In the foreword to Red Dragon, Thomas Harris addresses important issues regarding writing and character development. As he details how he wrote his books and created the character of Hannibal Lecter, he also shows insight into how he developed the character of Will Graham.
Harris states “To write a novel, you begin with what you can see and then you add what came before and what came after” (Harris IX). This is worthy advice, similar to the advice I’ve often gotten from fellow writers to “just write the story, the details will come”. So many times, writing is stalled when the writer does not know all the details of a story and feels that the writing cannot begin until all the specifics are worked out. It’s difficult to make progress following this method.
The way Harris discusses walking alongside Will Graham as he investigates crimes is indicative of characters being a part of their creators, whether acknowledged parts or subconscious derivatives. Harris had a kinship with Graham because he immediately understood how his character would work an investigation. This relationship seems to be an easy one, because Graham is the good guy.
Harris further describes the novel writing process with “…when you are writing a novel you are not making anything up…you just have to find it” (Harris X). I can appreciate this idea as one geared towards a writer learning to pull the story out from wherever it may be hiding during the writing process. If a writer goes into the story knowing there is indeed a story, the search and subsequent writing and revising may be better weathered.
Harris talks about how easy it was to leave the character of Dr. Frederick Chilton “in the cabin with the lights on and look back at him from the dark” (Harris XI). Chilton, too, is a part of Harris. However, this character is one that is not as detailed and does not require as much investment from the writer. He is developed as much as he ever will be.
Hannibal Lecter, however, makes Harris uncomfortable. In Lecter, Harris seems to be faced with the darker desires within himself: his ability to create a character which frightens him to explore and subsequently write to scare others.
Even though Harris admits that he did not know he would bring Lecter back for following works, he acknowledges that Lecter had a life of his own. He intruded on Clarice Starling’s story and then allowed Harris to build a novel in which Lecter not only helped Starling to solve the case but where Lecter helped the author get to know Starling herself better than he likely would have without the lense of the villain.
I can truly appreciate Harris’ honesty on how the good and bad guys will often derive from the same place within the author. It is difficult to examine our characters and admit that the villains are a part of us and our world views.
Harris, Thomas. Red Dragon. New York: Berkley, 2009. Print.