Murder: A Necessary Evil
As a real-life prosecutor, I probably shouldn’t title this article the way I did. As a writer of crime fiction, though, murder is very much a necessary evil. It’s our greatest, most essential tool. Oh, sure, there are heist stories and kidnapping stories, but are there crime stories in which someone isn’t murdered? Few, if any.But I don’t plan to talk about a normal murder, one that kicks off a novel and sets the hero on the trail of a killer. No, I’m talking about a murder that is virtually unheard of: the killing of a hero.I just did that—killed one of the good guys. In my newest novel, The Blood Promise, I killed a character that I know my readers love. And that’s what I want to talk about—the intentional, premeditated murder of someone you know your readers like.(Do you mind if, before we continue, we agree on something? In case you want to read my book, I don’t want to give anything away so I’m going to use the pronoun He when discussing this particular dearly departed. I do so without committing that He is actually male or female, but merely stick to He and Him for convenience. And now you know that I may, or may not, be misleading you with the aforementioned pronouns. Thank you.)
I discussed the death with my editor because in a previous book I almost killed a character, and more than a few people told me, “OMG, I’m so glad you didn’t kill Capitaine Garcia; you had me so worried for a moment.” After seeing that reaction, I wondered whether I was doing my story a disservice (and whether the marketing people would be less than chuffed).
But my editor gave me the thumbs-up and I did it, and for more reasons than you might imagine.
First and most importantly, it fit the story. That sounds cold and callous, but for the bad guy to escape this situation, to create both confusion and clues, it simply made sense that He had to die. That imperative was the trigger for me writing the scene, and it’s an honest, honorable reason. That said, I second-guessed myself a lot (because I missed Him). But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was the right thing to do. Here’s why:
My hero, Hugo Marston, is a man in control of his emotions. He’s friendly and kind but he’s a former FBI agent who’s seen a lot of bad things, so he’s learned to compartmentalize. I wanted to get through to him, to let the reader see a little more of him, see him as a man with emotions he can’t control. I wanted to make Hugo sad. This is important to me because when you write a series, I think you have to continually show a new side to your main characters.
I’ve read a lot about how characters grow and evolve in series and that’s true, but there’s more to it than that. Hugo will always shed a tear when someone he loves dies; that hasn’t changed. No, it’s that the slow reveal of Hugo’s character entices the reader, lets her know him a little better. In this instance then, it’s not so much the growth of a character, but the growth of knowledge, appreciation, maybe even friendship between a character and the reader.
Here’s another reason I did the right thing: A writer can’t keep almost killing his characters. No doubt, it creates high drama when a beloved character is shot. Will he live, will he die, will he ever walk again? That drama is diluted when it becomes a formula: Boris chases bad guy; bad guy shoots Boris; Boris heads to hospital and the doctors look dour; Boris fully recovers with a cool new scar. That works for Book One. Possibly for Book Two. But fool me thrice? No, indeed. For Boris it’s third time unlucky, I’m afraid. It just has to be.
Next reason: A series can set up certain paradigms and expectations. People and relationships can become familiar and comfortable. With my books, you know that when Hugo and Tom get together, there will be witty banter and a lot of unexpressed love and caring. When Hugo and Claudia get together, there will be sexual tension. And when Hugo and Garcia get together, they’ll make fun of Tom. Over time, those paradigms can become predictable, and in some ways, maybe that’s good. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, the best way to grab readers by the throat and make sure you have their attention is to bust the paradigm wide open.
As I thought about this aspect, I realized that a writer can’t leave it too late in a series to paradigm-bust. Imagine a series where you know the main six (or however many) characters inside-out. After twelve books, one is killed off. I think at that point, the reader has a legitimate expectation that you won’t do that, and they will be royally mad. I’m doing it in Book Three, and I think this sends a clear message: Anything can happen in Hugo’s world, and no one is safe (well, Hugo’s pretty safe, he’s my hero. On the other hand…). Will it prevent my readers from falling in love with my characters? I hope and think not because liking a character isn’t something we do by design, by intent. It just happens. What it should do, I hope, is make the loss of that person more real, make the reading experience more powerful.
Additionally, one character dying makes room for a new one to come in. This is the joy of writing for me. Creating new characters out of whole cloth, seeing how they behave when introduced to the regulars, seeing how the regulars react when the new person comes in and says, “Hey, sorry your friend died, I’m here to replace Him.” It’s an injection of tension and uncertainty, not just because the old folks have to get to know the new guy but because there’s always the chance that the new guy is a bad guy after all!
And so, in The Blood Promise, I bring in a new character, someone who (I pledge to thee, for whatever that’s worth) will be around for a while. I’d love to tell you a little more about that person but, well, I’d much prefer you find out for yourself. I will tell you that no such character exists in crime fiction today…not to my knowledge. One thing is for sure: Hugo and those who stand beside him in solving the mystery of The Blood Promise have never seen anyone quite like Camille Lerens before. A new story, therefore, begins for them and the reader: Who is this person? Is she good or bad? And can she ever truly replace the much beloved and recently departed Him?
Mark Pryor’s most recent Hugo Marston novel, The Blood Promise [LINK: http://seventhstreetbooks.com/BloodPromise.html], is available January 14, 2014. He is the author of The Bookseller and The Crypt Thief, the first and second Hugo Marston novels, and the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. An assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas, Pryor is the creator of the true-crime blog DAConfidential. He has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.