I love to read the book prior to seeing the movie it’s based on. I’m sorry to say this did not happen with Silence of the Lambs. The movie is powerful and I’ve probably enjoyed it at least a dozen times. The Oscar winning performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are so rich I could never bring myself to crack the spine to discover what they may have missed.

But curiosity won and I finally broke the self-imposed ban and removed the book from my To Be Read pile. Two weeks later I wished I’d never seen the movie. Not because the film was a poor adaptation—Harris’s world was recreated with great accuracy—but because I knew too much. Knowing how the events would play out removed a layer of suspense that was beautifully executed by Harris.

Fortunately, in the end my prior knowledge wasn’t a factor in my overall enjoyment of the novel because Silence is a must read for writers and actors. And the why has everything to do with how well Hannibal Lecter is portrayed.

Sure, we know Lecter is called Hannibal the Cannibal and he’s committed nine murders that the FBI know about, but it isn’t until he escapes 2/3 of the way through the book that we actually see who he is and what he’s capable of. By then we already have our emotional hooks into him. Although we know he belongs in maximum security, we secretly root for him to get the view he desires because we understand him as a human being, not a monster. And the fact that he cares about Starling, our hero, makes it hard to push him out of our hearts—even after we witness his savage side.

Harris also ensures our connection with Lecter by not revealing all. We don’t know how his killing nature developed or why he can’t or doesn’t care to stop. Yet, his admiration for Starling makes us hope—maybe even believe—he possesses the ability to be reformed even if the odds are against him.

We are drawn to Lecter because he is a human mystery.

Discovering the quirks and ticks of a character is essential if we want to build believable characters but, like backstory sometimes we need to let go of what we have worked so hard to uncover. By allowing the wealth of information to vibrate beneath the surface of the words we can dazzle readers and keep our writing fresh.

Click to explore the mystery of Hannibal Lecter.