Sunday, May 29, 2016

To Die for

From your earlier readings of the mystery novel, through your regonition of how, in factg, every novel was a mystery, and into your experiences trying to write such novels yourself and serving as editor for mystery writers you long admired, you wrestled with the issue of motivation.

A mystery required at least one corpse, a fact that weighed heavy on you because of your own visions of motivation. When you heard someone in the publishing industry saying one corpse per mystery was no longer sufficient--editors wanted at leastr two--your concerns grew even more toward hopelessness about your ability to write in the genre you so favored and to read and reread the works of writers you admired to see how it was they were able to do with seeming ease what you could not.

You were caught at the critical state of overthinking and a simultaneous repugnance for inventing a character only to have him or her killed off. This state cost you some time in being able to complete some of the many mysteries you'd begun. This was not for lack of trying. Some of your early notebooks attest laundry lists of motives for one character killing another. 

Sooner or later, you were going to have to get beyond that barrier. A combination of events and activities provided the necessary push. It starting with you taking classes with a much admired mystery writer, Dorothy B. Hughes, meeting her dear friend of Laura fame, Vera Caspary,extended to their pressuring you to join MWA, Mystery Writers of America, where you rose through the ranks of elected offices, meanwhile bringing in mystery writers to the publisher for which you were an editor.

Continued reading, editing, and meeting of crime-related writers and professionals, such as the LAPD homicide detective who bore badge Number One, acquiring projects from favored writers, and a surprise question from a dear friend with whom you were collaborating on a television venture got you over the edge of wondering about motive. You'd already begun teaching, avoiding the use of the word motive until some student raised it.  

The disturbing question was asked of a character.  "What does he want?"

"Um," you said. "Um, um, why do you ask?"

"Because you must know what every character who comes on stage wants."

At that moment, you were the equivalent of Archimedes, lowering himself into a bathtub, watching the water level rise, then making a comment, probably with some vulgarity-for-emphasis such as, "For fuck's sake," which has been toned down to "Eureka," probably with an exclamation point.  Translated in all your early sources to "I have it," but in your opinion better expressed as "Fuck yeah."

What you had was an understanding of your friend's question.  Had he asked, "What is his motive?" you'd been apt to answer that you didn't know because, well, because you'd never been good at motives. From that point on, beginning with such disucssions in your classes, you saw the problems of motivation, character, plot, and subsequent action as combinations of the answers to three questions:

Who is he/she?

What does he/she want?'

What is he/she willing to do in order to achieve his understood goal?

In subsequent years, you've added other, defining questions, which supply more relevant information about the character, which adds to potentials for more complex, diverse mysteries, depending to even greater measures on moral, social, and psychological issues.

What a character wants is that person's passion, his or her fetish or ambition. With that in mind, you don't need to ask about motives because you are on your way to an understanding of what actions that individual will take, where that individual's boundaries are, and the necessary thing in fiction to cause that individual to step over the boundary line of those boundaries..

What the character wants becomes the rudder for a ship that had no previous rudder or, at best, an ineffective one. Some of your previous stories, whether or not they were mysteries, did not gel as authentic because the only characters who stepped over boundaries in some form or other of illegal trespass were hired killers, a tangible force in real time and in fiction, but also somewhat of a cliche. 

The hired killer who is nice to small animals has long since been put to bed as an overused meme. The more profitable approach is to turn an ordinary person into a hired killer such as the television writer, director, and producer, Vince Gilligan, did with his memorable character, Walter White, in Breaking Bad.

Even when Walter White's acxtions and behavior prevent us from rooting for his success in his chosen profession as a methampetaphine chemist, we still watch him with considerable interest, although we've seen him lie, maneuver, and exploit. This works because any character, if burdened with the existential load placed on White, still attracts our interest, if not sympathy, when he is under a constant barrage of things going wrong against him.


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