Most of the murders we hear about in real life of pretty straight forward. There are the crazy bastards on a mission who shoot complete strangers with a gun. There is gang violence, again usually with guns. There are school shootings by unstable, disenfranchised, young men (for now), again with guns. Jees, we got a lot of gun violence in this country. Go figure. Then there’s the more intimate domestic violence that escalates from assault to murder, usually with whatever lethal weapon is handy, sometimes just a fist. All of these scenarios are very tragic and regrettable. But there’s no mystery.
Which is why you rarely read about them in mystery novels. In mystery novels if there’s a mass shooting, the assailant is an elusive sniper. If there is gang violence, there’s some underlying criminal motive that needs to be uncovered. School shooting? Well, that’s just a distraction from something more sinister going on within the school. Domestic violence will have an air of vigilantism. See where I’m going with this?
First and foremost, in a mystery novel murders have to have a point to them. They have to have an underlying theme of justification in order to maintain the audience’s attention and get them to go on the journey of suspense and exploration with the characters. The killings can seem senseless at first, but they can stay that way. There has to be a reason.
And for that journey to last tens of thousands of words, the murder will be twisted. There will be lots of background information to uncover, secret relationships, unlikely alliances, dramatic pasts that resurface with irreparable consequences. It’s all meant to keep the characters and the audience constantly guessing and second guessing who actually did the deed and, most importantly, why.
Except in the case of True Crime (a very good, but completely different genre), mystery novels are fiction. They are made up, dramatic literature. Mystery novels are meant to entertain an audience and allow them to escape the real world, where often violence occurs for its own sake and often makes no sense. As I mystery writer, I say “Welcome.”
noun: character; plural noun: characters
As I writer I would say both these definitions are intertwined. That’s why we hear that a movie or book is “character driven” versus “action driven.” An action driven drama still has characters. The label is supposed to point out that the action of the piece is emphasized more than the mental and moral distinctions of the individuals (who are still characters, per definition number 2. Confused yet?)
But I digress. This post isn’t really about the use of characters in writing. I categorized it under “neurotic griping” for a reason. This post is my commentary on the way our culture determines character. At the moment I’m not impressed.
This started with a post from a friend on Facebook, lamenting about how disappointed he was with the lack of charity presented by truly wealthy people, such as celebrities and athletes who get free perks and gifts all the time. The problem with this premise is the assumption that a person’s character is intertwined with their occupation. As the definition above points out rather efficiently, it doesn’t.
And there in lies our societal problem. We are placing value on a person based on their occupation rather than their character. One has nothing to do with the other. You can have a factory worker who volunteers at the local hospital, and a renowned heart surgeon who beats on his/her kids. You can have a school teacher that deals drugs and a movie actor that has been faithful to his/her spouse for decades. You can have an ex-con that raises vegetables for his/her community’s food shelf and a minister that embezzles money from his/her parish. I think you get it.
In my opinion we need to return to the true definition of character and hone our judgements accordingly. These over-reaching, generalizations of “poor people entitled – rich people successful” or “rich people spoiled – poor people noble” needs to go away because they are simply wrong. Human beings should be judged on their actions, on their treatment of others, not on their title or their income. period.