A few years ago I attended the renowned Boucheron convention, a fan-based convention for mystery and crime fiction. UK comedian-turned-crime fiction-novelist Mark Billingham was one of the many panelists that I listened to that day, but he said something that stuck with me when the words of many other bright lights at the conference faded away. Something I’d never heard a mystery or crime fiction author talk about before.
He said, in essence, that you need to care about the victim. His own novels (Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, among others) deal with serial murders and horrific crimes. Nothing new there. But he gave a convincing appeal to the readers and many would-be authors in the audience to think about the victim as a character, a real person–even if it’s a nameless body that kicks off Chapter One, whose only purpose is to introduce us to the protagonist.
The Moral Compass
Mark’s idea resonated with me. At times, I question what the hell I’m doing, cheerfully writing about the greatest tragedy that might befall someone and their family. There are moments when I wonder what it says about us and our state of culture that we have a fascination with murder, and the more gruesome, the better. The sheer volume of fictional deaths is a little stunning; I’ve wondered sometimes if the make-believe body count outdoes the real one.
But giving time to the victim helps salve a little bit of that guilt, humanizes what is sometimes a callous disregard. The unfortunate truth is that people are killed and writing about them an acceptable form of entertainment. If we can use our platform to insert a note of empathy in our work, then I think we should.
Kate Atkinson takes this to amazing lengths in her novel Case Histories, delving into the complex lives of the victims as a way of exploring the present of both the survivors and the protagonist, Jackson Brodie. The novel simply wouldn’t exist as written without this deep investigation into and subsequent portrayal of her victims.
Cold and Calculating
From a purely technical standpoint, treating your victims as characters can also add a dimension of verisimilitude to your story, even if they really are just the first nameless body on the floor. I think of this passage from Hemingway’s Moveable Feast:
“[I had a] new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted [it] and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
I think Hemingway’s theory is especially applicable when it comes to “victim as character”. Nameless or not, the body you introduce to get a mystery rolling came from somewhere. Devote a little bit of time to “it” as a person and you may find plot lines, narrative avenues, and characterizations opening up that would’ve been unavailable to you before.
In working on the third novel of my upcoming medium-boiled detective series, Signs, I explored this idea further than in any other work I’d tried. The benefits were surprising–a richer back story, deeper characterization of secondary characters. More importantly, I felt a sense of satisfaction and agreement with myself in giving “face time” to my victim. I wouldn’t call it forgiveness, exactly–that would be creepy, coming from a fictitious character I’d invented, after all–but it wouldn’t be far off.