Now that my debut novel The Sorrow is out there and able to be read by anyone, and has gotten its first ever official review (thanks for making my day with a wonderful write-up, The Geeky Scribe!), I thought it would be great to talk about what inspired the book.
Any artist needs inspiration. It’s like fuel to a car. Sure being able to actually write is great, but for me the talent goes to waste if you can’t turn ideas or concepts into story. If you can’t weave feeling into a tale. If you can’t see beauty and potential in something others would not think about. Inspiration doesn’t just drive you to write or paint or play, it drives you to actually create.
My first novel had many key inspirations. I consider myself to be quite open and honest, and I have freely admitted in the past and previous posts on this blog that for The Sorrow I did not feel I was able to do something completely new or genre-defining in any way, and thus I opted to take a familiar premise and try to do something fresh and compelling with it. To spin clichés and tropes in ways that can intrigue the reader. It’s my first book after all.
Only readers can tell me whether I actually achieved any of that, but the primary inspiration for the premise was one of my favourite stories out there. It’s a video game from a decade ago. A game called Max Payne, by Remedy Entertainment.
Max Payne is about a cop living an idyllic life style – the American Dream – but all that comes to an end when a group of jacked-up crazies break into his house and murder his wife and infant daughter. This sets him on a path for revenge. Now it’s only that barebones concept that I wrapped my book in, as apart from that there’s very little story-wise that is the same.
However, where Max Payne inspired me the most was its setting. The noir, gritty and depressing world of Max Payne crossed with Gotham City from Batman is what I was going for. A city in depression. In Max Payne it’s always raining, dark or cold – especially since the game takes place in the middle of an oncoming blizzard. During each of the stylistic comic book cutscenes, there is a sad melody playing that just drives home its themes, and dialogue littered with cynicism, black humour, bitterness and a harsh edge. It’s truly captivating to experience, and the setting is one of the best that I’ve seen portrayed in a video game.
One of the major selling points of the game was the protagonist, Max Payne himself, who goes from hopeful and content to cynical, cold and morally grey after the murder of his family. At the end of the day, however, it was a video game from a decade ago and thus it was more black and white and simplistic, but it certainly did a magnificent job of capturing a haunted protagonist – especially during those eerie and memorable nightmare sequences.
For The Sorrow, the psychology of the protagonist was one of the vital aspects of the entire book for me. I’ve always viewed psychology as one of the most important studies in the world, and still today doing a year of it in my first year of campus I consider it the best course I’ve done. I miss it, but sadly I was only required to do a year of it as my Business Science degree is, well, more business inclined with Organisational Psychology as the major. Sorry, I strayed a bit.
You may think of me as crazy, but I spent hours and hours going over every scene and picturing myself in those moments of grief and anger and trying to imagine how I’d be thinking – what I’d want to do. I used to shut myself in my room in the dead hours of the night, far past midnight, and just picture being alone and devastated by loss. Over and over again, I used to run through my head the ugly thoughts a person would allow themselves to think if everything they had ever loved was taken away from them. I’m certain if you read my book, you’d see the extent to which I emphasised the psychological aspect. That’s not to say I pulled it off well – again, only you can judge that – but I can safely say that there is a great deal of focus on it.
But of course Max Payne wasn’t the only inspiration, as much as I reference it.
Perhaps one of the biggest ones – right down to my very inspiration as a writer – came from one of my favourite TV series, Breaking Bad, by Vince Gilligan. What truly fascinated me and inspired me about the show were two things, which I’ll explain in-depth.
The first was the meticulousness of the plot. Everything, and I mean everything, had a purpose. Down to the smallest detail. Almost nothing was introduced into the story without actually counting for something. There was a reason and a plot thread for virtually every little thing. Nothing was forgotten or left unexplored. I resonated with this for The Sorrow, and I too wanted to write a complete story. I wanted to write one in which I did nothing without a purpose. Events that happened in the first few chapters still carry weight three quarters into the book. Characters who featured don’t just disappear off the face of the earth without getting a conclusion at same point. I think to an extent I became rather OCD about my story in that way.
The second inspiration for me was Breaking Bad’s sense of “magical realism”. If you think about it, Breaking Bad’s plot is extremely grand. At times it’s damn near hard to believe what happens in there. It’s eccentric with some of its villains and plot devices. It’s downright crazy at times. But it’s all believable. This isn’t just because the story focused dramatically on being authentic and far more realistic than your average blockbuster movie, but rather because of the way it was presented to the audience. It all feels real. Partly thanks to the realism, but also partly thanks to the steady, meticulous build-ups with great pay off and the obsessive attention to detail.
My last major inspiration was Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I hail it as the greatest comic book I’ve read barring Watchmen and The Walking Dead. I’m also a great lover of the first run of Ultimate Spider-Man. But The Dark Knight Returns is the darkest and most authentic character study of Batman for me. Set ten years after his retirement, Bruce is unable to find peace as he’s haunted by the urge to return as The Dark Knight and the depressing and decrepit state Gotham City has sunk to. The Dark Knight Returns explores a hero going so deep into his pain that death becomes a wish – a release – and the power as The Batman becomes an elixir of life almost. It makes Bruce feel alive, as much as hurting criminals gives him joy.
That was pivotal for me in The Sorrow. If you’re trampled on, or if everything you’ve done to fight against crime has counted for nothing in the end, and the bad guys are always winning – you’re going to be bitter. And once you start feeling what it’s like to have power – you may find yourself enjoying it. These became critical themes in The Sorrow, and one of the biggest inspirations for me was The Dark Knight Return’s double-sided coin about life. I’ve said that it focuses on Batman having a death wish – to go out in glory, with his real face on – but the book also prominently focuses on the awakening from a slumber, and the rediscovery of a reason to live.
Is there really always a way back? Or is there a point of no return?
That’s up to any individual to think on, but in The Sorrow I give my interpretation of it and my personal answer to it. You can see it all unfold in the book of course.
In closure Max Payne, Breaking Bad and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are the three pivotal sources of inspiration for my debut crime thriller, The Sorrow. There are a few other materials that are worthy of a mention, however, and I’ll go over them briefly.
The first is the movie The Prestige – one of my favourites – by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. I felt this movie was a stunning exploration of obsession and self-destruction, and it too played a significant role in driving my desire to write about that theme and capture it. Another video game that served as some light inspiration was Quantic Dream’s incredible PS3 psychological thriller, Heavy Rain, which explored the central theme of how far a person would go to save someone they loved. Finally, I have to reference the horror (yes, horror, believe it or not) video game Outlast from Red Barrels Games, as it served as key inspiration for Chapter 16 of my novel, labelled “A House Of Pigs.” I liked that one.
In the end, I hope this proved interesting to read and gave you some good insight into the thought process behind my first novel. In due time – which is to say somewhere in March – I will unveil my second novel and what it will be about. For now, I just want others to enjoy The Sorrow.