Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter in the TV series

 

When looking for advice, writers shouldn’t be picky; sometimes even a fictional cannibal will serve.

When NBC aired a series about Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist who moonlights as a serial killer — or maybe it’s the other way around — it grew into a cult hit. Fervent fans known as Fannibals flocked to conventions; the program’s food stylist wrote a cookbook featuring recipes for chef’s cheeks au poivre and Bedelia’s bellybuttons.

The show is lavish, gruesome in both palate and palette and not always kind to journalists. (Viewers can hardly blame Hannibal if he wants to sink his teeth into Freddie Lounds, the fire-haired, cheerfully acidic tabloid reporter.)

So I was surprised when a first-season episode written by Jesse Alexander and Bryan Fuller featured a useful reminder for writers.

Late in the episode “Sorbet,” the title character (made famous by Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in “The Silence of the Lambs” and played with icy charm here by Mads Mikkelsen) says he’s careful with words.

He explains: “Words are living things. They have personality, point of view, agenda.”

When you work with words, it’s easy to grow numb to the subtle associations and outright power they carry. Some smuggle loaded pasts; others require particular care.

Roy Peter Clark — not a fictional character on NBC, but a very real author and writing coach — writes of the power of individual words in his 2011 book “The Glamour of Grammar.” He notes how the word “cathedral” carries its own grandeur; how words’ meaning can change over time, ready to snare unsuspecting writers; how even individual letters provide their own rhythm and friction.

“If you love words, no word is insignificant,” he writes. “No part of a word can be changed without some impact, even if it’s just a brief recognition of an alternate spelling.”

In her 2013 book “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” author Maria Konnikova cites a study that showed tests subjects’ views of people they hadn’t met changed drastically when merely one word in a list of seven adjectives (intelligent, cautious, etc.) was altered.

She wrote: “That’s the difference a single word can make.”

So take Hannibal’s advice: Consider one’s words carefully. To do otherwise would be unspeakably rude.

Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career. In his spare time, he writes poetry and short fiction.

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