A Killer Confession

By Joe Moore

missile2 I’ve killed a lot of people. Along with my accomplice co-author, Lynn Sholes, I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the International Space Station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths–I just can’t remember them all.

kremlin1 So I confess, I’m a killer.

It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who got on my nerves. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent, but he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. peru But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers.

In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating.

But there’s a different level of death that we all come in contact with every day that rarely causes us a second thought: Long distance death.

Several hundred passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Thousands are trapped in an earthquake in China. Millions starve in Darfur. A Columbian jet crash kills all on board.

buckinghamDo we care? Of course we do, but unless those victims were family or friends–unless we have an emotional connection with them–we only care for as long as it takes to turn the page of the morning paper or switch channels.

In developing our main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader care about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love or hate them. Neutral is no good.

And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies and TV shows. Sometimes I just give up reading or watching because I don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting but they get buried in the plot (or CGI effects) to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the story and the book winds up in the ditch.

We utilize long distant deaths in our books because we write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what my buddy David Hewson calls telescope stories rather than microscope stories like his. We need long distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes to the main characters, they better be worth caring about or the wheels just might come off.

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9 thoughts on “A Killer Confession

  1. Joe, I was thinking about that “personalization” of death the other day when a group of firefighters died in a helicopter crash while fighting the California wildfires. When the headlines first came out, I felt that twinge of sadness that one always feels about a long-distance loss. Then the personal stories started coming out in the papers. I read about each man, about the young lives cut short, the promise that each one represented; the heartbroken families and young children they left behind, and I found myself sobbing. But it took that detailed personalization and involvement in each person’s story to elicit that emotion. And as you point out, that’s our challenge as writers–to create that sense of connection for the reader. Great post!

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  2. I think this was why I didn’t care too much for the latest Angelina Jolie movie, Wanted. The special effects and bloodshed made me oblivious to the caring part that is required to like a movie.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more, Joe! The emotional connection is what keeps me (as a reader) engrossed. If I don’t care what happens to the victim, why should any of the other characters? With all the information and news we get in the real world today too many things have become little more than long distance loss to many of us. Your post is a timely reminder for us to stop and consider the personal implications of what has happened.

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  4. Thanks, Kathryn. Dishing out just enough to make the reader fall in love with our hero or hate our villain is a challenge we face everyday.

    Kim, a sure sign of trouble is when you glace ahead to see how many pages are left in a chapter or look at your watch and wonder when the movie will ever be over.

    You’re right, Clare. Caring about our characters always comes before the plot. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. Joe, couldn’t wait to read your blog since you’ve so often visited ours at killerhobbies.

    Your post has made more work for me as I think back over the first part of the book I’m working on and realize the victim has got to be more likeable and the killer more sympathetic.

    Thanks a lot. Grrr. I thought I was done.

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  6. Completely Joe- and I find that more often than not, CGI leaves me cold (the recent Star Wars films are a good example of how valuing flash over content can be a mistake). Great post.

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