Novelist as Method Writer: Background information when reading The Killing Lessons

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The Killing Lessons

by Saul Black

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black X
The Killing Lessons by Saul Black
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2016, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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About this Book

Novelist as Method Writer

This article relates to The Killing Lessons

Print Review

PenThe Novelist by W.H. Auden

Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.

They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.


Saul Black (pseudonym for Glen Duncan) employs no less than a half-dozen narrative points of view in his thriller The Killing Lessons. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, Black has obviously learned how to be his characters. One technique writers use to do this – to give authenticity to fictional characters – is called "method writing", or putting oneself into the shoes of the character you are creating.

It is similar to an acting technique created by the famous acting teacher Lee Strasburg and employed by no less than legends like Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando. The technique requires an actor to dig deep into his/her own experience to summon feelings that their character may have at any given time during a theatrical production. These and other actors have used the technique for decades and credit it with their success. The technique is easily adaptable to writing fiction.

As writing coach, therapist and author Rachel Ballon notes in her book, Breathing Life into Your Characters,: "good writers must also prepare themselves in advance for developing their fictional characters by going inside themselves. Enter method writing. This process is a great way for you to get deeper into your characters and create ones who are different than you.'

Ms Ballon points out that writers must not only write what they know, but what they feel as well. She (and Carl Jung for that matter) suggest that everyone is part of a universal consciousness and, thus, has the ability to feel a full range of human emotions. One must only open one's mind and heart to experience life from the point of view of anyone from an Egyptian Pharaoh to a stripper to a serial killer.

Fictional characters, she says, must be created from the inside out, rather than from the shell inward. In others words, if a writer truly knows what a character is motivated by (love, lust, recognition, money), then the character's reactions at any point in the story will make sense; will be credible. When the character originates within the writer's consciousness of his/her life experience, believability is a much easier task.

On the other hand, whether creating a character or writing an emotion into a fictional story, Ms Ballon cautions, it is important to be emotionally removed from them. It may sound like a contradiction, but if the emotion or character is too close to the author's own heart there is serious risk of losing the necessary writer's objectivity. One can easily imagine the emotional distress caused by being continually plunged into feelings over the recent death of a loved one while creating a fictional character in the throes of similar grief. The grueling process of writing, re-writing, editing, re-re-writing, etc., could easily threaten such a person's mental health.

Indeed, given the breadth and variety of convincing, dark characters at the heart of novels by the likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker and, now, Saul Black, one can only hope these writers are able to maintain good emotional and mental health.

Image of pen, courtesy of InverseHypercube

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Killing Lessons. It originally ran in October 2015 and has been updated for the August 2016 paperback edition.

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