In 2005, the FBI established a new definition of serial murder: “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”
By that definition, I’m a serial killer many times over. And I’m the worst kind, because those who I kill, I first created.
Let me explain...
I was pleased and honored to be invited as a guest blogger on Mayhem and Magic this month—thanks, ladies! Terri and Pamela asked for blogs on the topic of “Chilling Plots” or “How Murder Affects Your Plots.”
I’ve been told that plotting is one of my main strengths as a writer. I approach it in different ways—recently I experimented with a big three-part display board and Post-it Notes of different colors, which resulted in a large colorful board; whether or not it will result in a good book is yet to be determined.
What I am is an inveterate outliner. I have written novels without an outline, and I’ve written forty-some with an outline, and I find that for me, with works much better. Having a solid outline is, to me like traveling with a good road map. If I want to explore this or that country lane, I can, but at least I’ll do so knowing where I’m headed and where I’m supposed to end up. I like plots that contain some surprises and supply real, honest motivations for my characters. What I never want to do is have smart characters who act in stupid ways because that’s required for the story to move in the right direction, and plotting carefully before I start actually writing helps me avoid that.
So with that said...let’s talk about murder.
Before the end of this year, I will have had 45 novels published, and dozens upon dozens of comic books and graphic novels. In each of those novels, I’m pretty sure, someone dies through the intentional act of another person.
Sometimes that’s obvious—for instance, in the three novels I’ve written based on the TV shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami. Those shows, and therefore the attendant tie-in novels, are largely about murder, and how science is used to bring down the murderer. Sometimes it’s less obvious—I’ve written a goodly number of horror novels and supernatural thrillers; in many of those, something other than humans kills people, but in most of them, like the supernatural thrillers Missing White Girl, River Runs Red, and Cold Black Hearts, the most heinous murders are those committed by people, not by inhuman monsters.
My most recent novel is actually somewhat of an experiment—after being published for all these years by Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins and other big mainstream houses, I decided to see what people were talking about with this whole e-book business, and I self-published a supernatural thriller for teens (and older) called Carnival Summer. Like my previous work for teens, the horror quartet Witch Season, Carnival Summer involves (surprise!) murder. In this case, the murder of protagonist Melissa Avery’s twin sister Gwen is the event that kicks off the story of Melissa’s summer with a carnival, and the monsters (again, often less monstrous than some of the flesh-and-blood human beings). Carnival Summer is available just about anywhere that e-books are sold, including smashwords, Scribd, and Amazon.
Now, does writing frequently—one might even say obsessively—about murder make me some sort of deranged sicko? Well, okay, that’s not for me to say. But I’d like to think not. Story is about conflict, and what greater source of conflict is there than the ultimate crime? People can damage one another in horrible ways, but healing is possible, recovery is not out of the question—except in the case of murder. Then all options are taken away, all hope of moving beyond the hurt have been stolen. And murder is not only a crime against the murder victim, but against that person’s family, friends, neighbors, community—against all of society really, since no single individual should get to decide who will or will not be a part of the human family.
So for the most part, murder not only affects my plots, but is central to them. The scariest villain is the one who kills, the most urgent chase is one undertaken in order to prevent murder. If there’s no greater conflict than the struggle against murder, there’s also no greater impetus to get pages turning.
It should go without saying—but it almost never does—that the victims of murder in fiction should be trivialized, random bodies thrown in for the purposes of moving a story. Murder victims must first and foremost be characters, someone the reader cares about even if only for a few pages before the murder happens (and, ideally, someone about whom the reader continues to learn and to care afterward). To really want the killer caught, we have to feel bad about those the killer has victimized.
In a terrible way, then, as an author I’m the worst serial killer of all, creating people, plotting their deaths, and striking them down at will (and getting paid for it!). But never just to do it, never just to see them suffer; instead, these murders serve the purpose of allowing my protagonists to grow, find courage and mental and emotional resources, and triumph. These killings allow other characters to find redemption and meaning in a cold, hard, uncertain world. In that way, they’re never in vain.
And if you’re going to have murders, that’s probably the best thing that can be said for them.