Friday, October 7, 2011

Who Did You Kill Today?

This question is for mystery writers, so I sincerely apologize if the title of this post misled you in any way. On the other hand, even if you're not a mystery writer but like to read the genre, you might be interested in this topic.

Here's the thing. I've been wondering how other mystery/suspense/thriller writers choose the victims of the crimes in their novels.

Do you have a real person in mind when you knock off a character, like the the young man who bagged your groceries and smashed the bread under a bunch of bananas? Or the retail clerk who was so busy chatting with another clerk that she pretended you weren't standing there with a question?

I've never pictured a real person as the victim in my stories, but one of my old high school chums felt I was a little tough on old boyfriends in The Prairie Grass Murders, implying I had real life boyfriends in mind. Not true. Really.

Or do your victims come from your imagination and have no resemblance to real people?

Totally from my imagination. Really.

When you begin a mystery, do you know who your victim will be, or do you assemble the characters and give them all identities before you choose which one will be the victim of a scam artist or serial killer?

My writing happens as I write, even if I have an outline. In one manuscript I knew who was going to die, but I didn't know who the murderer was until I wrote that chapter.

And finally, have any of your characters died unexpectedly...meaning you typed the guy's demise before you knew it was going to happen?

Yes, this happened to me in my newest manuscript, Dead Wrong. I'm almost sorry the character died, though. I loved writing from his point of view.

So what about you? How does the process work when you write?


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Really interesting questions! Here are my answers:
1. No, I don't have real people in mind when I create a victim. I might do a composite thing, but even then I don't directly use real people.

2. My victims really do come from my imagination.

3. My stories always start with the victim. I begin by figuring out who the victim is and learning about her or his life. That gives me the rest of the characters.

4. I haven't yet killed someone unexpectedly. However, I have had times when I changed my outline from the original, and that change meant another victim.

Kathryn Elliott said...

Pat, I love this title! And in an odd twist, my mother-in-law is visiting, so it may be advisable to check in with me later. (Must keep dormant homicidal tendencies in check.) That said, I’m a women’s fiction writer, not much killing, but you never know – I could have a bad day at work and come home to butcher a bothersome character; great venting technique. Murder aside, I admit many of my protags/antags develop from real life encounters, I find it adds depth and believability. Great post, as usual!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Well, I've only killed one character and it was a bummer, because I really liked him. To my knowledge, none of my characters are based on real people.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Margot -- I've never started with the victim. Setting tends to grab me first, or a main character with a problem to solve. Maybe I should change it up next time to see what happens.

Thanks, Kathryn. Sandra Dallas is one of my favorite authors and she writes women's fiction...but read The Persian Pickle Club for an interesting twist (and I always wondered how Sandra came up with this story).

Alex, we get so attached to our characters, even the bad guys, that it's hard to let them go. Maybe it would be easier to follow Margot's lead and choose the victim before we bond. :)

Ann said...

That was interesting Patricia. I am delighted to read that the story develops as you write. It has been one of my insecurities. I read so much about outlines and plot planning I thought maybe I was on the wrong track!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Ann -- there's no right or wrong way to write. Even when I make a careful outline, as I've done for the upcoming NaNoWriMo experience, I tend to change things as I go. Other writers can create and stick to rigid outlines. I admire that, but I've not been able to do it.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great thought-provoking questions, Pat!

The victims who get killed off in my books are organic to the story and get developed along with all of the other characters for the book. Unlike many mystery authors I know, I don't kill semi-disguised people from my real life who've dissed me in one way or another.

In my development of a new book outline, I usually start with the first victim, then try to figure out who could have wanted him/her dead, why, and what means and opportunity they may have had. Often, though, someone else gets knocked off later in the book, and I may not figure that out until much later in the outlining process.

And no, I can't say that I've ever typed a victim's demise before I knew it was going to happen. I HAVE had two characters declare their love for each other or do other unexpected things that I hadn't planned in my outline, but not die on me--yet!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Beth -- I'd much rather have a couple of my characters fall in love than die, that's for sure. It looks like my subconscious is darker than yours. :)

Kathy McIntosh said...

I had one character killed off, but my critique group liked him so much they didn't want him to die! So he stayed alive for another novel.
I have changed my murderer in one novel because it seemed way too obvious once I got into the story, and I have backed up a bit in the beginning so readers get to know the victim and thus have a stronger reaction to her death.
Fun topics we mystery writers find!

Jemi Fraser said...

I've only killed off peripheral folks so far (boy, that sounds weird). Might graduate to killing off more main-ish type characters one day (still weird). :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Kathy and Jemi, yes it is weird to find a discussion about who we kill in our novels to be a fun topic. We writers are a strange lot.

Jan Morrison said...

1. No, I don't think I have anyone in mind - I more or less just let the story arise. In my first mystery (revision state) all I knew about the victim was that she was the mother of an infant. She certainly isn't very much like anyone I know - as I wrote that I realized I was lying. She is somewhat like a woman who was a room-mate back in the big hippy house days - but only a very little bit. My next mystery starts with my detective looking at the body - she is pretty intrigued with how this body looks - so I guess he grew out of that.
2. They come from my imagination mostly but I hope they resemble real people - just not specific ones!
3. No, I don't but my protagonist's mentor tells her that both the body of the victim and the life of the victim are what will help her find the killer - so I get pretty careful AFTER the death occurs. I go back to make sure everything works.
4. Yes, that has happened in this second mystery but I'm really struggling with it - not so much about the victim but for what it says about the killer.
eeek. fun post!

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is fun, and I'm learning a lot about how other writers work. Thanks, Jan.