Monday, October 31, 2011

21 grams

So who is this in the photograph? Do you recognize the face? What a cute little baby! 

It's someone very well known. Instantly recognizable as an adult, in fact. I'll give you a clue. It's a he. What do you think he became when he grew up - saint or sinner? Famous or notorious? Write it down and check your answer later.

People as babies are fascinating to the author bit of me. Writers are taught from the get-go to create believable motivations for their characters. Some teachers even recommend creating whole folios on our MC's family of origin so that we understand them better. A hero should have understandable flaws, I was told; and a villain has to have reasons for being bad so we can at least empathize. All very good advice.

But how does it hold up in real life? Art, as Picasso said, is not the truth. It's a lie that shows us the truth. So how does fiction stack up to reality?

So before I tell you who this baby is, try this on for size:

BC was born in a tenement slum. He was abandoned by his mother when he was 4. His father was away in the army so he was raised by a deranged aunt who used to beat him violently almost every day. When his father returned from the war he sexually abused him from the ages of ten to fifteen.

JD's mother endured a difficult pregnancy but once born, he wanted for nothing. He was loved and adored. His mother kept a scrapbook, as many proud parents do, recording the events of his life; his first step, his first accident, his first tooth, his first haircut. He had a major hernia operation when he was six years old. His parents had an unhappy marriage and divorced when he was 18.

The question is: if you were writing a book, which one of these would be your serial killer?

The violently and sexually abused BC is actually the legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. The kid with the unremarkable upbringing is Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America's worst serial murderers.


Why does one man defend himself from brutality with humour and courage; while the other, after a fairly ordinary childhood, becomes a loner who enjoys dissecting roadkill?

I am not essentially a religious person but I do believe absolutely in the existence of a soul, that part of us that is not attached to our identity and our body. But here's my question; does everybody have one?

It seems to me to be a question that asks itself every single day in our criminal courts. We can certainly ask it of men like Gaddhafi or Amin or Mugabe or Stalin or any of the war criminals and mass murderers who are all too familiar to us on the world political stage.

Is every character a product of their environment as my old writing teacher insisted - or are some born inherently evil, without that essential 21 grams?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Here's an added bonus; I've just released a book called Opium on Kindle. It's the first in a series of five books tracing the history of one of the world's great evils: the heroin trade in south east Asia, 1960-95. Anyone with an e-reader who'd like a copy, just write in a comment and I'll send you one.

Oh, and by the way the picture of the cute little kid. It's Adolf Hitler, before he learned to talk.

If only he never had ...



  1. I got it right! (Adolf Hitler, I mean) For quite a while I believed so much of our personality was nurture, but over time, I have begun to embrace the idea that who we are is largely influenced by factors way before we are ever born. Studies into psychopathy indicate that psychopaths don't view the world or feel emotions in the same way "normal" people do. However, the nature argument doesn't change the fact that anyone can commit evit acts. Why people do so is truly a mystery of human behavior.

  2. I believe that who we are as people has less to do with our upbringings and more to do with what we give ourselves over to as young people and adults. Obviously, how we’re brought up greatly influences who we may become; there are defining moments of childhood that will stay with us until the day we die. Some of those moments will be demons that chase us; others will be blessings that keep us.

    But ultimately it all comes down to our decisions - good or bad; right or wrong. Most of the time, if you boil down the complex, it becomes simple. Hilter gave himself over to the false belief of a superior race. I’m not sure what Jeffrey Dahmer gave himself over to, but the sheer number of people he slaughtered shows his dedication to it. And while I can’t possibly know the inner-workings of Billy Connolly’s heart, it’s clear that to some degree, he’s given himself over to something that probably seemed like a fairy-tale growing up: laughter.

    Each of us has a soul. Mother Teresa had one. Mugabe has one. It’s the thing that’s meant to be our connection to God - the thing that makes us like Him. But our choices can lead us down paths that make our souls unrecognizable - even to the point that it seems like we’re lacking one altogether.

    C.S. Lewis said that each of us is on a path toward being glorified, in one way or another. Glorified good, or glorified evil. We get to pick which we want to become.

  3. Cool post and Myndi's comment says it all for me!

  4. Hi Colin,

    Interesting post. I like your quote from Picasso, "Art,is not the truth. It's a lie that shows us the truth." I think some people are who they are because of DNA and/or because of their upbringing. But I do think that people have the ability to change who they are if they want to. I have a post coming up about soul, but it takes off in a different direction. I've got to go tweet about this right now. See ya!

  5. Fascinating post. I believe that we're a combination of nature, nurture and our personal decisions to learn, grow and change.

    Then there's the pack mentality... brain washing, findings of the Stanford prison experiments... So many factors influence who we begin as and become.

    In my previous career as an actress, I was in an indie film that addressed this very issue. In it, Hitler was born and raised by scientists and psychologists. If I can find the link, I'll send it your way. Glad I found your blog!