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L. C. North: Why we’re drawn to themes of power and control in fiction

L. C. North: Why we’re drawn to themes of power and control in fiction

“I can’t live without you. I won’t let you live without me.”

Martin from Sleeping With The Enemy (1991 thriller starring Julia Roberts)

I can still remember the fear I felt watching the now classic film starring a young and beautiful Julia Roberts as she tried to flee from her controlling and abusive husband (based on the 1987 novel by Nancy Price). The icy shiver that traced down my spine when Julia Roberts’ character found the cans in her cupboard stacked too neatly; the towels just so on the rail. And I’ll certainly never forget the way my hands shook as I turned the pages of Stephen King’s Misery, barely breathing as a story of adoration and devotion unfurled into something much darker. These stories are so different in many ways, but they have something in common – the power and control one person has over another.

Despite my fears, I’m drawn to these themes. I seek them out. I write about them. I devour novels that revolve around them. And based on a quick scroll through the Amazon charts, I’m not the only one. The question is, why? Why do we love to immerse ourselves in stories of power and control? What has made these themes transcend passing fads and tropes to become something timeless and alluring? Because it’s more than the fear factor – the joy of being scared. I do love that heart in your mouth, can’t turn the pages quick enough, feeling of watching or reading the kinds of stories where you’re never quite sure how far one person will go until they’re wielding the sledgehammer, like Annie did in Misery. But if this was all I was drawn to then I, along with my fellow readers, would be browsing the horror section in bookshops. Perhaps even writing my own knife wielding serial killer stories. But I’m not, and there’s a good reason for that…

Themes of power and control across every genre of fiction resonate with readers. After all, power and control is something we all understand from a very young age. It’s part of the human condition that every social structure in every country develops a hierarchy. And that hierarchy means that those at the top have power and those at the bottom don’t.  With that power comes a desire to control those below them. Whether it’s office politics, school gates, friendship groups, families, or the wider political structure, we all understand and many of us even covet power and control over others. At their core, these themes explore dominance, manipulation, ambition, and the struggle for authority. They also tap into a universal and very real fear of oppression, alongside a desire to find a balance in power that rarely exists in the real world or in fiction.

And so while these themes are easy to relate to, they also contain vast depths that mean they’ll continue to captivate readers for generations to come. What has changed, however, is how we see these themes brought to life in characters and stories, and how they’re used to create moral dilemmas that reflect and question our current and everchanging social norms.

When I wrote Clickbait, I wanted to explore not only how power is perceived by the media and the wider world, but also how easy it is to lose that power. In Clickbait, a fame hungry mother controls every aspect of her children’s lives under the guise of a ‘momanager’ as they live their lives through the lens of a reality tv show.

It’s my job to make sure I’m getting the best out of all my children. What kind of parent isn’t motivated to want the best for their kids and isn’t prepared to take those extra steps?”

I had so much fun writing about a family fixated with fame and power. I also had a lot of fun shifting that power balance when a leaked video shows the family had been lying about the whereabouts of a missing teenager for twenty years.

The world around us is constantly and rapidly changing. You only have to look at the number of Prime Ministers the UK have had in the last five years (four!) to see how quickly power and control can shift in our modern world. It’s the transient aspect of these themes that we’re seeing more of in fiction. It’s not just who has power and who doesn’t any more. It’s not one person against another. It’s the perception of power versus the reality of it, and it’s how quickly everything can change when perceptions shift; how quickly one character’s power can be lost and another gained.

I hope readers enjoy my modern twist on these themes in the fictional reality tv family I’ve created in Clickbait.

Clickbait by L. C. North is published on 11 April (Bantam, £16.99)

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