Saturday, September 7, 2013

"We love to watch heroes suffer" - Neil Cross

Last year, Neil Cross won the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for his outstanding novel LUTHER: THE CALLING, which was a prequel to his multi-award-winning TV show Luther, starring Idris Elba.

The third season of this vivid, brutal, remarkable crime drama has just premiered in the US earlier this week, and today I came across an intriguing interview Cross gave with BBC America.

Cross makes some really interesting and insightful observations about writing for an audience ("The truth is that I think it’s a mistake for any writer to try to analyze why people like or dislike stuff that you do, because in the first instance you want to write things that you would want to watch, and hope that other people want to watch it too"), and what we want to see our 'heroes' go through.

Talking about the perverse enjoyment we have in watching heroes taken to the very edge, Cross says:

"[M]uch as we would hate to admit it, we love to watch heroes suffer. And the greater the suffering and the more emphatic ability of the hero, the more we admire the hero. There’s no link between the two characters but I’m a massive fan of Indiana Jones. What I love about Indiana Jones is he always bites off slightly more than he can chew. The guy he’s fighting is always slightly tougher than he is but he just refuses to give up. And that’s what makes Indiana Jones a hero, not his superpowers, but his refusal to be beaten.

Similarly, I love a scene in ‘Spider-Man 2′ where Spider-Man has to stop the elevator train before it comes off the end, and it nearly kills him, it’s beyond  the capabilities of his superpower, and he passes out, and the passengers take off his mask and they say, ‘oh my god, it’s just a kid.’ Every time I see that I cry. And that’s what I like in my heroes. I love to see heroes who fuel some kind of moral furnace inside them, who are driven to take on the evils of the world, despite the fact that the evils of the world are more powerful than them. And essentially can never be defeated, but they refuse to bow down. And in order to enjoy that aspect of the hero, you’ve got to put them through hell."

You can read the full interview with Cross on the BBC America website here.

What do you think about Cross's comments on heroes, and writing for an audience? Do you like to watch (or read about) heroes facing the biggest, near-insurmountable struggles?


  1. I think he contradicts himself. First he says it's a mistake "to analyze why people like or dislike stuff that you do." Then he goes ahead and analyzes the audience to say they like watching heroes suffer.

    I personally do not like this type of tale, which is the main reason I watched only part of one of the Luther shows and do not intend to watch any more.

    I also don't watch mysteries or crime shows where the cops or detectives spend more time dealing with their domestic problems or their on-the-job problems than they do solving crimes.

    Frankly, it's getting harder to find TV shows today, and novels are also going in the same direction, that spend most of the time on crime solving. I watch mysteries for the crime solving aspects, and if I want to watch domestic dramas, I will search them out.

  2. I hear what you're saying Fred, but I read things in a bit of a different way. Cross says you need to write what you like yourself, not try to pick what an audience likes or change your view based on trying to analyze what people like or dislike. And that many people will like the same things you do, if you write about the things that interest you. He himself likes watching heroes on the edge, who are suffering for what they do (eg his Spiderman example) - that's what gets him going as a reader/viewer, and that's what he also writes about. So I don't necessarily see that as a contradiction.

    I'm a little different on the non-crime issues too. I like crime that goes broader into societal and personal/psychological stuff - as long as the balance doesn't get too out of whack (there is crime stuff I think is waaaay too domestic, with mediocre crime/mystery elements). But everyone draws that balancing line differently anyway, I guess.

    Personally I really like Luther, both from the crime/mystery aspect, and the psychological aspect. I did like it from the start, but enjoy it even more now, having watched the entirety of the first two series. The final couple of episodes of series 1 were phenomenal, I thought.

    But I fully get what you're saying about domestic issues overwhelming the mystery aspects. I can handle a bit of both, but hey, we're all different, and that's what makes it great.

    Thanks for commenting Fred. You made some interesting points, made me think about all this, and it's fun to chat about this stuff.

  3. I agree that writers write what they want to read, especially good writers, I think. I just read _Killing Floor_, Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel, and in the intro he says exactly the same thing. He created Jack Reacher as he did because he wanted to read stories featuring that sort of character. Consequently, if the author finds a sufficient number of readers who want to read about the same type of character, then he's got an audience.

    But, not all readers want the same thing, and that's what I disagree with: his statement comes across as a universal statement that all readers want to see the main character suffer and survive--the more suffering the better, no doubt. If he had said some readers or many readers and acknowledge that there are others who want something different, I would have no problem with that.

    Cross is a successful author and the TV show _Luther_ wins awards as well as large audiences, so there is an audience and readership for his style of writing, just as Lee Child has a readership for his character, not to mention the many other popular writers with a substantial readership.

    I have no problem with a touch of the domestic drama interspersed within the mystery, but it shouldn't take over, as it seems to be doing too often today.

    I hope you keep on bloggin' for your blog is one of the few on which I can rant on a bit about issues with which few around me concern themselves.