I’m deep in a series based on the book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think by Sean Mactire to help novelists create better, more believable antagonists. I’m skipping the chapters on cult killers, sexual predators, and child molesters, mostly because they’re icky, and if you want one of these guys for your baddie, you’ll have to do a lot more research than a few simple blog posts. So buy the book and read those chapters if you need them. Today, I’m moving on to the victims. Fiction contains all sorts of myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about the victims of violent crime, and you don’t want one of those to end up in your novel. So pay attention.
When violent crime is reported in the news, people always ask: “Why did this happen?” It’s a good question. Crime is prevalent, but it’s not universal. Some people never become a victim of a violent crime. So why do victims become victims? After all, no one chooses to become a victim. Are victims simply having incredibly bad luck, or caught up in an act of God, or play things of fate? And if they are, how do you create a believable victim for your murder mystery?
Sean Mactire says victims are victims because:
1. Criminals choose evil behavior over acceptable behavior
Yes, you read that correctly. Victims are victims because Offenders offend. That’s the biggest reason Why This Happened. There are three other minor reasons why people become victims:
2. Human error or accident (non-intentional trauma)
3. Temporary insanity as the result of human interactions (family quarrels)
4. Mental illness
Now lets use these statement for novel-building purposes. You have a killer. He needs someone to kill, otherwise there’s no mystery for your hero to solve (and let’s face it, he’s not a killer unless he’s killing people, right?). So you’ve got to make up a victim. Usually, victims are sympathetic simply because they’re victims. They’re even more sympathetic if they’re introduced to the reader before they die: show them interacting with loved ones, being lovable, showing vulnerabilities, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a sympathetic victim. I’ll call her Katie.
So how does Katie come to the killer’s attention? Let’s plug my hapless victim into Mactire’s theory and see what happens.
1. Katie is a victim because my antagonist wants to do an evil deed. This is the most common scenario you’ll find in novels. The antagonist has a desire, he goes after that desire, and in the process, Katie ends up dead. She’s highly sympathetic, and the reader wants justice for her.
2. Katie is standing on the corner, minding her own business, when a car careens around the corner, a gun comes out, and rounds are fired at a nearby group of people. Katie is an innocent bystander and gets caught in the crossfire. Readers automatically feel sympathy for Katie. She wasn’t engaged in any dangerous behavior, she was just living her life when suddenly said life is gone. It’s incredibly easy for the reader to empathize, maybe even insert themselves into this scenario, and have an emotional reaction to this victim’s plight.
3. I have two ways this scenario could play out. First, Katie is the daughter of a man who has a temper control issue. In a moment of high stress, Daddy wigs out and hits Katie. The blow kills her. In this scenario, like in the first two, Katie had absolutely no control over the circumstances surrounding her death. In my second example, that’s not necessarily the case. Katie is married to an abusive man. She believes he’ll change his ways, so she stays with him. In a moment of rage, he strikes her and kills her. I am in NO WAY stating that victims of spousal abuse are responsible for their own deaths. However, Katie’s chances of becoming a victim were significantly increased when she decided to stay with him. Had she left him, he might have still come after her to kill her, but her odds of becoming a victim would have decreased. In both of these scenarios, the reader will sympathize with Katie, but if you go with the second scenario, the reader might be angry with Katie for sticking around. They’ll still want justice, but they’ll have that lingering thought: if she’d just left him…
4. Katie is schizophrenic and off her meds. She runs away from her care-giver, wanders into gangland, and is killed. People who are thinking rationally would try to avoid gangland. Someone who’s suffering from a mental illness might not have the ability to assess a situation as dangerous. It’s difficult for the reader to empathize with Katie, as most readers don’t know what suffering from schizophrenia is like, but they can definitely sympathize with her.
Those are Mactire’s reasons. I have one of my own, which I blatantly stole from Tom Casady of Lincoln, Nebraska. He used to be the Chief of Police. Now he’s the Public Safety Director. In his blog, he stated that one of the easiest ways to not be a victim is to not be a criminal. People who commit crimes (thieves, drug dealers, murderers) are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than law-abiding citizens. So, if your victim is also a criminal (prostitute, drug dealer, murderer) then it’s highly believable that they’d become the victim of a theft, or a mugging, or a murder.
This is getting too long, so I’ll stop here and continue the discussion of victims in the next post.