Fiction is different from real life— fictional life makes more sense. Everything that happens in fiction is part of a plot. Real life is just one thing after another.
Fictional murders, even in ‘gritty, realistic’ stories, tend to make more sense. In real life, a murder often seems motiveless or senseless, or the reason is crazy, like that serial killer who claimed he had to kill people to prevent an earthquake.
Fictional murders, like other fictional behaviors, have to be motivated. And in most fiction, that motivation has to be something an ordinary person might understand.
Murder mystery murders.
In conventional murder mysteries— the kind now tamed down and called ‘cozies,’ the murder at the center of the plot has a commonplace motive. Financial gain is very common, as it allows there to be a number of suspects, especially if the murder victim was wealthy and had a number of heirs.
Marital jealousy, a big motive in real murder, doesn’t work so well in a murder mystery since that motive points to one suspect usually. If that proves to be the motive of the ultimate killer, that factor must be hidden to make the killer’s identity a mystery.
Murder to prevent a revealing of secrets is also a possibility, especially if the author can frame the victim as someone who habitually ruined people by revealing their shameful secrets.
The suspect individuals in a mystery may have a variety of possible motives, rather than having them all after money or all protecting secrets. The main thing in the traditional murder mystery is that there must be a variety of suspects. No one can be standing over the dead victim with a knife in his hand— unless that someone is actually innocent and the real killer must be located.
Criminal enterprise murder.
In many types of adventurous fiction, the murders go back to a central criminal mastermind or Dark Lord.
The initial corpse can be a result of whatever the criminal enterprise normally kills people for— someone who didn’t go along with the gang’s extortion plot, a witness, a rival gang member, a young wizard whose magic powers might be stolen, whoever owns the McGuffin….
Afterwards, murders tend to be plot complications in the quest of the hero to stop the criminal villain. Witnesses that the hero wants to question might get murdered first. A friend or associate of the hero might get killed to intimidate the hero.
The more murdery your criminal enterprise villain or Dark Lord is, the more important it is for the hero to stop him. Also, the more corpses the hero encounters along the way, the more power the villain seems to have. Does it seem hopeless? It should. You want your hero to face an almost impossible challenge and win.
Every fictional life is precious. But some minor charaters must die or disappear as part of the plot, and sometimes murder is the cause.
It’s common to make fictional characters orphans, since that makes them more vulnerable. Sometimes that orphaning happens by means of a murder.
Murders in your character’s backstory can be just sad events, or perhaps your character will need to get justice/revenge for a murdered father. This need not be the central theme of the plot, however.
Sometimes an incidental murder might just be an obstacle to your hero’s actions. That one person with the important information is now dead so the hero must make other plans. At other times, the murder can point up dangers. If your hero goes to a dangerous city and the first person he speaks to ends up murdered by the end of the day, that illustrates the dangers of the city.
The hero kills.
In commercially viable or non-grimdark fiction, the hero can’t be a murderer. If the hero kills, it must be justified— defense of others or self-defense, ideally. Sometimes a bad guy just won’t surrender and must be killed to protect others.
In certain circumstances, the hero may do a ‘justice killing.’ In a remote region— in the pioneering West, or on a remote planet— there may be no realistic way to get a murderer to formal justice.
Also, in a dystopian totalitarian regime like the real-life regimes of Stalin, Mao or Hitler, a killer might be protected by the ‘judicial’ system because he is part of it. If the hero kills such a killer for righteous reasons, that will stop him from going on killing.
A fictional hero must have a very strong motivation to kill. Perhaps he lost a loved one, or has some strong emotional connection with the victim. He must have strong knowledge of the guilt of his target. In a dystopian regime, that killing judge has to be proved to be doing more killings than he needs to, rather than serving as a brake on a killing regime.
The big test of any murders you may commit in your fiction is, how well do readers accept it? Do they feel it is a tragic but necessary part of the plot, or are they mad at you, the author, for an unneeded killing? Reading should take your reader to an exciting adventure, not introduce interesting characters doomed to die so an author can earn his grimdark credentials.
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