As a psychotherapist I’ve worked in hospitals for people sectioned for serious crimes, and written the start of a novel, ‘Phoenix: Supersensitive’, based around that.
My fellow tutor at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School this year was Simon Hall, the BBC’s crime correspondent for the South West, and author of ‘The TV Detective’ novels. We’ve both been on the crime front line. Fertile ground, I felt, for a discussion about the ‘wild’ in our characters (and in ourselves for that matter). Simon has this to say about wildness in character…
For crime writers, wildness is particularly important. Whether it’s the momentary loss of control, or the long held dissociation from the world that leads to the breaching of society’s conventions…. And there’s wildness in the good guys and girls, too. Something has to drive them to track down the baddies, often well beyond the call of duty, breaking the rules and imperilling themselves at the same time.
My experience of the world as both journalist and author makes me believe there’s wildness in us all – it’s just a question of how deeply buried, how afraid we are of letting it loose… and what the consequences might be if we do.
He’s defining wild as the animal part of us. It resides underneath, and is often bridled by, convention.
It’s the part of ourselves that we fear, and restrain, even before society does that for us.
Looking at how it can manifest, we might say that we have good reason to fear its destructive qualities. Certainly, the patients I worked with could be said to be a case in point. Those that had strangled their children, habitually swallowed knives or set fires to their rooms, I sometimes heard described as ‘wild’.
But were they truly wild? The use of the word in that context always bothered me.
They bore little resemblance to the ‘wild’ I saw in the sleek fur of the wild cat I glimpsed when I walked in the forest on my days off. An animal in the wild often looks healthy. Cutting your stomach up, or trying to hang yourself doesn’t make you look at all well, believe me.
Certainly, in one way, my patients were ‘wild’. No differently to every human and non-human animal, their lives were a heroic mission to firstly survive, and then to thrive, enacted largely unconsciously. Often, they had survived because they told stories- stories of escape and freedom when they were trapped in unbearable situations. When things were about as bad as they could get, it was that so-called ‘primitive’ part of themselves that had led them out.
However, in the case of my patients, often the strategies that had once enabled them to survive, had become outdated, inflexible or stuck.
The ‘wildness’ had become corrupted into ‘craziness’, a disconnection from reality, rather than a working in harmony with it.
Most of us, thankfully, never have to resort to the types of extreme actions that Simon or I observe in our work, or fictionalise on the page. However, we all have a journey to do to re-find our wild writer. We’re aiming at connection and balance, rather than disconnection. Then, rather than getting lost in our stories, we’ll get found through them. When we can locate true wildness in ourselves, we’re a damn sight more likely to be able to write that riveting, emotionally charged way of being on to the page.
Write a character sketch or short story piece about a character that has to respond to extreme circumstances (a threat to their physical or emotional life) with extreme actions.
You might also like to think about how these events might echo through their life afterwards, and impact upon it.