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An Authors Responsibility?

22 March 2014

From author and regular TPV visitor Randall Wood:

As a writer of thrillers I have to make stuff up. An imaginary hero, an imaginary villain, something evil for the villain to do, crazy conspiracy theories that are just plausible enough to happen and a near impossible way for the hero to save the day.

I get a lot of my ideas from watching the news. I simply take a story I see and stretch it to the limits of my imagination. If I can combine several stories into one that’s even better. If there’s a shred of real-life in the plot it usually resonates with the reader and makes the time spent reading it that much better.

For instance; last night my brain entertained ideas surrounding the hijacking and disappearance of a large jetliner. I’m looking for ways that my characters might get involved in a similar situation. If you watch Law & Order you know what I’m talking about. “Ripped from the Headlines” they call it.

But I never thought it would happen in reverse. That is until I saw this story today in the Huffington Post;

Child Organ Harvesting And Trafficking-Linked Arrest Made In Mexico 

In all honesty I got sick to my stomach.

If you’ve read Scarcity you already know why, if you haven’t I’ll go ahead and tell you that this is one of the major plot points of the whole book.

I’m not the first to write about the subject. I believe Tess Garritsen did so in one of her first books. Others may have as well, I don’t really know, I didn’t do an extensive check before writing the book. I do remember that the initial idea came about from reading about a new organ transport machine in one of the many medical journals I still get. (In a former life I was a flight medic and hauled a lot of organs and transplant teams around the country) So, the idea was not original, I just put a modern slant on it.

Still, it bothers me. Are drug cartels and Mexican gangs reading medical thrillers? I doubt it. But then why do I assume that? Did the 911 hijackers read Tom Clancy and decide to use his idea of crashing planes into buildings? Nobody can say for sure. I remember an Army friend of mine who beta-read my first book Closure was a vigilante sniper story that I wrote not long after the Maryland Sniper shootings, this was a few years before Dexter, but long after The Punisher or Mack Bolan. Nothing unique as far as the basic plotline, but he sent it back to me full of red ink along with a letter warning me that I was writing a how-to manual.

To my horror I saw that he was right. I was taking the skills and knowledge I had gained in the military and laying it all out there for others to emulate. He was telling me to go back and edit several areas, omitting key information so the book didn’t invite people to try stupid things.

. . . .

If a writer can pen his story without making the world a more dangerous place, should he/she feel obligated to do so? Granted we can’t control what’s in a person’s head, but we can at least, in theory, deny them the ability to be more lethal when they do make the decision to be violent.

Link to the rest at Randall Wood Author

Books in General

48 Comments to “An Authors Responsibility?”

  1. Interesting essay. He’s right in that he shouldn’t write a how-to manual, but there’s a long stretch between the idea and the act.

    • The author probably shouldn’t write the how-to manual, but a perp wouldn’t have to buy the book anyway. As long as s/he has access to a computer and the Internet, the info is most certainly available otherwise free on line.

  2. See The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, written in 2002, about Matt who was born to provide spare parts for a drug lord.

    And remember the fuss over Patricia Cornwell’s first Scarpetta novel? She was accused of writing a how-to murder manual, too.

  3. I must confess this is something that has bothered me a lot over the years. However, it bothers me more in terms of what’s accessible via movies and television, as quite frankly those mediums have a much further reach than any one novelist.

    It takes very little for an already severely unbalanced person to take a “suggestion” of an idea and run with it. Unfortunately there’s no way to insulate our society from this. There have been lunatics for all of human history, and even if we stopped telling stories – via ANY medium – that talked about crimes, these people would still find inspiration somewhere and go do the things they do.

  4. Real life imitates fiction. That’s why I became a Jedi.

  5. This is the same old argument we’ve been hearing for decades. The bottom line is that evil people do evil things and where they get their ideas is their responsibility and no one else’s. An author could write something completely innocuous and some nutcase could find a way to twist it and turn it into something evil.

    We are not responsible for the nut cases of the world. Write whatever you feel the story needs and don’t worry about anything else.

    • Exactly. I thought Wood was being precious. Oh noes, I have all this NOLIDGE and it can KIL someone!!11! Yeah yeah, Helter Skelter, sweetheart. Helter Skelter.

  6. As someone who’s met a lot of criminals, I can assure you that the more dangerous ones have no need for a how-to manual. The ingenuity of some of these folks is mind-boggling. Ask anyone who has ever worked in a prison.

    By the way, the idea of crashing a plane into a building didn’t originate with Tom Clancy. In 1974, an unemployed salesman named Samuel Byck tried to hijack a plane so he could crash it into the White House and kill President Nixon.


    • Great example. It points out the real question I asked.

      Samuel Byck; here’s a guy who shot his way onto the plane while it was still on the ground, then shot the pilots after they told him the plane couldn’t move unless the ground crew removed the wheel chocks. Finding himself without a pilot he then chose to shoot it out with the police before killing himself.

      If he’d had more knowledge about how things worked, perhaps from a story he had read, he might’ve gotten a lot further than he did, with a much larger body count.

      My piece wasn’t saying leave ANYTHING dangerous out, I was thinking more along the lines of the lethal details, one that aren’t necessary for the plot. I think the determined ones are always going to find a way; it’s the ones that succumb to suggestion very easily and lack anything to check their actions that I worry about. 🙂

      • I’ve thought about this issue a lot lately myself. Last year, I completed a novel manuscript with a criminal protagonist who commits a robbery and several murders. I went into detail on the methods he used to evade arrest (destroying evidence, beating police interrogation etc.) and it occurred to me that some could view it as an instruction manual. I came to the conclusion that the criminals who weren’t smart enough to figure things out on their own probably weren’t the type to do much reading. 😉

        I guess the real worry here is those that are intelligent but mentally unbalanced. They might learn criminal methodology from a novel, but there are other, better sources to learn such things. Just take a look at the Paladin Press catalog for some examples.


        There’s also the internet. Not to mention the military manuals floating around out there (and available online). Hell, my old criminal investigation text books would be useful to someone looking to get away with murder.

        I think the real concern here is books (and movies, TV shows, music etc.) that glorify crime and antisocial behavior.

        • There’s also the internet. Not to mention the military manuals floating around out there (and available online). Hell, my old criminal investigation text books would be useful to someone looking to get away with murder.

          And if we think this through, then let us not leave out history books and classrooms. My sixth grade teacher brought in a guy to tell us more about the Aztecs. The guy told us about the gruesomely effective method the Aztecs used to flay people while keeping their skin intact. As far as I know, none of my classmates put this knowledge to practical use. Oh, and neither have I 🙂 I later read a Gary Jennings historical novel about a pre-Conquistador Aztec man. My high school Spanish teacher gave it to me; as far as I know neither she nor her other students were inspired by it.

          If we’re exploring whether novels, movies, and fictional TV shows could be considered responsible for “wrong ideas and actions,” then it seems obvious we cannot leave out history books, documentaries, CNN, and whatever history-teaching shows the History Channel et al air on TV. Not to mention the teachers and historians and law enforcement personnel who immerse themselves in those subjects rather than casually skim it via fiction.

          I agree that culture is where it’s at. Our culture says eating people is wrong, so learning about Aztecs, the pre-Cook Hawaiians, the Ukrainian famine—and watching Hannibal—is not going to inspire another Jeffrey Dahmer. I gather that Chikatilo was influenced more by living through the Ukrainian famine and having a brother eaten by desperate cannibals than anything he might have read.

          When our culture starts validating repugnant behavior, then we should start worrying. Until then, let’s just write good stories.

          • When our culture starts validating repugnant behavior, then we should start worrying.

            Our culture validates repugnant behavior and always has. Bonnie and Clyde were folk heroes, as was John Dillinger.

            While we don’t celebrate unrepentant murderers quite so gleefully anymore, one look at any celebrity news site or reality show lineup will show you that the celebration of repugnant behavior has only accelerated along with the speed of communication.

    • There’s something of an analogy here with security flaws in computer programs. If you find a bug that would allow an unauthorised person to access files or take control of the computer, should you reveal it, so that good guys can fix the hole, or keep it to yourself, in case bad guys exploit it?

      Opinion has come down overwhelmingly on the side of “reveal it”, because it makes the good guys’ lives easier, and the bad guys are quite capable of finding the holes on their own. (Nowadays there are even programs for finding security flaws in other programs.) Therefore patching a hole closes off an avenue of attack for the bad guys.

      Of course, the arguments for and against “reveal it” or “keep it secret” may be rather different in the real world, where patching a hole usually involves rather more work than changing a few lines of computer code and uploading a new version of the program to your website…

    • The earliest use I know of the literary device of crashing a passenger jet into a skyscraper is The Running Man.


      Published 1982. However, there were pictures of a B-25 which crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 and caused massive damage and the loss of many lives:


      The “idea” of smashing things into other things is not one that needed a brilliant author to reveal to the criminal masses. It is patronizing and egotistical in the extreme to assume that if only you hadn’t written X, Y would never have happened. I’m writing a book right now which contains a high-tech thriller abduction scene and extensive brainwashing/mind control plotlines. Am I worried about copycats or teaching somebody how to do this?

      Not really.

      Because everything in the book I learned from either psychology textbooks or the Internet. It’s not a secret. Bad people will find out how to do the things they want to do.

  7. … there’s a long stretch between the idea and the act.

    Which is not to say that there is no correlation between fiction and real life. There is a direct line between a fictional doctor’s consumption of Vicodin and the fact that a staple painkiller had to be reformulated and a dozen others taken off the market.

    That said, write the story you need to tell.

  8. The other day I saw the commercial for a new TV show. I don’t remember the title. The plot was something like – kidnap a kid and force the parent to kill to get the kid back.

    I get that people like to be scared (roller coasters / horror movies / thrillers / etc.) There’s clearly a huge market for all of that.

    But, kidnapping kids to force their parents to murder? With all the great stories out there, this is what they make into a TV show?

    Not for me.

    • That would not be for me, either. That’s effed up. When I was a kid, my dad and I watched some movie where a father was forced to choose between the life of his child or giving up some information that would lead to the death of a large group of people. He chose his child and handed over the info. I turned to my dad and asked him what he would do. I assumed he would choose me over the others and he said, “I’d have to choose saving many over one.” I, of course, freaked out. I mean, I was like ten years old or something, but it stuck with me for a long time. It also influenced my writing quite a bit. My heroes tend to sacrifice their loved ones. A lot.

    • Isn’t this the same thing as when authors write erotica and others say “this is what you choose to write?” This could work for anything.

      Personally, I like the idea of kidnapping children to force the parents to commit murder.

      I do NOT like it because I’m a sicko who likes children to be hurt or exploited.

      I DO like it because any normal parent would do whatever it took to get their child back. This is a better motivator than kidnapping a spouse (not that you wouldn’t do everything to get a spouse back, but a spouse isn’t your child). This is a believable plot device, especially to readers with children. It makes you put yourself in the story parents’ shoes and think about the moral choices you’d have to make.

      I’ve spent time on both sides of the criminal justice system in my life (I was absolutely not a very nice person in my 20’s). Criminals don’t need your books to know how to do something. To be honest, thinking that a criminal would read a book of fiction and then follow it to the letter to commit a complex crime is as laughable as someone watching a movie about kung fu then going out and kicking the crap out of a shopping mall full of people with kung fu. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

      Stupid criminals, which make up the overwhelming majority, don’t read books. Sure, some might, but my experience says otherwise. I used to get roasted all the time by my drug dealing, home invading, house burgling buddies because I liked to read books.

      Smart criminals, which are much less prevalent but far more dangerous, read a lot. But they don’t read fiction to learn how to commit crimes. That’s as ridiculous as thinking a dumb criminal would even read a book. They’ll read books, but they’ll read non-fiction to actually learn how things are done instead of taking a chance the author was talking out his or her ass when it came to blood spatter or fingerprint collection, etc.

      Now, in the age of the internet, why would anyone with a brain read a fiction book for anything when they could find detailed information on the internet about cops, cop cars, explosives, weapons, fire, alarm systems, locks, safe cracking, drugs, whatever?

      When I wanted to learn how to crack a lock, or defeat an alarm system, use a scanner to know what the cops were up to and what their codes were, I didn’t read fiction.

      Kudos to the articles author for writing a book that happened to also mirror a similar real life story. But minus kudos to any author that thinks that their FICTION book might be an instruction manual for criminals. Might as well blame Dexter for teaching serial killers the trade, or Goodfellas for teaching mobsters how to… mob?

      • Isn’t this the same thing as when authors write erotica and others say “this is what you choose to write?” This could work for anything.

        You are correct.

        When I say it’s effed up, I mean, it is. I don’t mean I don’t think people should/would watch it. I would not expect the world to conform to my idea of entertainment because then everything would be True Blood and Firefly (and there would be way more nekked on Firefly).

  9. If two different writers can come up with similar plotlines, why can’t a writer and a criminal come up with similar ideas? Humans have been doing sick, twisted things to each other for millenia. Lo-o-ong before Guttenberg came along.

    Now, if Randall starts DOING these things to other people, then I’ll worry.

  10. I’m mostly troubled by authors who are vehement about having no responsibility at all. It’s the perp who did it. Doesn’t matter where he got the idea. The argument is familiar from pro-gun lobbies.

    • As William Burroughs put it, though in better words than mine, the one repeatedly demonstrated case of ‘life imitating art’ is copy-cat crimes based on news reports.

      So, if you’re really worried about criminals learning how to commit crimes, you should be banning newspapers, not books.

      And, re your last sentence, guns rarely kill people by themselves, though WWII Sten guns were notorious for it. There are a number of documented cases of people killing themselves or others when they dropped a loaded Sten gun.

  11. This is part of why I stick to paranormal & science fiction stories. If I am going to plan the death of a character or enable the destruction of a planet, I want to make sure a few of the key ingredients are not available in the real world. Also, I know that human monsters do exist and my stomach prefers metaphors to the real thing. And I love the genres with every fiber of my being.

    I think editing down the instructional scene where the character builds a silencer in his garage is understandable. But one does not have to edit the plot of a book based on the fear of giving crazy people an idea. All of the crazy ideas are already out there and have been since before we started writing them down.

    • …I know that human monsters do exist and my stomach prefers metaphors to the real thing.

      Mine, too.

      There’s a reason my villains are essentially misguided. (Although my readers do genuinely loathe them. Which is good.)

  12. I largely think this is just overblown, as fears go. No one needs to read a book to get an idea of what or how to do something. Those Mexican cartel folks weren’t stealing organs because they read about it in a book; that’s just silly. They stole organs because they have no respect for life in the first place, and are thieves in the second place. That a technological innovation came along to make their murder and organ thievery easier doesn’t mean that the innovator of that technology is responsible for what the cartels do with it, let alone Tess Gerritsen.

    And since you mention Mexico, I will point out the worshipers of Tlaloc probably weren’t reading Tess when they ripped out the hearts of children just to make it rain. As far as I know, Ye Olde Aztecs had no popular fiction, but I will stand to be corrected on this point.

    There is an instance where media outlets should take responsibility for murder. The 20th century provided multiple examples, e.g., Rwanda, where radio programs directly referred to “enemy” ethnic groups as cockroaches and advocated killing them. These outlets took existing tensions and prejudices and deliberately exploited them to stir up neighbors to kill each other.

  13. Well, sort of related…I’ve thought about this a lot with my last book, Camelia. The main character is suicidal. And she offers, in my opinion, good reasons to be.

    The book does not end like Vizzini’s “…Funny Story,” in that the reader thinks the woman will be okay–quite the opposite. (And in the end, sadly, Vizzini was not okay.) And I’ve thought, how is a severely depressed person going to take this? (As a depressed person myself, I took it very hard, but I didn’t jump off a roof.) edited to say: That was not meant to be a reference to Vizzini, but to Camelia.

    I don’t feel obligated to paint a rosy picture for anyone. So, I don’t think authors ought to feel obligated to tone down their details out of fear of inciting something in an already disturbed person.

  14. I’ve wondered about this, too, but I figure anyone insane enough to try something like this would be doing something equally horrible regardless (if they did get the idea from a book). I mean, I can’t imagine that someone who reads a book and then is like, brilliant! I’ll harvest children’s organs! doesn’t have a WHOLE lot of problems already.

    That said, I can’t even read the original article because it makes me ill to think of someone doing that. Bad enough to adults, but children?!

  15. TV’s CSI has annoyed police and prosecutors all over because people expect DNA and trace analysis to be magical. And because a lot of crime scenes are being scrubbed with bleach.

    Yes, criminals pick up ideas all over. TV shows, movies, the internet…and other criminals.
    Thing is, millions of other people pick up the same information and do nothing evil with it.

    As most have pointed out above, telling a compelling story doesn’t require a how-to manual. But verisimilitude is part of story building and failing to provide it is failing the reader. Authors have a responsibility to their story, too.

    • I watched an episode of a police procedural where the bleach scrubbing was what implicated the murderer. I thought, whoops, they’re trying to amend the instructions 😉

    • Agree Felix. If the story demands that level of detail to make it more interesting for your readers, then do it, without forcing an info dump down their throats. To omit relevant parts of your story just in case a single unbalanced individual tries it out in real life does nothing to service your readers and fans.

  16. When information falls into the hands of crazies, all bets are off.

  17. Rather than inspire criminals, I prefer to think my thriller and horror novels inspire people to check their door is locked, or to not get in that strange car, or not take the short-cut down that alley.
    There’s a positive and much more likely consequence of the fear we can create.

  18. More from the moral than from the practical viewpoint, an author with indepth knowledge of things like weapons should take care not to write a how-to manual. He should not add to all the stuff already on the net and to the probability of suffering from more guilt on his conscience some day in the future.

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