Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guest Blogger - CS Challinor

Your Victim and Why They Had to Die

Well, someone has to die in a murder mystery. Since the blog is about “my” victim/s, I shall give a personalized overview of the topic as regards my bumped-off characters and the motivation behind their deaths, without giving too much away, otherwise the “who” and “why,” key elements in a mystery, will be revealed...and you will have less motivation to read my novels, right? I will address my comments to both writers and readers.
Everyone who writes fiction knows that before the first word is written, it behooves the storyteller to know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the story. For the purposes of this topic, let us concern ourselves with the who (here, the victim, not the perpetrator) and the why (motivation). A word about victims: In many cases, “victim” isn’t an apt description for the deceased, who might be the villain.
My victims have run the gamut from young to old, weak to strong. Sometimes a sympathy angle serves to engage the reader. The first victim in my Rex Graves series (Christmas is Murder) is a decorated, one-armed veteran of WWII. Who would possibly want to murder a poor crippled old man (the reader is supposed to ask)? I’ve also poisoned, bludgeoned, fatally drugged, hanged, or otherwise disposed of a literary agent (ha!), nosy-parker, New York lawyer, frat boy, vicar, and bride. No one is safe.
A word now about motive. Having a character kill someone for a trivial reason is not likely to satisfy the reader. “Oh, she poisoned the chairwoman of the village committee so she could take over that coveted position.” OK, that might work, but you would have to give the murderer a petty (and twisted) personality and a history of snubs by committee members to make it half way believable. Not that ambition is not a motivating reason for eliminating the fictional person standing in the way, just that the stakes have to be commensurately high. In real life, the reward for committing a crime must be worth the risk of detection and conviction.
Although the “why” may not be the primary consideration when first plotting your novel, a really good motive can inform many important aspects of the book. What type of character would go to those lengths? How would they achieve their ends? Who is the unlucky victim? When would opportunity present itself? Etc.
To make a novel stand out, it helps if you can come up with at least one truly unique element, be that murder method or setting, and let’s face it, most of the material worth using has been utilized already. The best that may be left to do is try to improve on old models and to present a logical, credible and suspenseful story with whatever novelty you can incorporate into it to make it fresh and compelling. I try to instill drama into my novels. Drama is emotion-driven. Think Oedipus Rex, who blinds himself when he realizes he has committed incest with his mother. This is primal, epic, horrendous, the sort of thing that will shock and rivet the audience. You don’t need to go to the lengths of Greek tragedy to grip your reader, but emotion will help.
If the motive is big enough, you may get the reader to sympathize with the murderer. Usually, greed won’t do it. But what about avenging someone’s death? Possibly. What about killing someone before they can strike again? Perhaps it’s a case of self-defense or to save another life, and the cops have been delayed by external factors, such as a collapsed bridge or a snowstorm. Probably.
The main reasons for murder revolve around greed, jealousy, vengeance, or the need to preserve a secret (that once revealed would bring about the downfall of the killer). This last motivation is pretty cowardly, but people will go to any lengths to preserve their freedom or even their self-image. For example, a revered priest might be induced to break the fifth (Catholic) commandment if an ex-choir boy threatens to tell the whole congregation that Father John is a frocked pedophile who molested him in the confessional.
Motives I have used: revenge, greed, ambition, loyalty to another person, fear of being exposed for a previous crime, preservation of family. From my own standpoint, I prefer rational motivation than murders committed by completely deranged individuals. I am almost more interested in the why (people do things) than the what (happens).
If you write or read hard-boiled mystery, the victims may well cover a broader social spectrum, and the methods for murdering them will oftentimes be more gruesome or at least more graphic, while the motivation is typically less of a factor. The psychology behind murdering someone has more import in a cozy, which concentrates on the puzzle aspect inherent in such novels (think of a maze with a series of paths but only one exit). Harder boiled mysteries tend to be more concerned with the chase (linear) and plunging through obstacles (action) rather than thinking around them. Yet, whatever the category of murder mystery, someone must die, and the book will be less satisfying if the reason behind it is somewhat arbitrary and not fully explained.
Thanks to Pamela and Terri for inviting me to blog on this fascinating topic.
C.S. Challinor writes the Rex Graves (cozy) mystery series, published by Midnight Ink Books. The third in the series, Phi Beta Murder, came out at the beginning of March. Murder on the Moor is due for release March 2011. Find out more at


  1. It is true that it is less satisfying if the motive is shallow or confusing. A book I recently read (not naming it) has those issues for me. And the more you "get" it, the more fulfilling it seems


  2. It's true someone must die and I like how you explained your victims without giving anything away before your book is read.



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