Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Characters Kill

A lot of real people kill for really stupid reasons. I mean, Darwin Awards dumb. The only way you get away with that in fiction is to make it so funny that the stupidity feeds the humor and makes it all worthwhile. In real life it's never worthwhile.

Serial killer books and many thrillers make use of antagonists who are raving lunatics. This works because the reader knows from the beginning that the bad guy is nuts. After all, if you pick up a book that has the words "serial killer" on the back cover, you know he (or she, though rarely) is crazy. Unpredictable. Scary. Few aren't certifiable. This is why Jeff Lindsay, the creator of Dexter, is a genius. His serial killer is his protagonist. He's broken, he knows he's broken, and he deals with it in a way we almost approve of. Plus, we can relate. Being broken in some way, however small, and having to deal with it is a universal experience.

Other motivators for fictional killers:

Self-defense is a good one, and can apply to either the protagonist or the antagonist. It's understandable, even in a character we loathe. Still, the protagonist deserves a strong opponent, and one who kills out of self-defense is off the hook legally. So this one usually needs a plot or character twist to make a truly interesting story.

Protection of another is even better in the sympathy/empathy department. What mother couldn't relate to a fictional mother protecting her child at any cost? (Well, there are some, but I wouldn't want to have them over for dinner.)

Those are almost laudable reasons to kill unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. I wonder how many murder mystery readers are pacifists? Probably more than expected.

A few more:

Greed. For money, but could be for anything the character really wants. This covers envy, too.

Fear. This one is HUGE. Look at all the killing it's caused in real life in the name of defense. Cripes, don't get me started. But on a smaller scale we could be talking about anything from murdering a blackmailer to shooting a stranger cutting through the backyard.

Love. Either killing someone because it would benefit the loved one (in a way that falls beyond the scope of protection of another, mentioned above) or love-turned-to-hate, which gets kind of close to the whole being crazy thing. Jealousy would probably fall under this category, too.

Addiction. People do some scary -- and sad -- stuff because of addiction. Characters can, too.

As a profession. Mercenaries, hit men, etc. fit in here.

Anger. Revenge. Crimes of passion. Religious beliefs. Most of these are somewhat related to the motives above, except perhaps the last one. But I know there must be a ton of other motivations for our characters to kill. Any favorites? Can you think of any unusual ones you've either written or encountered in others' books?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great points, Cricket! And when we're writing a mystery, we want the motive to *make sense* so the reader will find it believable. I'm tweeting this...

Mystery Writing is Murder

G.M. Malliet said...

Dexter. Such a great creation. Especially in the early episodes, when he was trying to figure out and copy what a normal person's reaction would be to a situation. I swear I have met people like that.

Keith Raffel said...

By accident. "Didn't mean to." But then comes the cover-up.

Beth Groundwater said...

I would add Pride. As the saying goes, "Pride goeth before a fall," but it can also go before a killing. The victim may have humiliated the killer to such an extent that the killer strikes out, trying to protect his or her own shattered ego.

Alan Orloff said...

All great reasons :)

Maybe road rage deserves its own special category.

Cricket McRae said...

You're right, Elizabeth -- if the motives of the characters don't make sense to the reader the book might just take a flying trip across the room.

Gin, I've known people like that, too! Let's hope they're not all serial killers...

Keith and Beth, good additions to the list. I think I'll also add "for food," in the case of vampires, et al. And Hannibal Lecter, of course. ; - >

Alan, is there something we should know about your driving habits?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Right now, I'd kill for a good cheese burger.

Cricket McRae said...

Lol, Sue Ann. Perhaps I've over complicated the issue.

Mike Dennis said...

Some people kill for the attainment of power.

Cricket McRae said...

Mike, I guess I was thinking of the desire for power as greed. It's certainly a different kind of greed, though -- may need its own category.

Sheila Deeth said...

Fascinating... Thanks.