After the Sandy Hook massacre, I saw a few bits by various other crime writers agonizing over their choice of genre, wondering if, by writing stories that featured violence and mayhem they weren’t contributing to a culture that makes violence and mayhem possible.
I applaud the sentiment. Whenever there is evil, it seems our first impulse is to point the finger at somebody else. Taking the time to look inward instead, making sure you’re not part of the problem, that’s a good thing.
I can’t say I was one of them, though. Maybe ‘cause I’m old. Had that impulse years ago, after some other senseless and horrific act. And back then I figured a couple of things. First, folks have been writing stories chock full of violence since, well, forever. Hell, the Iliad and the Odyssey are pretty much the oldest stories we’ve got. In the first one you got Greeks and Trojans carving each other up over some hot chick and in the second, Ulysses gets home and wastes a mess of guys who were hanging around his house and hitting on his wife because they thought he was dead. Second, assuming that anything I wrote was much more than a mosquito fart into the sails of popular culture felt a little presumptuous.
Death is something I do think about, though. Maybe also ‘cause I’m old, I dunno. Lots of philosopher and psychologist types have done their share of navel gazing on the relationship of death and the creative process, how the yawning maw of the grave and the prospect of eternal nothingness have us scrambling to leave some mark, to mean something. Maybe that’s so.
But any way you slice it, death is a big deal. For each of us, at some point, it’s gonna be the entire freakin’ deal. So what I don’t like, in crime fiction or otherwise, are stories that trivialize death. Stories chuck full of red-shirted Star Trek characters, people tossed in to the story for no reason other than to die so the author can move the plot along.
Hey, I get it. I’ve got plots, I’ve got to move them along, and I’ve killed characters to do it. I understand that it’s all Deus ex Machina when you’re behind the curtain. You’re the author. You’re god of this world. So characters live and die at your pleasure. You are pulling the strings and levers. You just want to Rube Goldberg it up enough that the reader doesn’t call Deus ex Machina bullshit on you, doesn’t think you’re a lazy fuck who just pulls shit out of your ass because you couldn’t be bothered to do the work, to make a world with some rules and logic, one that makes sense. In the end, the story is a machine of your creation. You are the Deus and it is your machina, but you want it to be something special, some big steam-punky monstrosity full of gears and levers that is effective in its operations, but that is also mysterious and a wonder to behold. You don’t want it to be the Coke machine in the hallway that spits out a dead guy whenever you push a button.
Where the hell was I? Oh yeah, death.
I guess this. If you’re gonna be god of this place, then you owe something to your creations. If you’re gonna dream up some poor bastard just to bump him off because that’s what the story needs, give him a little dignity. Make him an actual character, not one of those shooting-range profile targets. If you’re gonna make somebody die, then make the reader care that you did.
In my second novel, MAMMON, a guy goes on a little killing spree just to trigger a war between a couple of criminal enterprises that are in his way. Wants to give them something to keep them busy so he can accomplish his mission. And yeah, that’s making up characters just so they can die. When I read back over that part of the draft, I was really pissed at myself. The scene felt empty, lazy, machina-y. It was just a line in one of those dot-to-dot drawings, a line from plot dot A to plot dot B, except a line drawn with human blood (OK, imaginary human blood).
So I went back and rewrote it. And a good chunk of that scene ended up as a stand-alone story that ran over at Shotgun Honey a while back. (You can read that here if you’re curious. http://www.shotgunhoney.net/2012/05/north-star-by-dan-oshea.html )
The point here? Don’t waste it, not anything. Not a character, not a death. Give things the weight they deserve. Then you aren’t being cheap, you aren’t being exploitive. Then you’re telling a story, not writing violence porn.
We need stories. And things like Sandy Hook are one of the reasons why. The world does waste lives. It doesn’t make sense. So we all need diversions. We all need other worlds to visit, maybe to help make sense of this one, maybe just to get away for a while. If you’re in charge of making one up, make it one worth visiting.