Tag Archives: Harry Potter

The Darkness Through The Curtain

When I wrote last week’s Friday Fiction story, I wanted to show that Lizzie had been abused as a child, but also that she had moved on from that and was growing into a strong independent woman, which is why I referenced her abuse obliquely, through Harry Potter and The Color Purple.

But those references themselves got me thinking. Both books deal with forms of child abuse. Harry is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs and is bullied by not only his cousin but also his adoptive parents. Celie’s abuse is much more extreme, she is raped and beaten by her father and – if I remember rightly – others.

And yet the difference between these two characters isn’t just in the level of their mistreatment, but in the way the authors treat that situation. The Harry Potter series is pretty light about it; the writing is aimed at children after all. And Harry is far from the first children’s hero to be ill-treated – the list of orphans, wicked step-mothers and overbearing fathers goes on and on. We like to see triumph over adversity, and kids like to see kids being independent. That’s why Disney heroes and heroines famously never have both parents alive.

Alice Walker is much more graphic and polemic about the abuse she deals with in The Color Purple and it makes for a very different novel; one that I think we can safely say will never be turned into a colourful musical animation. She was writing for adults, and she was writing (at least partly) to make a point.

As writers, we do need to consider our audience to some extent –  there is no point putting extreme sex and violence into a novel you want to pitch to kids – but even when writing for grown ups, there are different ways to convey the same thing, and sometimes subtlety can be more powerful than graphic description.

It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood used to just show us the bedroom door closing or the gun being fired and now, increasingly, insists on boobs and bums, blood and bodies at every turn. I think the same may be true of the written word. I think both have their place, but I like it when writers have enough faith in both their own writing and their readers, to let us infer some of what goes on behind closed doors. Wandering back to the movie theatre for a moment, I found 12 Years A Slave incredibly moving, but if I had one criticism (apart from the terrible handling of the passage of time), it would be that I think the film overplayed its hand on the violence. Shocking and stunning are not synonyms.

How do you feel about explicit writing? Is it brave and powerful, or cheap and gratuitous?

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Naming Names Part 2

Writing last week’s piece about character names led to me thinking about another challenge for the author on the naming front (and I’m still ignoring the biggest of all naming challenges here, Titles).

In life, most of us know several people who have at some point in their life stopped being referred to by some common derivation of their first name, and instead become known by either another name, or a word not usually thought of as a name at all.

I, for example, have been known as all of: Big J, Sensibility, The Squirrel, Pen, Elmo, Auntie (though my brother has no children), Shylock … and a few things besides.

Because the thing about nicknames is they tend to be group-specific. Most of my friends wouldn’t know who Shylock is, but try persuading Antonio (not her real name either) to use anything else. When I named this blog, my writing pals didn’t bat an eyelid, but everyone else said “Who’s Elmo?”.

The other thing is, nicknames tend to arise organically. You start off calling someone by their given name, then shorten it a bit, then one day you make a mistake or you’re gently teasing them about some aspect of their personality/life/whatever and suddenly you are calling them The Squirrel.

When it comes to authors, we tend to jump in somewhere in the middle of the story. Apart from the odd David Copperfield type epic, we don’t start at birth (and even if we do, it’s only one character’s birth and there are other fully-formed characters to name), so we jump in where people have already acquired nicknames, pet names and terms of endearment with those around them. Somehow we have to find these names, use them and make them seem natural. We might at some point be forced (or allowed) to give the back-story, but equally we might not.

Even if we do, only his school friends will call David “Monty” so the reader is going to have to work out that they are one and the same guy and still get to know David/Monty at the same rate and intimacy we need for the story to succeed. If you’ve ever read Crime and Punishment, I think you’ll agree that having a character referred to by three different names at different times is confusing!

So, what do we do? Well, many authors just avoid the problem and stick to one name. Does anyone call Harry Potter anything other than Harry (or occasionally “Potter”)? No. In spite of the fact that anyone who has been within 5 miles of an English Boarding School knows you can’t survive so much as a term without gaining some convoluted and probably offensive nickname, noone in that series seems to come off with worse than a “nearly-headless” or “moaning” stuck in front of their real name. It’s artifice, but it saves confusion.

But I’m hoping there are ways to make it work. I’ve found it easier to slide terms of endearment into Eric than I thought I would, and as for nicknames and pet names, I suppose it’s a question of working harder on back-story. After all, if you get to know the character well enough, maybe you give him a nickname yourself!

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