Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Archive for April, 2013

The Enduring Appeal of ‘A Kid With Spots’ in Fiction, TV, Movies & YouTube

There’s a character we love, in all forms of media.

Rory Barker, Researcher and Fall Guy on James May's Man Lab

Rory Barker, Researcher and Fall Guy on James May’s Man Lab

Is he the exciting hero? Is he clever, bold, handsome, courageous?

No. He’s a bit downbeat and low-key. A bit dumb. He drifts around in the background looking vacant.

And he’s the one we find most endearing.

He’s  Rory Williams in Doctor Who Series 5-7.

He’s Rory Barker, who started as Junior Researcher in James May’s Man Lab.

We love them!

They’re in fiction too.

PG Wodehouse traded on them in his comic novels. Step forward Gussie Fink-Nottle. He’s Bertie Wooster’s friend, with a face like a fish. Gussie who’s  ‘not quite with it’, he’s ‘caught up in his own world’ (which, in Gussie’s case, is an obsession with newts).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood the archetypal power of this character too – in Dr John Watson, who seems dumb next to his brilliant colleage, Sherlock Holmes.

Among TV drama series we find Merlin. He plays this role for the benefit of Arthur, who doesn’t understand who Merlin truly is.

This character is ‘a bit of  dill’, ‘a bit simple’.

Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams in Doctor Who

Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams in Doctor Who

And YouTube high-flyers like Charlie McDonnell also understand the appeal of this character. He’s under-stated, he’s self-deprecating.

Among young adult novels, The Declaration Trilogy by Gemma Malley has a character called Jude, who entered in the second novel of the trilogy, and who very quickly became my favourite character.

Ben Wishaw as Q in Skyfall James Bond

Ben Wishaw as Q in Skyfall James Bond

And in films we find Q in Skyfall – ‘a kid with spots’, as OO7 points out when he first meets him in an art gallery.

‘My complexion is hardly relevant,’ he says to Bond.

These characters are anti-heroes who endear themselves to us. Another name for this character-type is “the ingenue”.

Long live the anti-heroes.

Our love for them tells us something very heartening about human nature.

The Enduring Appeal of Action Hero TinTin and Why We Love Fresh-Faced Heroes and Their Adventure Stories

Last night I watched our DVD of “The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn” again with my 15-year old son. And I knew afresh why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while.  But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.

I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).

As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John  by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.

You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.

Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.

There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.

Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.

The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.

In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.

TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.

Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it did me?

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The Curious Tale of a Rediscovered King, a DNA Trail and What It Tells Us of the Nature of Truth

“There were a lot of nasty rumours spread about me,” says Horrible Histories actor Jim Howick in his  hilarious portrayal of King Richard III. “Tudor propaganda, it’s all absurd. Time to tell the truth about Richard III.”

Who was he? “That King they found in the car park in Leicester”. This will have been the phrase on many lips, of those who, with little historical knowledge, will nevertheless find this a topic of conversation with friends.

Richard III - earliest surviving portrait (credit : medievalhistories.com)

Richard III – earliest surviving portrait (credit : medievalhistories.com)

The story of Richard III to me illustrates how nothing in this life can guarantee any particular outcome. And as I read “the book that inspired the dig”:  The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA by John Ashdown-Hill, this was brought vividly alive to me.

According to Ashdown-Hill, historian, genealogist, and member of the Richard III Society, Richard III was a young man probably too kind, too naive and too forgiving. If anything sewed the seeds of his downfall at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, it was that trust –  for he was betrayed by the Stanley brothers, men he could easily have captured and imprisoned in the Tower much earlier, if he’d been sharper and more rutheless.

Because his death and defeat  on that Bosworth Battlefield meant the end of one dynasty – the Plantaganets – and the beginning of another – the Tudors – a lot of hard work subsequently went into “re-writing history”: blackening his reputation, falsifying his story and character, and destroying historical evidence.

I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.

For the basic principles of life do not change.

Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.

But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.

Richard III facial reconstruction based upon his skull (credit: cnn.com)

Richard III facial reconstruction based upon his skull (credit: cnn.com)

Though it may be centuries later, and only after hundreds of years of fabrication and half truths and lies and myths.

On that day, 22 August 1485, at 8 am, Richard III rode onto the battlefield an anointed King, new marriage plans very much alive, expecting to reign for many more years. At 9.15am he was killed. And later, at 2 pm,  he left the battlefield, a mud-and blood-spattered corpse, naked (stripped of his finery by the local scavengers who would have surrounded every medieval battlefield), slung over a horse, later to be tipped unceremoniously into a shallow grave in Leicester.

Only nine years later, in 1494, did his successor, Henry VII, cause a tomb to be erected over his grave at the Greyfriars church in Leicester – and then only because it served Henry’s own interests that it be publicly known that Richard III had been a true King, and not a usurper of the throne.

I can throroughly recommend Ashdown-Hill’s book; if you love history I believe you too will be fascinated by  his methodology, as a historian and genealogist, as he teases out the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the probable from the unlikely, evaluating the different grades and types of evidence and the quality of witnesses and testimonies against each other.

You too may  find cause to reflect, as I have done, on the fact that tales about historical figures can often be total fabrication, or embroidered, or half- or quarter-truths, and only rigorous painstaking historical research can correct them.

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