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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Murder, I Write

 I've been thinking about the way I want to write murder. Before I go into it, however, it is important to define murder.
Murder is clearly morally wrong. Killing, however, is not necessarily inherently wrong, and I think that the distinction isn't always clear to people. Killing is the simple act of ending the life of a living thing. Spraying Round-Up on a weed is clearly killing, but it is just as clearly not murder (unless you are the most fanatical sort of Buddhist). In my opinion, even formal execution carried out by the state is not murder. It is often the punishment for murder, but though the primary event is the same, the motive makes all the difference in the world. Formal execution generally (I am not so naïve as to say 'always') is the result of a due process, in which a group of people soberly weigh the facts of a given incident and decide upon the guilt of the accused, and only then further debate the means of punishment. 'Punishment' is a misleading word, however. In my opinion it gives a sense of society taking revenge upon the guilty, which is clearly not the purpose of formal execution. Execution is chosen as a 'punishment' when the guilty party is so morally off balance, so heinously violent that the only prudent, reliable way of protecting society from them is to end their life. We as a society aren't mad at them (as individuals we surely are, but as a society I think it's hard to argue this in most cases), we merely need them gone. The death penalty is a means of permanently assuring that unrepentant murderers are removed from society and can never commit such atrocities again.
Murder, on the other hand is motivated by emotion, not reason. Murder is often committed in an effort to reach an individual goal of some kind. Murder is often committed – with or without forethought – as an individual's way of administering punishment or obtaining revenge. It is motivated by anger or self-interest, not reason or the common good. Murder is what happens when people kill because of how they feel.
So often in fiction, the act of murder is bound up in a lot of gloating or drama. Villains often make speeches as they prepare to murder the hero. But in life, it is seldom – if ever – this way. In reality, the act of murder is often impulsive and sudden; and even when premeditated, the actual act is carried out quickly. And that's the true horror of it; in an instant, something that was is no more. And this change is rarely marked with any fanfare. It happens so fast we barely notice the moment itself, and yet once it had passed, it is unchangeable, immutable, eternal. Dead is dead.
When you think about it, it's terrifying how something so permanent can happen so quickly. And I think that's why murder is often written the way it is. Because it's so horrible, all the drama surrounding it serves not only to prepare us for what is coming, but to allow us to feel more relaxed, to remind us that what is happening is fiction, to cushion the blow, in a sense. It's more comfortable we are protected from the reality of it. In a way, the drama can even glorify the act, or make it seem justified, which I think is a disservice to society. Murder – no matter how evil the victim – is always wrong, even if killing is not.
And that is why all my favorite scenes of murder are the ones that have no pomp and circumstance. My favorite scenes of murder are jarring, sudden, unexpected. The murder of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire comes to mind. So does Don Corleone's first murder in The Godfather 2. In both scenes, the victim's life is abruptly ended, with a lack of physical violence that somehow makes the murder even more vicious. Because the act is inherently violent, and not in the obvious way. Even when murder isn't physically violent, the sudden shift from life to death, from existence to non-existence, is violent in the way that a fast-moving car hitting a wall is. It happens so fast that rippling waves of destruction explode out from the moment and wreck everything they touch, most notably the lives of the people involved. The people who survive the victim have to live on with a terrible loss. The murderer themselves bear the stain of their actions on their soul for all eternity, and it can often poison their mind beyond all repair. When the act is dragged out in fiction, this impact and immediacy is often lost.

So when I write the act of murder, I want it to come at you from out of nowhere. I want your reaction to be “Wait, what? No!” I want the character to be gone so suddenly you have to go back over the last paragraph to make sure you read it correctly. When I murder one of my characters, I want it to fuck you up for life. Because that is how murder really happens.

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