by Pari Noskin Taichert
In the summertime, during New Mexico’s highest fire risk, I have dark fantasies. Most often, they’re sparked by some young woman who throws her still smoldering cigarette butt out of a car window. In spite of my fury, I’ve never imagined murder — not in real life — not with the kids in the car.
I do think about murder when I’m writing, though. The method and the why of it are part of the big puzzle, the challenge in coming up with a "compelling" novel.
And yet, in day-to-day life, most motives are dreadfully mundane, cliche.
There’s greed, revenge, betrayal and perversion. That’s about it. (Please set me straight in the comments section, if I’m missing a category.)
Each one of these can be fleshed out:
for money, security, property, human "property" (custody battles, loverships), desire for recognition/fame, downfall or defense of business, religious/cultural domination
jealousy, crimes of passion, distrust, childhood scarring, drug deals gone bad, domestic violence
personal satisfaction (here’s where we meet the psychos and sociopaths — the stars of many serial killer novels)
alot of gang-related stuff would go here, road rage, religious conflict
I wasn’t quite sure where to put WAR. IMHO, this phenomenon usually has to do with one of the motives above such as greed (territory), revenge (religious conflict).
If my categories are generally true, I think they show that people aren’t that creative when it comes to rationalizing reasons to off each other. At least, that’s how it looks to me.
So why do I feel obligated to come up with new motives, to be inventive? To dress up reality?
That’s the strange thing. The majority of real-life crimes — though horrid in their aftermath — are boring in their moment. I’m thinking of the prison guard in southern New Mexico who hired a hitman to kill his wife. He paid the guy $250 because he was "tired" of her. Nothing big. Nothing fancy.
No editor would EVER accept that as a motive. There would have to be more. But, folks, there wasn’t.
Most crime is like that. When I pick up the local newspaper, I find small stories — crimes committed by unremarkable people who become interesting because of a single act.
We writers embellish and weave marvelous stories from the smallest ember. But why does fiction have to be larger than life?
Or, does it?
Interesting question, because it’s true, a lot of criminal motivation seems completely mundane.
BUT IT’S NOT MUNDANE TO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE INVOLVED.
That’s the key. I think fiction has to be larger than life because we experience our own lives and the things that happen to us as mythic and life changing. If a murder happened in my own family you bet I’d experience it as mythic and life changing. So fiction doesn’t feel realistic to me unless it’s mythic and important.
And I want to experience how events are mythic and important to other people.
I don’t know that we have to invent new motivations, or inflate the old ones to gargantuan proportions. For me, a villain doesn’t ring true unless I can understand the reason he kills (maims/robs/rapes). Even if that reason seems cliched, or insignificant. There’s still truth in that depiction. And a demonstration of evil can be a very small act and still resonate.
You know, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I asked the right questions.
X,You’re right with your all-cap sentence. What makes the story interesting is how the crime affects the people in it. Even having a blase criminal could make it chilling and an interesting read.
Louise,Yes. Absolutely. “And a demonstration of evil can be a very small act and still resonate.” The truth.
You might add cultural/religious beliefs and practices, as well as mental instability, insanity, depression.
When I was a reporter, I covered a case of “oyako shinju,” child-parent suicide/killing. A Japanese immigrant woman, so despondent about her husband’s infidelity, walked into the ocean at Santa Monica with her two children. Of course, she survived, but her two children died. In Japan, this practice is not uncommon. The parent views the child as an extension of herself or himself and if the parent is gone, the children will be lost as well. I’m not defending this belief system, but culture can come into play in a killer’s motives. Shame and saving face are pretty big in certain cultures. Not quite the same as revenge.
I’m inclined to think that fiction does have to be larger than life, and that this has been the case down through the ages. Stories were invented to teach about the consequences of wrongdoing, and crafted as narrative (unlike the random sequence of everyday life) to make the lesson palatable and entertaining for the listener. I believe our brains are hardwired to respond to narrative i.e. enhanced versions of life. What could be larger than life than the gods shooting thunderbolts to strike people who have transgressed?
And then there are some *real* people who are just plain evil. Now that would be an interesting character as well.
Naomi,Thanks for those additions; I think you’re right that they should stand as another category. What a sad story about that mom. I remember seeing something like that on Without A Trace.
Virginia,Howdy.Myth as instruction is as old as humanity. I need to think about that “hardwired” theory. You may be on to something there.
Elaine,Nice to see you here.Yeah, there are people who are just plain evil. I guess I’d put them in the “perversion” category simply because a mind like that is truly perverted to me. Ya know?
I believe our brains are hardwired to respond to narrative i.e. enhanced versions of life. What could be larger than life than the gods shooting thunderbolts to strike people who have transgressed?