How not to write a famous character

Adaptations are in: from comics to classic literature, our films and TV screens are dominated by characters originally convinced for other mediums. The most successful of these focus on well-established characters from stories written decades ago that have been adapted several times before. Characters such as James Bond and Batman are being constantly reimagined and updated. Now these larger than life cultural icons dominate pop culture.

These cultural icons favoured by high-budget film and TV adaptations are the ones we have all grown up with and seen in many different forms. They include American characters, such as Superman from the golden age of comics, and icons of Britishness, such as Sherlock Holmes. Many have changed over and over again to suit each new age, like Dr Who. Batman and Bond have been camp, surreal and moody depending on how we want them to reflect how we see ourselves.

These characters are larger than life. In the recent film Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Clark Kent looks up a statue of Superman that is several stories high, an unsubtle way of saying that the idea Superman is bigger than any one person or story. The recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes featured Sherlock dealing with the consequences of his own fame: the character of Sherlock is surpassed in the public's mind by a mysterious, unknowable figure in a deerstalker hat who appears on the front page of newspapers. In the recent series of Dr Who, the Doctor is not so much a person but an idea woven through time and space itself.

Many fans, writers and viewers grew up with these characters, and as we did so, our understanding of them grew as well. Now that lifelong fans control the companies and broadcasters who own these characters, we have entered an introspective cultural age. Since the 2008 financial crash, western civilisation has been asking questions about what we stand for and what should we stand for? Nowhere is this more apparent than with writers adapting these larger-than-life cultural icons into new stories. Writers are exploring our culture-wide uncertainty about the future by using established cultural icons to ask questions about who we are. This is done by making films or TV series that ask the question who is James Bond or who is Sherlock Holmes?

The larger-than-life status of these characters means that stories which explore who they are often do not fit into works that are believable. Writers have to compress their complex history into a believable human being, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the recent Sherlock Holmes Christmas special that tried to reconcile the present day and the Victorian Sherlock into one story. It ended up being a nonsensical mishmash of two tangentially related plotlines. Sherlock cannot be both his modern self and his Victorian self, and this make sense in a story that takes place in a world which we can recognise as being our own.

The Sherlock Christmas special is not the only example where this approach has led writers astray. Writing a story that asks questions about a cultural icon can led to an excessive focus on character and not enough on story. Most people want Sherlock or the newest DC film to be an entertaining story, not existential musing on the nature of Batman. The story must stand alone and be believable to the audience.

Another example of when the story was not believable was the most recent James Bond film, Spectre. Since Daniel Craig took over as Bond in 2006, we have been treated to a darker and grittier take on the suavely-dressed, wise-cracking spy. These stories have probed the nature of who James Bond is – is he a psychopath, or can he connect with other human beings? How can someone recognise their humanity after killing so many people, and treating almost every woman he meets as subservient to his will?

In the most recent adventure, Bond uncovers an international criminal organisation which has been behind all of the awful things that have befallen him. This global criminal syndicate seems to exist only to test James Bond; it is as if he is the most important person in the world. This has come about through trying to reconcile the icon of James Bond, the criminal enterprise Spector from the classic James Bond adventures, and a story which focuses on Bond's humanity. In our introspective age, James Bond cannot fight a global criminal network as he did in the 1960s: instead, the global criminal network must ask questions about who is James Bond. The problem is, in our world international criminal organisations do not focus their activity on antagonising one person. This makes the story inherently unbelievable.

Man of Steel chose to focus on how alien Superman is, rather than how human Clark Kent is. By constantly putting across how unlike us Superman is, we can see the character as the great culture icon which he is. Superman clearly cannot be human, as no one person can wear so many faces and do so much over the years. This makes Superman difficult to relate to. Audiences are not interested in a protagonist they cannot understand and no one can understand what it is like to be a cultural icon like Superman. This makes Man of Steel quite a cold film, with a protagonist that viewers cannot relate to.

Sherlock focuses on the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson as the source of most of its drama. This misses the whole point of Sherlock Holmes, solving mysteries. The character of Sherlock has always been seen through the eyes of Watson, as it is the only way he can be knowable to ordinary human beings. However, when writers focus on the internal conflict of who is Sherlock Holmes, or the interpersonal conflict between Holmes and Watson, they miss the extra-personal conflict of the mystery to be solved. Focusing on the character of Sherlock is fine, as long as a good story can be told as well.

In recent years, Dr Who has become very introspective around the nature of the Doctor; an entire plot arc focused on the need to prevent the Doctor from answering the question of what his name is. This focus on the Doctor as an icon has meant that within the world of Dr Who, the Doctor has grown as a character from someone who joyrides through time and space, to a titanic figure who has seemingly touched the life of everyone in that universe. So much has the Doctor grown in infamy, that several times he defeats the antagonist of an adventure simply by shouting "I am the Doctor" at the problem – The Forest of the Dead is a notable example of this.

I can see how knowledge of the Doctor would grow over time in the universe of Doctor Who, but the current obsession with the nature of the Doctor as an icon within his universe has meant that he has grown to become not only godlike but the greatest and only God of this universe. This prevents the Doctor being relatable as a character, makes the dramatic events less believable and the narrative suffers. Any writer dealing with one of these cultural icons needs to avoid these three mistakes.

This age of introspection has produced some good films and TV shows. Batman Begins is a strong example of how to take an established character, ask questions about them and tell a good story. The film was successful in explaining why a man who wanted to fight crime dressed up as a bat and wore a cape despite the obviously impracticalities. It made Batman believable. Focusing on the psychological effect that the death of his parents had on Bruce Wayne made him relatable. Also, turning Batman's trainer into a villain made for an interesting narrative.

There are other examples. Casino Royale is the best of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig. It shows the origin of Bond's bloodlust through the trauma from the death of his lover, Vesper. This is believable and relatable. The film also has a great story. In Sherlock, the adaptation of the Hound of the Baskervilles was their best episode as it had a solid mystery at its core, thus delivering a good story.

From this I can determine that the three important characteristics to bear in mind when writing a story with a well-established cultural icon is believability, relatability and narrative. Writers working with these larger-than-life characters should keep this in mind so that the stories they create are engaging for an audience who are not as interested in asking questions about who is Batman or Bond. Generally, audiences prefer well-written stories focusing on their favourite characters – after all, the quality of their stories was why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.

How much scrutiny should your fictional world building stand up to?

Bad world building. I have spoken about it before, and how annoying it can be for a reader. Usually, I define bad world building as a fictional world which does not make sense, a world whose structures fall apart under detailed scrutiny. This leads to an important question: what level of scrutiny should good world building stand up to?

Some fictional universes stand up to detailed scrutiny, such as Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which fills in the entire history of humanity from now until the future with enormous attention to detail. Some works of fiction do not stand up to scrutiny, such as A. A. Attanasio's The Last Legends of Earth, which leaves a lot of key questions unanswered. Where did the zōtl come from? How could something like the zōtl evolve naturally?

Last week my favourite podcast, the podcast from the news magazine New Statesmen, released a special 100th episode which looked in detail at politics, economics, education and sex in the Harry Potter universe. This was approached in a spirit of both serious debate and also light-hearted fun between Harry Potter fans. What became quickly apparent is that the universe of Harry Potter does not stand up to the level of scrutiny that a newspaper gives to the politics and economics of our world.

The issues identified by several the New Statesman's writers were mainly around three unanswered practical questions about the Harry Potter universe: can wizards vote in muggle elections? do wizards vote at all? The Minister for Magic is appointed, but by means which we do not know. This does not sound very transparent or accountable.

Other unexplained issues include why are the Weasleys so poor, when their father is a senior civil servant and wizards seem to exist in a post-scarcity society? A major problem is caused by the fact that the wizarding world is closed to letting many muggles in and their population appears to be heavily skewed towards the elderly. Without the ability to bring in cheap labour who will look after all the old wizards? From the outside, the wizarding world looks on the point of collapse.

It is unreasonable to expect even a world as detailed as Harry Potter to make perfect sense when put under the same microscope that we use to analyse economic and political issues in our world. No fictional world can stand up to that level of scrutiny, as it would have to be as complicated as our world. Even enormous virtual worlds, such as Eve Online, with huge populations and millions of procedurally generated worlds, still have a simplified versions of our own political or economic systems.

While admitting that all fictional worlds fall apart when examined under a microscope, the process still raises some questions about the writing of Harry Potter. For example, why does Ron not understand some fairly basic stuff about magic (you cannot create something out of nothing), despite being in the last year of his magical education? Also why is a series of books populated by teenagers strangely sexless, and why does every character marry someone who they met in their early teenaged years? The wizarding worlds seems to have some very conservative social values.

These questions about sex and education are legitimate criticism of the writing, but it does not matter that the economy and politics of Harry Potter make no sense because that is not what the books are about. Harry Potter is about a group of characters’ difficult journey into adulthood, and the world around them exists to facilitate this story.

When examining the quality of the world building of Harry Potter, or of any other fictional universe, there are two main issues to consider. Firstly, is it a reasonably functioning world? Does it make sense to the reader? Harry Potter does make sense as a universe while you read the books. The world of the Hunger Games novels make sense – it is a simpler world than Harry Potter, but it still makes sense. The world of Divergent does not make sense: how could such a world come to exist and what keeps its strangely arbitrary social structure going?

The second issue is: does the fictional world achieve the goals that it sets itself? Does it facilitate the story? In Harry Potter, the wizarding world makes Harry's story more interesting. Its structure and power systems also reflect the theme of standing up to intolerance that is explored throughout the books. Divergent meets the second criteria but not the first. Harry Potter satisfies both criteria so it does not matter that detailed exploration of the politics or economics of the wizarding world reveals a lot of holes.

The advice I would give to writers concerned about how much scrutiny their fictional world should be able to stand up to is that it depends on what you want to achieve with your fictional world. Do you want to make a specific point about our world or the human race which will be exemplified by your fictional world? Do you want to explore a specific idea? Your world should make sense to your reader as they read the story, and it should aid the story you are trying to tell. Beyond that, it does not need to stand up to detailed dissection.

No one expects a work of fiction to be impervious to examination, so long as the story and characters are engaging. Despite the fact that any world will eventually collapse under scrutiny, the process of looking in detail at the worlds we enjoy reading about is fun and raises important issues. The New Statesman did this in a very positive way when looking at Harry Potter, and it was done by fans who are passionate about the books and wanted to talk about the issues they raise. This was not about breaking down the world of Harry Potter, but about looking at it in interesting ways. It does not matter how much examination a fictional world can stand up to, just so long as looking at it raises interesting questions.

Future Economies

Science fiction writers can be overly optimistic about the future. It is tempting to paint a picture of the future where science and capitalism have solved all of our economic and social problems as well as bringing advances such as interplanetary transportation and AI. Today, science is gradually solving some of the world’s problems; for example, AIDS medicine has progressed enormously and a newly HIV positive person living in the west can expect to live as long as someone who is HIV negative. However, technological progress has made some problems worse, mainly the eradication of the planet’s natural environment.

Capitalism is the driving force behind economic impulses and scientific research is governed by the need to be profitable as much as any other industry. This means the problems it is cost-effective to solve are solved and ones it is profitable to make worse are made worse. Capitalism will not solve all our problems by itself, as some sci-fi authors believe it will. For example, in Michael Cobley’s Humanity's Fire novels, humans has progressed to be a space faring civilization, which implies we have overcome our current environmental and population problems. However we are still ruled over by the same type of governments and private business is still the focus of the economy. It strikes me as unlikely that we would have changed so much technologically but remained the same politically and economically.

Capitalism will also not last forever. Too many sci-fi writers accept capitalism as a fundamental truth that will still be present in a future that has left behind the chemical rocket and the internal combustion engine. In the future, there will be different economic systems, just as there will be different political systems. At a talk given by Iain M. Banks, he complained about lazy sci-fi authors who depict a future where the technology, government and social structures have changed but capitalism remains. It is up to sci-fi authors to imagine interesting future economies and not assume that the economic systems of the present, i.e. capitalism, will still be there in the future. The best sci-fi books imagine interesting alternative economics, for example Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief imagines a future society where time itself is a commodity and the currency.

There are plenty of sci-fi novels, with space based societies, which do not think about how the economy would have changed or evolved in the time since humanity got into space, even if it is very far in the future. Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In the Sky is set in a future where humanity has migrated so far from Earth that it is almost forgotten but the impulses of capitalism (personified by the Qeng Ho trader civilization) are still what drives human expansion. Humanity has changed enormously in the A Deepness In The Sky, technologically, politically, socially, but economically has remained the same. This seems unlikely to me.

I believe that the great economic issue of our age, which sci-fi authors should be tackling, is the massively rising level of economic inequality. The fact that future economies might bring about greater levels of inequality is overlooked in most science fiction stories. I find the film Alien and the TV show Red Dwarf very interesting presentations of the future as, unlike the gleaming world of Star Trek, they show us that in the future, there will still be people with bad jobs who strive for more money and status.

In our world, economic inequality has gotten substantially worse over the last 30 years. There were times when we were a more economically equal society, such as the period from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1970s. In the future inequality could get better or worse. Although a lot of science fiction stories overlook the possibility that society could become more unequal, some approach this possibility in imaginative ways.

The film Gattaca is set in a very unequal future where a social elite perpetuates their power through genetic predisposition. Gattaca is world where birth, or more accurately the social class you are born into, determines the pattern of your life. In the film, we see how this rigid social structure limits the individual. This is what those of us who are concerned about economic inequality fear, a future where the economic divisions are so wide that birth determines the trajectory of your life. Gattaca explores how society’s resources might be allocated in this future and shows that, as society changes to accommodate this new technology, so too does our economic structure. This is an imaginative way of looking at what the future might be like.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have a different but equally imaginative approach to the economy of the future. Culture novels are post-scarcity, where technological progress has made the resource allocation system of capitalism obsolete. The Culture is a society where technology has completely changed every aspect of humanity, its social values, resource allocation and political structures are completely different to the ones of today. The Culture is a future where everything is different.

Technological progress and capitalism will not in themselves make the future more equal. However technological changes will alter our social structures, our political institutions and our economic system. The structures which facilitate our Earth based society will have to change if we become a space-based society. Will these changes be for better or worse? Will they solve our current problems or escalate them? These are interesting topics for sci-fi writers to explore, and many interesting writers are doing so. However it is lazy to assume that capitalism or any other current social or economic structure will remain indefinitely, regardless of how much humanity changes.

Bad World Building

Science Fiction has an obsession with Empires, at least that is the case you believe readers who do not know much about sci-fi or a recent article in Time which criticised the world building in books such as Dune and Foundation. Undeniably lazy world building is a problem in science fiction and can ruin a great idea, too often authors fall back on simplistic ideas borrowed from the real world, such as Empires, rather than thinking of imaginative ways in which the societies of the future could be different.

However, to criticize the entire genre based on a few lazy authors or established classics from the past is a gross representation of the vibrant imagination of science fiction authors. Many science fiction authors have thought of creative ways in which future societies could be formed, from the autonomous anarchistic collective of the Culture, to the totalitarian military state of Starship Troopers.

The notion of a pan-galactic civilization structured around an Empire is an element of only a minority of science fiction novels. Most in fact have no pan-galactic civilization at all and imagine a future of many complex competing political entitles made up of groups of different races, see Michael Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire novels for a good example of this.

My point is that imperial science fiction novels were a feature of the 50s and 60s when classics such as Foundation and Dune were written, but sci-fi is much more diverse now. However the stereotype remains, backed up by examples from films such as Star Wars. Films have a much narrower scope than novels and thus cannot develop as complex worlds. Galactic Empires are useful short hands for a social structure that can be quickly established in the audiences mind and thus sci-fi films use them in this way. In the greater scope of a novel it is possible to develop interesting and complex imagined future societies such as the severely hierarchical matriarchal world of Glory Season or the severely hierarchical patriarchal society of The Hand Maid's Tale.

I agree with David Berri that a Galactic Empire is an unlikely structure for future society, but speculating with any degree of accuracy about the far future is almost impossible and most predictions end up saying more about the time we live in now than the future. Berri is clearly influenced by the bias of today's established economic thought, namely that there are free, prosperous and innovative societies and restrictive, poor and backwards societies. This overlooks a wide range of economic, political, geographical and social factors which influence how societies develop and are a structured.

Berri is simply repeating the common belief in the superiority of capitalistic societies over other forms of societies onto his vision of the future, this has been the case of so many science fiction authors in the past, who let their view of the present shape the future. A good example of this is Greg Bear’s Eon, which is rooted in Cold War politics and imagines a 2005 which has moon bases but still a divided East and West Germany.

The economic, political, geographical and social factors that influence a society’s development are the building blocks of an interesting science fiction world to set a story in. These are the foundation of good world building and science fiction writers frequently experiment with these to see what sort of societies altering these factors might produce. What if it was hot all the time and there was no water, you might get something like the Fremen in Dune. What if we decided that everything the land offered was wrong and returned to live in the sea, we might get something like the United Aquatic Nations in Alastair Reynold's Poseidon's Children novels.

Once a sci-fi writer has an idea or world, it is up to them to make the world believable to the reader. Even this is a centralized Galactic Empire like in Dune or Foundation, or society governed by AIs like in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, the author still needs to find a way to make this world believable, populate it with relatable characters and weave a compelling story out of them. The nature of the world is not the issue, what the writer does with it is.

Science fiction will always be coming under attacks for being either ridiculous or not inventive enough, like in this article. What is important is that fans remember how diverse the genre is and call out clearly baseless opinions or those based on a prejudice against science fiction. Bad world building is always a disappointment in a book but having one specific feature of an imagined society (such as a Galactic Empire) does not necessarily mean bad world building. There are no bad ideas in science fiction only the bad execution of ideas.

Relatable superheroes

Superheroes offer a particular challenge to writers. When dealing with characters with greater than human abilities, it is important that the writer finds a way to make them relatable. If your superhero is practically invulnerable then your story will lack tension and your audience will struggle to relate to the character. A protagonist who cannot be harmed in any way cannot lose anything and nothing can stop them from achieving their goals. We relate to characters through the fact that they, like us, can be hurt, can experience loss and can have their ambitions thwarted. A character who cannot experience this is of little interest to a reader. In exploring this issue, I am going to look closely at a few examples – mainly Luc Besson’s film Lucy, which I saw recently.

Besson is known for bringing a certain visual flair to his films – he has a distinctive style which can be seen in work as diverse as Leon and The Fifth Element. However, impressive visuals do not make a movie: engaging characters and a gripping story are also necessary. Lucy is a treat for the eyes, but lacks dramatic tension because its protagonist is overpowered.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a hapless American tourist travelling in Taiwan. Lucy is kidnapped by gangsters and forced to carry a new drug to Europe. However, there is an accident and a lot of the drug ends up in Lucy’s bloodstream. Here it unlocks her ability to use more than 10% of her brain, which for some reason her gives her superpowers and eventually turns her into a godlike being.

This ridiculous plot is little more than window dressing for a series of spectacular fight scenes and glowing visual illustrations of Lucy's new found abilities. Some of these are breathtakingly beautiful, and some are a generic series of martial arts based fights that are little different from every other similar such scene since The Matrix.

Lucy quickly becomes so powerful that the gangsters cannot hurt her, but this happens too early in the film and we have had hardly any time to get to know Lucy as a person. The result is we do not empathise with her. This film has too much of The One and not enough Neo. To be able to relate to the protagonist, the audience needs time to get to know them before they become invulnerable.

Having weaknesses as well as strengths is an important part of making your protagonist relatable, despite Superman's strength he is powerless against Kryptonite. If your character has superhuman strength, then lack of technical knowledge gives them a weakness and makes them relatable. Another useful weakness for a super-powered character is to have a social dysfunction. They may have greater than human abilities, but if they cannot relate to other characters then they will suffer in the world of your story. Your super-powered protagonist should not be so powerful that they do not need friends.

The character of Wolverine in the X-Men films is a good example of this. Wolverine’s abilities make him practically invulnerable, but due to psychological damage he struggles in trusting other people. Wolverine’s greater than human physical abilities are not enough to achieve his goals and his less than human social skills make working with others to achieve them difficult. Tension comes from the audience waiting to see if Wolverine can work with the other X-Men or if his lone wolf personality will thwart him despite his super powers.

Speaking of friends, the supporting cast of your story is a great way to make a protagonist more relatable. Having friends who are vulnerable is a good weakness for a superhero to have. The Superman movies do this very effectively, as Superman can be hurt because he cares for Lois Lane and villains can threaten her. Superman stands to loose something important to him in the story, and so it has more tension and he becomes more relatable.

Lucy’s lack of character development injures the film in regard to the above. The eponymous heroine is not the only underdeveloped character, as all of the supporting cast suffer from this as well. It is with the supporting cast where this lack of development is mostly keenly felt. We do not learn much about Professor Norman (played by Morgan Freeman) other than that he is a scientist with theories relating to using more of the human brain. Similar Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), a Parisian police officer with whom Lucy works to defeat the gangsters, is also a mystery to us. We do not know about these people, their lives, dreams and goals (beyond presumable staying alive) so we cannot relate to them. Thus we cannot relate to Lucy through her relationship with the supporting cast. A better-developed and more sympathetic supporting cast would add tension to the film.

Usually Besson is good at balancing striking visuals along with solid character development and a gripping story. He managed this well during both Leon and The Fifth Element, both of which are well known for their visual spectacle and are well-loved for the strong bond which the audience gains with the characters on their journey. The latter is a good example of what Lucy could have been: The Fifth Element has breathtaking action as well as Besson's trademark provocative visuals, but it also has the Earthly charm of Bruce Willis at its core. The Fifth Element also features a woman of incredible powers as a protagonist, but in this case we empathise with Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) through her personal journey to find love in a chaotic and violent world. This is something we can all relate to, but by contrast we cannot relate to the physiological changes which Lucy is going through because we have never experienced anything like it. More could have been made of the personal losses that Lucy experiences to make her a more relatable character, but this is missing from the film.

The Matrix is a film which successfully creates a relatable protagonist in Neo (Keanu Reeves). We follow him as he discovers the truth of the world around him and eventually becomes the all-powerful ‘One’. Neo gains his godlike abilities right at the end of the movie and we have spent a long time following Neo while he was still human and vulnerable. Reliability comes from his very human vulnerability in the dangerous world of the Matrix.

The TV series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer also does a good job of making a super powered protagonist relatable. Buffy is powerful but not invulnerable. The slayer can be killed, so when she faces powerful antagonists like Spike there is a tension which Lucy lacks when she faces the Taiwanese gangsters. Buffy also has the same emotional vulnerability as any normal teenager, which means we can relate to her through shared experiences.

When creating a protagonist with greater than human abilities how relatable they are and the level of tension which you want for your story are important considerations for any writer. The character should have some vulnerability: either a physical weakness, the lack of a certain skill or an emotional vulnerability. The supporting cast of non-super powered characters need to be developed properly and the protagonist needs to have experiences in common with the audience. These experiences should be the everyday experiences of love, loss and emotional vulnerability, as it is through these shared experiences that we can relate to the character.

Above all, avoid a situation like Lucy, where the protagonist is invulnerable and underdeveloped, as the audience will struggle to relate to them. This is especially bad in a story with undeveloped supporting characters, thus closing off other avenues of empathy. A good place to start is looking carefully at super hero stories you have enjoyed and thinking why you relate to the protagonist of that story.

The Punk Writer

Every writer wants that distinctive voice which brings their prose to life in a unique way. Something which makes their work stand out in the enormous pile of manuscripts that agents and publishers receive. When I think about individualism, standing out and not being bland, I think about punk. The music of The New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols seems to have little to teach the aspiring sci-fi or fantasy writer, but many authors have adopted the punk aesthetic to bring flair to their writing.

Punk has its origins in the sense of alienation and social breakdown caused by deindustrialisation in the 1970s, themes explored by sci-fi writers such as J.G. Ballard. Punk also attempts to fight back against conformist mainstream culture and overbearing culturally-conservativepowers, which authors have also explored – such as China Mieville in his book, The Iron Council. For a novel to have the punk suffix (steampunk, cyberpunk, etc) it should contain an element of rebellion in the story and an individualistic style, this is the connection between literary punk subgenres and the musical form of punk.

Mieville is an interesting case study as an author who has adopted the punk aesthetic and applied it his writing to create an original and distinctive style. In order to explore this fully, I will compare Mieville's writing to my personal favourite punk band, the Dropkick Murphys.

The first thing these two have in common is that they are not typical of their genre. Mieville describes himself as a ‘wired fiction writer’, however his ‘Bas Lag’ trilogy of novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council) have elements of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. Set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, most of the action of the loose trilogy occurs in the city of New Crobuzon, a steampunk vision of Victorian London, where magic (or thaumaturgy, as Mieville calls it) sits alongside smoke stacks and workhouses, where steam-powered robots known as constructs perform heavy tasks, illegal newspapers sow dissent and a seditious killer preys on the vulnerable.

The Dropkick Murphys blend the hard and fast Oi style of punk to traditional Irish folk music. Fiddles, bodhráns, bagpipes, tin whistles, accordions and mandolins are frequently used in their music, alongside drums, bass and guitars. The raw, coarse energy of the traditional punk power trio enthused is fused with Massachusetts Irish culture, which has come to be known as Celtic Punk.

Both China Mieville and the Dropkick Murphys mix different genres and styles to create something distinctive. They have a wide variety of influences which makes their work individual and original – something all authors seek to be.

Another thing the two have in common is that their output is an aggressive statement of individualism. Punk is about not conforming to established ideas of taste or beauty but expressing your own view on what is beautiful. The Dropkick Murphys aggressive Oi style makes no attempts to conform to what could be considered pleasant or easy to listen to, and their music is fast, hard and aggressive. They also express their individualism through the influence of their Massachusetts Irish background; everything from the Red Shocks to the AFL-CIO trade union are brought into their songs, which makes them unique has a punk band.

All of China Mieville's novels contain scenes that are written with the intention of making the reader's stomach turn. Mieville is a visceral writer, whose creations have distorted anatomies and behave in grotesque or violent ways. His writing makes no allowance for what the reader might find tasteful and in fact deliberately seeks to shock and offend. Mieville's also draws on his interest in Marxist politics, role-playing games and the writing of H.P. Lovecraft to express his individuals.

China Mieville and the Dropkick Murphys refuse to conform to accepted standards of taste, as well as drawing on their background to find what makes them unique as an artist. This is the key to what makes these two unique, interesting and individual, and it is essential to what punk can teach us about being a distinctive writer. Both seek to be provocative, or even offensive. Punk is an aggressive display of nonconformity which can be found in both the Dropkick Murphys’ music and China Mieville's writing, and they both adopt this disregard of established tastes to create original work.

As a writer, there is no sense in being timid or second-guessing what you want to say because you feel it might conflict with the established sense of what is acceptable. Writers who do this tend to be comfortist and boring, their prose is filled with unnecessary restraints and is dull and unimaginative. If you want to be a success as writer then it is necessary to make your writing unique, memorable and individual, and not to spend too much timing worrying if this confirms to someone else’s view of what is acceptable. This is the lesson that punk can teach writers.

Neither China Mieville nor the Dropkick Murphys are typical of their genre, but punk is about being atypical. By being atypically punk, the Dropkick Murphys are being punk. China Mieville is punk in the way he writes provocatively, confrontationally and by making an aggressive statement of individualism. Punk is about not being shy or conforming to how the establishment thinks you should behave. What punk can teach writers is to be bold, be yourself and not give a damb about what others think you of.