Crime fiction writers would make bad criminals

There’s always that running joke laying in wait whenever anyone finds out I write murder mysteries. “Oh, I better not get you mad. You’d know how to kill me and get away with it.”

I guess from another person’s perspective, that would seem completely logical. I do in fact research how to kill a person on a fairly regular basis. I’ve learned lots of things along the way, like how many poisons and hallucinogens can be made from garden variety plants (pun totally intended). I’ve come across lots of ways to get rid of bodies, as well as great places to hide in the rural enclaves of the vast and varied state of Wisconsin (and eastern South Dakota apparently works too).

But here’s the thing. In order for a writer to be at all good at his or her job, they need to cultivate one very important human trait…empathy.

Good characterization requires a writer to imagine how the world works from the perspective of others. A writer not only has to get into the heads of the criminals, but also the heads of the victims. Even if writing from a first person perspective, the characters need to have their feelings, their values, their dreams, their nightmares conveyed to the reader in a convincing matter. That requires empathy.

Maliciously harming a person requires, in my opinion, the opposite…apathy. There has to be a removal of feeling from the situation to take the life of another human being, even if only for a moment. Feelings are shut down in order to devalue a human life to the point where a person is capable of removing someone from existence. Intentional homicide is cold in every sense of the word, precisely for this reason.

Writers are generally sensitive people, sometimes too sensitive. Just like other artists, writers write to get all those feelings out in a safe way. I write about things that scare me because I can explore scary topics in a universe where I’m in charge. But it would never occur to me to intentionally hurt or rob or defraud someone in real life, simply because I would not want those things done to me.

So, maybe the more accurate running joke should be, “Oh, I better not make you mad. I’ll end up as a corpse in your next book.”

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