Writing in the thriller genre is an experience unlike any other. Not only do we get our reader’s palms sweaty and their hearts racing, but we often times get our adrenaline pumping while we write! As the excitement peaks we find ourselves ticking ever-harder at the keys until, before we know it, we have knocked out a few pages of thrilling literature. This week’s guest blogger, Merry Jones, discusses her experience with trying to write a murder free thriller.
In 2016, after writing a dozen thrillers, I decided to try something new: writing a book that didn’t include a single murder. I was going to switch it up and produce a novel that focused more on nuances of character than on twists of plot, more on relationships and society than on renegades and sociopaths.
I started out optimistic and fresh. With great enthusiasm, I followed the protagonist through her days, traced her routine, her interactions with husband, children, mother, friends and rivals. I let her inner life unfold, revealed her motivations, thoughts and, gradually, her backstory. I planted seeds of conflict in more than one of her relationships.
I made it almost to a hundred pages of Child’s Play (January 2017) before I had to kill somebody. I couldn’t hold out any longer. Couldn’t help it.
In a frenzy of fingers on keyboard, I dispatched the victim in a particularly nasty way. And I didn’t regret it. In fact, I felt satisfied. Enormously relieved.
As thriller writers, maybe you understand. Without murder or mayhem, the work seemed flat and dull. And not only that. I admit it: I enjoyed the kill.
Was it wrong? A weakness on my part? Does the murder reflect my dark world-view or something twisted in my psyche? Why couldn’t I write a murder-free book? With a universe of choices, why do I persist in choosing plots in which the protagonist faces violence and merciless, brutal slaughter?
Certainly there is drama that doesn’t involve killing. People suffer non-lethal dilemmas. They make bad choices. They have character flaws. Lose their wealth, health, dreams, innocence and sanity. Get betrayed by lovers, friends, spouses, and partners. Villains can be serial swindlers, serial liars or serial losers. They don’t have to be serial killers.
Even thrillers, theoretically, can be written without a homicide. Coups, conspiracies, contaminations and kidnappings are just a few crimes that can be conducted without a drop of blood. Clearly, countless volumes of great murder-free literature — including some of our genre — have been written through the centuries.
So why couldn’t I write just one. Why on page 97 was I compelled to kill the protagonist’s best friend?
It wasn’t just because of her nasal voice or the perpetually perfect highlights in her hair. Nor was it her compulsion to brag and one-up. No. The killing wasn’t about the victim. It was about me, my need to off somebody.
After days of disappointment in myself for not achieving my murderless manuscript goal, I’ve come up with some theories about why I failed. I wonder if any of you will relate.
- The Game. For me, writing involves engaging in a game with readers. That game requires my characters to be caught up in a high stakes puzzle that they, along with the readers, are racing the clock to solve. Along the way, readers vicariously experience the characters’ risks and dangers. The greater the risks and the higher the stakes of failure, the more urgent solving the puzzle becomes. And the highest stake is the ultimate price: getting killed. I like urgent, so I set the stakes high.
- Deity Complex. Writing about murder and death puts me in charge of mortality, at least in the world of the book. As far as the characters are concerned, I am God, the creator and destroyer, the one with the power to decide who lives, who dies. Even if it’s fiction, being God is a pretty good gig. And in that small pretend world for the short time it’s in my hands, death becomes manageable, controllable. Even sometimes sensible.
- I get to see inside the bad guys. Because they are human, good villains (not an oxymoron) are not simply embodiments of evil. Like all of us, they are capable of both “good” and “bad” behavior. Their traits and motivations exist to some degree in of all of us, thus pressing readers–and the writer–to confront our own potentials for badness. But without committing dire and disturbing acts like murder, villains pale. The less daunting their choice of behavior, the less demanding its effect on readers—and the writer.
- Finally, as a female, I like to create female protagonists who resist the traditional socio-political roles of passive, weak and vulnerable victims. By standing up to murderers, winning battles with the highest stakes, destroying or even killing villains, these fictional females can serve as metaphors for real women—and anyone else who has struggled to survive and/or defeat injustice, brutality and misfortune.
These are the rationales I’ve come up with for killing my characters. Do any of them apply to you?
Merry Jones is a versatile author, having written suspense novels, thrillers, mysteries, humor and non-fiction. Jones lives outside of Philadelphia where she teaches creative writing, belongs to many writing organizations including the Philadelphia Liars Club, and sculls on the Schuylkill River. Her third novel in the Elle Harrison thrillers series, Child’s Play, was released in January 2017. Reach her at merryjones.com
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