I have a strong memory of being told by an exasperated parent that I was “too emotional.” It was a liability that turned out to be impossible to shake, but luckily, I only had to invest about four decades in the struggle to figure out that it has one salubrious side effect: a free pass to the heart of genre fiction.
I like stories that make me feel things. I like to have my emotions stimulated and tested, stretched and wrung dry, and since I’m overburdened in that department, it takes truly compelling character work to make a dent on me.
And I like crime fiction because it’s the perfect vehicle for the job.
Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea that the most powerful human emotions are longing and horror, that all other emotions build from there.
Every genre depends on these for emotional tenor. But when you combine them in one story, you intensify the experience by more than a factor of two. Play the attraction off the repulsion and if you do it right, you seize the reader’s attention at the most visceral level.
Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie - played by Casey Affleck in "Gone Baby Gone" - is driven by an emotional cocktail of guilt, longing, despair, revenge...Lehane knows how to stack the deck
One way to look at crime is the buildup of a need to a tipping point. It can be as simple as hunger driving the theft of food, but the more personal you make the need backstory, the more compelling the result.
Revenge crimes are a particular interest of mine. When you deprive a character of something longed for, or take away something held dear, they will be motivated to react to the extent of how strongly-felt the loss is.
Liam Neeson in "Taken" - a man with everything on the line
Said another way, the more you take from a character, without extinguishing his humanity, the more forcefully he will have to react to restore equilibrium.
That’s why we have so many heroes who show up on page one having lost their woman and child, who have nothing less to lose. (Which would be fine, except it’s unoriginal, and that’s a whole other discussion for another day.)
In a call for submissions for an anthology he was editing several years ago, author Craig McDonald wrote:
“Swing for the fences…Gut-shoot me and/or break my heart, because, tonight, I just want to feel something.”
I’ve had that exhortation taped up above my computer ever since: aspiring crime writers can do far worse for a rallying cry.