Wild Inc: Ten Things Doc Savage Taught Me About Writing

I think all Doc Savage fans dream of becoming Kenneth Robeson some day. Or you can be like Jack Mackenzie and try to create a Pulp character with all the fun of Doc Savage but with a more modern sensibility. And he succeeds in his upcoming book, Wild Incorporated. The closest I ever got to the super-Pulp team is my stories of the Athenodorians in “The Case of the Phantom Legion”. Jack’s braver, far braver than I.

Anyway, sometimes it is the absence of something that helps you to see what is right about other kinds of writing. That’s where Doc comes in. If you want to learn about action, how to keep a story moving, pace and plotting, Lester Dent and the other men who were Kenneth Robeson can teach you a lot.

Here are some of the things Dent and the rest taught me to appreciate in other writers’ work:

  1. Characterization is more than a gimmick.

Characterization is a word that many writers and critics have tried to define, but unsuccessfully. Does a writer need to give a long psychological profile (ala Henry James) to see into a character? Do we have to follow them around like some kind of Maigret, taking them apart? Or does it just happen in the writer’s words and the character’s actions. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.

But what I do know is that giving your characters certain annoying habits that they use in every story is not characterization. For example, Doc’s trilling thinking noise, Johnny’s use of big words, Long Tom’s dour face, Ham and Monk’s constant battling, Renny’s habit of punching in doors. All of these are recognizable to any fan of Doc Savage. What do any of these tell us about the men who do them? They are just shorthand traits Dent used to differentiate the characters. They do not explore any deep thoughts or emotions? What would Doc think of the Nazi operations on Jews? How would Ham view lawyer jokes? What do any of them think about anything except what is expressed in Doc’s code? Not much. Despite the gimmicks the characters do not change, grow or in anyway do anything except spout platitudes.

  1. Villains need to be real.

The bad guys are always gangsters, madmen or just plain evil. Why? How did they become what they are? Why do they do what they do? The villains are even less real than the heroes (which is saying something). They wear black hats, do nasty things, use terrible weapons but usually with no real motive except greed. Now greed can be a powerful thing, but we don’t get any of the interplay between the crooks. There is a boss, dumb henchmen and a few evil killers. That’s it. In 182 novels. George Simenon digs deeper in one suspense novel of only 130 pages.

I prefer books where the villains are as well drawn as the good guys. The twisted Harkonens in Frank Herbert’s Dune are fun. (The David Lynch film version of the Harkonens was not much better than Lester Dent would have done.) Villains must be intelligent (and not easily beaten without great personal cost). Villains must have their own logic. Villains must be ruthless. They catch you. They kill you instantly, rather than devising some James Bondian laser weapon-thing. It’s not hard for Doc to beat the clowns he goes up against.

  1. Secret villains just aren’t secret.

Lester Dent loved to hide a secret villain inside Doc’s circle of acquaintances so at the right moment –the trap is sprung. Only Doc always knows who the mole is. But then again, so do we. This isn’t George Smiley’s network. The only people who couldn’t see it are that gang of pesky kids with the dog that pull the rubber mask of the bad guy’s head and cry, “It’s Mr. Dingwell, the principal!”

  1. Heroes are better than superheroes.

Doc Savage’s greatest weakness as a character is that he never fails. Yes, occasionally he will—for plot sake—get caught or stymied, but ultimately he wins. He is rarely ever truly challenged. He remains in control the whole time. What would happen if he lost that control? What if he wasn’t a superscience marvel raised by scientists? What would Joe-Smoe do? Well, that’s the premise of three extremely successful movies in the Die Hard franchise. Bruce Willis sold millions of tickets because he wasn’t a Rambo-superman. We want to see the hero struggle. We want to think we could be that guy. This also explains Peter Parker’s lasting popularity as Spiderman. He’s just a schmuck who happens to have radioactive spider blood. But he still doesn’t have a date for the prom. Failure is nice. It’s necessary. It builds the suspense in the story. Doc Savage, for all its action and bullets and super-wow-ness lacks true suspense.

  1. Too many accomplices clutter up the furniture.

Stories with many characters are not inherently poor. Some writers can tell long tales with multitudes of characters and keep them all straight in your mind (John Jakes and James Michener are two of the best). And without resorting to obvious props like “I’ll be superamalgated!” It just requires more care. But why does Doc have all those friends? He’s a better chemist than Monk. A better lawyer than Ham. A better engineer than Renny. A better – you get the idea. All the five aids do is give Doc opportunities to rescue them when villains try to kill them. They give Doc someone to talk to. Someone to go “Ohhh, he’s so mysterious and fantastic.”

As a writer you have a responsibility to all your characters. Each should contribute to the story. Each should be vital to the story in some way. (My favorite Doc adventures are the ones when he goes off with only two of his five friends. More elbow room, less annoying banter.) Each important character should be affected by the story. This has often been my gripe with series television such as Star Trek. How often do the characters actually become affected by the story? Rarely, and for the same reason Doc and his buddies don’t. You need them to be the same for the next go-round. Perhaps it’s too much to expect. Does Hercule Poirot change? Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, The Executioner, Tarzan? Not much. It’s a symptom of the medium.

  1. Strong description can be buried within the action.

Doc Savage novels are thin on description. I wouldn’t want them to be filled with Dickensian sidebars but often the background feels fake because of the thinness of the description. Lester Dent was writing for money. He wasn’t worried about how real the backdrop was. (But to be fair he often injected interesting little tidbits plucked from his own adventures in real life. Unfortunately he never has room to really use any of it to full effect.) Some of the better writers to rise from the Pulps were able to find ways to bury more description in a story without slowing things down too much. Science Fiction writers in particular had no choice for their worlds had to be described for their literature to work. Often I wonder if Dent had ever thought of writing SF? The experience might have helped him.

  1. Humanity is needed for horror.

The human side of description is building characters who draw you in and make you care. Doc Savage novels needed this desperately in the scenes of horror. Most of the super-sagas begin with a terrible experience of some poor sap killed by a deadly gas or fake monster. These scenes are not horrifying in the least because Dent’s characters are cardboard. We don’t care if they die. We only wish they had lived.

  1. Even a superhero has a penis.

Lester Dent could not mention sex. Monk could have a fondness for “gams” but that’s it. Doc might not have been born with one. Princess Monja can’t even get him off. And she’s hot.

Sexuality is a component of characterization. The pulps didn’t really allow it, even in so called “spicy” stories. But the lack of sex makes the Super-sagas ring with adolescent purity. Edgar Rice Burroughs is as bad. Most writers before Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Philip Jose Farmer have the same problem.

  1. You have to have something to say.

I’m not saying Lester Dent and his ghosts didn’t say things. They said greed is bad. They said be good, law-abiding citizens. They said Science will save us. They even said we all have to stick together. But over and beyond the obvious, what did they say? Nothing. Or was there more? You decide. Either way, I learned that a writer has to have subjects to explore. (You don’t have to climb on a soapbox and give an oath like Doc might.) What are you saying? And what do you think about that?

  1. You gotta have fun!

What’s the point of writing about things you don’t enjoy? Take this article for instance. I enjoy placing my thoughts out in a logical way so that my meaning can be clearer. In another way, I enjoy writing adventure stories akin to those of Lester Dent and other pulp writers. I don’t copy them meticulously, preserving all the out-dated thinking or styles. We are related in spirit, seeking to tell stories that will excite our readers and make them turn that page. I only hope I can give as much genuine entertainment as Doc Savage did in his day.

I started by saying I’m not slamming anyone here. I respect Lester Dent as a man making a living. I think Doc Savage is fun. What I am not willing to do – and some are—is say that Doc Savage or any pulp character for that matter is the pinnacle of the art. Pulp fiction was quick, entertaining and ephemeral and to expect it to transcend its limitations is foolish. You have to know what you want when you read. You have to know what you want when you write. I want Doc Savage excitement – and a little more.