Friday, October 31, 2014

Your Death Sentence Will Find No Reprieve

By Art Taylor

Have I ever had a change of heart about a character I intended to dispatch, and found I had become attached to him or her?

The short answer is yes to the attachment, no to the change of heart.

The longer answer is more complicated, of course.

My wife's birthday is Halloween, and in advance of both the holiday and her birthday, we usually watch at least a couple of horror movies—and I always get her one or two new DVDs to add to her collection. Last week, we watched George Franju's Eyes Without a Face—visually creepy, emotionally unsettling, ultimately unforgettable (and I was pleased to see it ranked yesterday among "50 Visually Stunning Horror Movies for Twisted Aesthetes," a great list, with beautiful imagery to boot). After it was over, we watched a short documentary interviewing the screenwriters, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote novels both individually and together (under the name Boileu-Narcejac) but whose work is probably best known through film; their novel Celle qui n'├ętait plus (She Who Was No More) became Les Diaboliques in the hands of director Henri-George Clouzot, and Alfred Hitchcock turned their story D'entre les morts (Among the Dead or, better to my mind, "Between Deaths") into his masterpiece, Vertigo.

Needless to say, they've got a good resume.

The interview with Boileau and Narcejac, part of the Criterion Collection DVD, is also available online here, and it offers insights into their long history and collaborative process. But what struck me as most interesting was how they distinguished their own work from the vast array of approaches to writing mysteries and thrillers.

"It's the novel of the victim," explained Narcejac. "To simplify, one could say Agatha Christie typifies the detective novel, inspiring curiosity about the investigation. And crime novels are about the killer, aren't they? But we write novels about the victim."

I'd be hesitant to compare any of my own work with the mastery in Boileau-Narcejac's writings, but I felt an immediate affinity with that explanation. As I wrote in a recent post here at Criminal Minds, the lines between hero and villain and victim in my tales frequently blur or twist over the course of the story. When I've slated a character for death in the plotting stages of a tale, then his or her fate is sealed; I've never changed that, not to my knowledge. But those victims (or seeming victims) are almost always part of the primary focus, and as I'm crafting those characters within the story (their scenes, their backgrounds, their actions and reflections, the small, revealing details about them), I'm trying  not just to develop their depth but also, explicitly, to build the attachments that this week's question asks about—attachments both for myself and for the reader, since without the one there's probably no chance of the other.

In the end, I'm always hopeful that even as sympathies shift from one character to another, readers won't just be surprised at some plot twist but might also find their other reactions becoming more nuanced: an enriched sense of loss, an unexpected change of perspective, some broader range of mental and emotional engagement with it all.

I don't kill characters because I have no feeling for them anymore than I just kill the characters I don't like or don't care about. Just the opposite, the best deaths on the page mean something to us. They carry some weight.



Meredith Cole said...

Great point, Art. If I think the victim in a novel is a terrible person, I'm not as emotionally drawn into the story as I am when the characters are complex and I know a lot about them.

Happy Birthday, Tara!

Susan C Shea said...

Agree, Art. It's the death of the innocent that drives my personal passion for justice, and what moves my protagonist from intellectual to emotional commitment to help bring the killer to justice as well.