Chaos Theory

I saw my author-friend, Tony Broadbent, not too long ago.  We hail from the same hometown back in the old country.  We got to chatting and he gave me a pat on the head and told me I was an anarchist. 

“You’re like the Gary Oldman of the mystery world,” he said.

I love Gary, but I asked, “Is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed.  “There’s a lot of anarchy in your writing.”

How subversive, I thought.  I’m a rebel without an agenda.  Mum will be delighted.

Well, the little exchange got me thinking about my writing.  I don’t think people hit the keyboards with an agenda or a theme tucked under their arm—or if they do, it sort of sticks out.  Agendas and themes develop on a subconscious level.  Well, they do for me.  I don’t go out of my way to put a slant on my stories.  I just try to entertain, but inadvertently, I show a little leg now and again.  So, I looked for the anarchy.  And I think I saw it in the shape of conflict.

Conflict.  Stories require conflict.  It’s a driving force.  Characters and stories thrive on it.  More so in mysteries and thrillers than other genres.  The nature of the genre means there are going to be casualties and collateral damage.  So I like to inject my stories with a lot of conflict.  The problem is that I’m quite a literal person and I think about things in very pure terms.  Blame my engineering background.  When I think conflict, I think about total annihilation.  Everything my lead character holds dear is under attack.  I create this person so that I can destroy them.  I place them and their world in an ivory tower, then go about stacking as much C4 explosive around the foundation as possible to blast it all apart.  It only seems fair, doesn’t it?  Conflict by its nature is salt to a wound.  Character assassination is key.  Only by putting everything in a protagonist’s world at extreme risk can the character grow and thrive.  There can’t be a comfort zone for this person.  Wouldn’t you want to read about a character in a situation like that?

I flicked through some of my stories to see what I did to my characters and the annihilation is there.  Characters have their reputations destroyed, home life obliterated, are framed for things for crimes they didn’t commit, have personal property confiscated or stolen or destroyed.  These characters’ lives will never be the same.  There will have to be a lot of rebuilding by the end.

So I guess I do have anarchistic bent.  Sorry.  It wasn’t intentional.  It’s just the way I tell ‘em.

Yours destructively,
Simon Wood
PS: Saturday I’m signing at San Francisco Mystery Bookstore.
PPS: Saturday also marks the 39th anniversary of Jim Clark’s death.  Jimmy is a personal hero of mine.  His name might not mean much to most readers, but Guyot will be shedding a tear.

8 thoughts on “Chaos Theory

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    I love this topic, Simon. My question is – why is it that you feel compelled to annihilate your protagonist? Where does all that chaos come from? Because I think it’s always intentional, at least subconsiously.

    I know a pervasive theme in my work is “What is reality?” Is it madness, or is it supernatural? What’s the line? What happens when you cross it?

    And that I think comes from having a mentally ill caretaker for a time at a very early stage in my life, when I literally had to decide what was reality. I’m STILL working that one out.

    Can you trace your anarchic tendencies back to something specific?

  2. JT Ellison

    It’s a great analogy, Simon. I love the image of the ivory tower with C4 packed around the bottom.

    I’m with Alex, what drives you to make the conflict so deep?

  3. Louise Ure

    There’s certainly anarchy in tearing your protagonist’s life apart. But that raises for me, once again, the question of series vs. standalone.

    How often can you pack that C4 around the same character’s ivory tower before the Chicken Little (or worse, Jessica Fletcher) Syndrome sets in?

  4. toni mcgee causey

    I think Louise raises a great point — it’s one I’m aware of as I write a series with a character where her life turns into a disaster on a regular basis. (She’ll say of herself that a day without disaster is a day in someone else’s life.) With a series, I want the character to grow, to change as a result of what’s happened to her, or otherwise, she’s just a useful machine. People faced with constant disaster have to chane in order to cope, and what they value stands sharply against the chaos as the thing that helps them hold onto their sanity or their humanity. On the other hand, if there are enough disasters, you would start to wonder why a character doesn’t change their life enough to avoid them, and I think there has to be a compelling reason built in. (Then again, I do think series often have a natural end, or at least, most of them should.)

    Love the C4 / tower image. I know I’m constantly packing it around my characters.

  5. pari

    Simon,I’ve been really enjoying your posts; they’re wonderfully written and insightful. Thank you.

    Re:The C4Works beautifully for a standalone. I don’t think it does much for the series. Both Louise and Toni hit on that — and the need for a character in a series to change enough for growth without so much that he or she is incapacitated.

    I think we’re going for different things with each approach. There’s a marvelous freedom in writing standalones. I bet I’ll do it somewhere along the way because of that.

    With series, the thing I adore is the size of the canvass. I can really explore my protagonist and the people who are most important to her life. It becomes quite character driven to be interesting — at least to me.

    I don’t feel a need to destroy completely — but to challenge profoundly so that there is forward movement in the arc of my characters’ lives.

  6. Alex Sokoloff

    Toni, I think you’ve got a great opportunity for growth with your disaster-prone heroine. My sister likes to quote this little parable.

    “A man walks along the road. He falls into a hole.

    He gets out and walks along the road. He falls into a hole.

    He gets out and walks along the road. He sees a hole in front of him. He falls into it.

    He gets out and walks along the road. He sees a hole ahead. He walks around it.”

    And so it is with all of us, right?

    I look forward to seeing Bobbi Faye learn to avoid the holes.

  7. simon

    I don’t know why or where the need to do my worst to my characters. I think it’s because I’ve other people’s lives go off the rails and how easily it can happen…


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