to wear.

The chapters from his POV are the most interesting because they include his thoughts and because Harris switches to the victims POV. This is not done very often in the novel because as, Mike Kimball pointed out, the reader does not want to relate to the murderer. But Harris has written these chapters in such a way that the reader does not relate to Buffalo Bill. He is a killer. His background is explained, how and why he started killing, but I do not have any compassion for him. When I listen to Hannibal Lecter, I care for him, even though he killed more people in the course of the book than the serial murderer did.

I believe Harris was able to do this because he built a relationship with the reader through the relationship that developed over the course of the entire book between Clarice and Dr. Lecter. She liked him, respected him, and treated him with respect. After his gruesome escape, Dr. Lecter let Clarice know he was not coming after her because the world is better with her in it. Harris did not build any sort of relationship between Buffalo Bill and anyone. He had a lover, but the reader does not get to form a relationship with the lover. He had dead bodies, but we never knew the people. He had a victim in his house, but he ignores her, and she is not all that likable. It is difficult to connect to someone who is portrayed as a spoiled brat even in the throws of her imminent death. He has a relationship with a dog but we do not know the dog. Through relationship building, or lack of, Harris is able to gain our trust. Clarice is an FBI trainee hunting down a killer. We trust her. Who did not trust the FBI before the X-Files was on the air. Clarice trusts Dr. Lecter. Since we trust her, and she trusts him then by default, we trust him, even though he bites the faces off some of his victims.

The reader has to have the time in order to build relationships with characters. Harris has proven this is even possible with the most heinous of killers. We have to trust our saviors even if they are the bad guy.

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Character

I decided to include both Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress and the chapters on character from How Fiction Works by James Wood because the two authors take on the theme of character in a different way. Neither appears to be wrong and bring up many thought provoking points.

The way in which Nancy Kress writes about character is broad based. She looks at the whole character and encourages writers to get to know their characters. At the end of each chapter, she also includes writing exercises to help writers learn how to practice what she is preaching. When Kress looks at a novel, she wants to experience it in a believable way and does not think this is possible if the writer does not invest “time, effort, and imagination” (3). It seems likely writers would do this automatically, but some may not, and they may not even know they are not doing it, like I have done.

During my second residency, a peer expressed how detached from my characters she felt. I had invested a lot of time into my characters, but I found it was not enough. An author needs to know her characters well enough to know how they would act or react in any situation. If the author does not know her characters thoroughly, she will not connect her readers to the characters and the story does not matter.

Kress states in order be believable, the writer has to become not only writer but also character and reader. I have found it easier to be writer and character but difficult to be reader. I know so much about my characters it is difficult to remember what I have previously written, cut out, or just thought about.

Kress goes on to discuss the importance of the emotional arc. She states in order for the readers to believe in the emotional arc, we have to believe the character is capable of change. To be successful the reader has to be close to the character, forming an intimate relationship. How does a writer give enough detail and not too much so the reader become attached and cares about the emotional transformation of the character?

Kress and Wood both address this issue. Kress states the character has to change in a way that is believable. If the character is kind, she is not going to murder someone for money. But if she is kind, she may be manipulated easily and another character could convince her to murder someone because that another character is going to kill a child or something horrific like that. If the kind character is being taken advantage of and is not the pathetic type, the readers may start to root for her, hence care about her; hence form a relationship with her.

Recently in the news, Kristen Stewart was caught cheating on her longtime boyfriend and costar, Robert Pattinson. Fans of the Twilight series uploaded countless videos to YouTube expressing how they felt emotionally betrayed. No one did this when Leann Rimes or Tiger Woods cheated on their spouses. One fan even said she would forever see Bella (the character played by Kristen Stewart) cheating on Edward (the character played by Robert Pattinson). These fans read the books, really devoured the books, because they became emotionally attached to the characters, so much so, some were unable to disconnect the characters’ lives with the actors in real life.

According to Wood, the writer needs to get close to the character. The closer the writer can get the better because if the writer is close, the reader will either become the character or at least walk next to her. Sarah, you and I had discussed this very thing in my writing. For instance when I wrote, “Elizabeth noticed” the words ejected the reader from the story. With this in mind, when I revised I deleted all forms of “She noticed, she looked”, etc.

We had also discussed rewriting the beginning of chapter one because it was too authorial. Wood elaborates on this point. When readers are reading the words of the author rather than the character, it again pulls them out of the story.  I am including two different opening pages, and I am interested to see if I accomplished staying closer to the character. Or do I need to get even closer? I feel closer to her.

Old Page:

The winter sun’s glare broke through the tall pines behind the young woman who stood freezing in her long skirt and tightly laced up Bean boots and reflected off the old asylum’s exterior back into her eyes. Elizabeth dug through her purse until she found a pair of sunglasses. She welcomed the curtain of anonymity even if it was only for a few moments before she climbed the granite steps to find help.

Elizabeth looked at her watch, an ancient gift from her mother. At twenty-five she still wore a Mickey Mouse one because after their trip to Disneyland, it was the last present her mother would ever give to her.

Seven fifty. Forty minutes early. It was going to be difficult for her to walk in to that building. So many times before she had failed, turning away at the last minute or never even leaving her apartment to catch the bus. Over the last two decades, there had been too many midnight emergency room visits. With the twenty-year anniversary of her mother and sister’s deaths approaching, Elizabeth’s symptoms had intensified. Her psyche couldn’t handle the uncertainty.

What felt like a lifetime ago, Elizabeth had experienced something traumatic, but she wasn’t able to pull the haunting details from her memory. Occasionally, she experienced what felt like flashback dreams where she looked down on her own body sitting in her childhood home. Twenty years ago, Elizabeth had locked away that little girl, a lone witness, in her parents’ bedroom. The time had finally come when she had to at least try to make the nightmares stop. She’d decided she’d take a pill, any pill, even if it meant never seeing her mother or sister in her dreams again.

“Can I help you?” a man in white asked.

New Page:

Chapter One

As she stepped off the bus, the Old Asylum sat at the end of the long drive. From this distance, five stories didn’t seem so daunting. As she got closer, the white walls reflected the sunlight back into her eyes. She stopped. Even though this place looked like something out of a horror movie, Elizabeth felt strangely comforted as she counted the windows on the second floor. Thirty-two.

Elizabeth pulled back her mitten to check the time, 7:50; forty minutes to go.

The ball of fire in her chest that had woken her at 5:50 am this morning flared again. Swallowing hard, she forced it down then walked around the garden in front of the building. On her forth trip around, a man in white uniform pants and a workman’s jacket stood in her way.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

His hair had been slicked back sometime in the last week with what looked like motor oil.

“No—thank you though.” Elizabeth tried to smile.

He shrugged his shoulders then walked off muttering. “Crazy” had been annunciated particularly well causing Elizabeth to stand perfectly still, like if she didn’t move at all, no one would see the crazy girl. She’d be invisible.

“Crazy?” she said out loud.

Part of her agreed with the strange man. Don’t say that. She continued to circle the garden. On her next trip around, she checked her watch again, 8:28. Lost time. Involuntary meditation rang in her head. Yes that was it. Psyche class maybe. Am I closer? Am I embodying the writer, the character, and the reader? Is the character connecting emotionally to the reader? Is there the promise or believable possibility of change? I hope so.