Getting Away with Murder

Okay, don’t freak out. This is still a writing blog. Remember how I mentioned that one thing writers have to deal with is the fact that their search histories could belong to cold-blooded killers? Guilty. Well, not guilty. You know what I mean.

Even before I started writing a crime novel, my writing tended to lean towards mystery and suspense.  My short stories usually started or ended with a character death, so I often found myself reading about everything from poisonous plants to the most popular murder weapons throughout history. Of course, reading isn’t the only way to gather information, especially with the variety of movies and TV shows that could provide the same knowledge, albeit a bit more graphically.

Confession: I’m not really a big TV watcher by today’s standards. If you know me, you know that I don’t even have a Netflix account, and you’ve probably bugged me about getting one.  Until recently, I hadn’t even watched a crime show more recent than Get Smart (the originals) or Columbo. But even so, I was able to write relatively realistic death scenes into my work. How? It’s more about character development than knowing all the gory details, although those can definitely help.

Since I’ve finished adding that whole new section to the beginning of my novel, the next order of business is dealing with two major scenes that lead to the death of one of the protagonists, B.  By the time this happens, currently around page three hundred and seventy, the novel already had a bit of a body count.  So how can writers make the death of a major character, especially a villain, stand out and really impact the reader?

A few years ago, I portrayed a classic villain onstage in a production that included a dramatic death scene.  I remember one of the first notes my director gave me once we were running the show and putting the finishing touches on character work was that she felt sad when I got killed off, and that the audience shouldn’t feel sad when the villain dies. They should feel relieved.

But that was a pretty straightforward story, and I was a pretty straightforward, blood-sucking, murderous villain. The kind of villain that, yes, the audience should be relieved when they’re gone and the beautiful, ethereal heroine is saved from a dark fate.

Yet the plot of my novel is anything but straightforward, especially regarding each character’s more villainous side. Especially considering the new chapter I added to the beginning of the book, the line between protagonist and antagonist is thin and blurry.  B’s death should be tragic, not cathartic. Her death doesn’t signify the end of anything, as if often the case when a villain is killed off.  In fact, it opens up a whole new can of conflict.  Without giving too much away, here are three things I’ve been trying to remind myself of while writing B’s death scene.

  1. A villain’s death is more tragic if it has a tinge of irony to it: let their own powers consume them.
  2. Try and avoid blatant clichés, unless the plot of your novel really requires someone to hit their foe over the head with a candlestick in the library, Clue style.
  3. If the killer is supposed to be viewed as a sort of hero, don’t let them ride off into the sunset. Make them stay within the conflict created by the death and deal with the consequences, whether they be moral or legal.

Until the next chapter…


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