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Does anyone care about motive anymore?

I’m trying to put together a plot outline for a mystery, and I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I have the main cast of characters, including the killer, and the basic plot, but when it comes time to give the killer a motive, I grind to a screeching halt. Not because I can’t come up with one, but because I start to wonder which of my possible options would be considered more believable.

The characters and set-up are sufficiently angsty and dark that the mystery itself can’t fall on the cozy side of things and still work, which means – I believe – that my killer has to set out to kill his victim with malice aforethought, rather than fall into the situation accidentally. On the other hand, I’m not looking to make my killer an evil beast who gets his jollies from the pain of others.

The way I see it, I have two basic choices. I can go with the "he killed so-and-so for the sake of money/lust/etc. and then knocked off a few more people to cover it up" theory. Or I can go with the "sociopathic personality who finally snaps and becomes a serial killer" theory. Neither one is particularly realistic – although I’ve seen examples of both in real life – but what I’d really like to know is, does one seem much more believable than the other? If you’re reading a book about a serial killer, how much background do you need in order to accept that some dude is running around offing people? Do you need a really good reason, a logical reason, for the murders, or is it enough for you to know that the reason seems logical to the killer? For that matter, as long as the killer poses enough of a threat to the protagonist to keep the reader on the edge, is why he’s doing what he’s doing much of a consideration at all? Some of the fiction I’ve read lately – from some big names, I might add – would indicate that the answer is no. What would you say?

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  1. Ehch

    I think we’ve touched on this in conversations before – just not in terms of writing. The interesting thing about sociopaths is that they’re the ones who don’t have that off switch, the one that stops “normal” people from shoving someone in front of the subway. I know I’m approaching this from a decidedly DSM-IV perspective (although I suspect that’s why you ask my opinion!), but for my money, I’d go with the well-crafted sociopath any day. You can do a lot of showing with a character like that, and you don’t have to explain WHY as much as you simply have to illustrate what he truly is. Far less complex than tossing in seven extra victims for a cover-up, y’know?

    Just my two cents, for whatever they’re worth.

    Aug 23, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  2. Michael De Kler

    I would say if you go the ‘psycho killer’ route, try to give his logic and reasoning for his actions at least some foundation that the reader can latch on to and discover as they read through the story. The key is to avoid too much randomness. For me at least, when I read a character that does things simply because the writer wanted him to in order to create the tale, it just doesn’t pull me in.

    And if he’s just plain old random and crazy, than make him so unusual that the reader can’t help but be pulled in. Pick up any Bentley Little novel to see what I mean. The first of his books I ever read was “The Mailman”, which was essentially about a crazy mailman that terrorizes a community and specifically one family. There’s no real reason for what he does, other than the fact that, well, he’s friggin nuts. And that’s okay. Little writes it in a way that still makes it good fun for the reader.

    Any Dean Koontz novel usually goes to the other end of the spectrum. The stories are very careully plotted out and the killer usually has some specific motive that is eventually revealed.

    Now both of these writers take very different approaches, and both have been very successful at doing so. So I guess the answer is, there is no right answer. It’s all about how you execute the idea, and whether you create an enjoyable ride for the reader. Either option could work, just remember that it’s got to stand out from the massive heap of similar mysteries and thrillers. Even if the idea and the motives aren’t the most unique, if the characters are full and interesting your readers will be happy.

    On a side note, some of Tom Piccirilli’s recent stuff may be a good guide. “The Dead Letters” was a great read.

    Aug 26, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  3. Shayne

    Thanks, Michael. You make some good points.

    Dean Koontz is one of my favorite authors, and Lightning is my favorite book of all time. Haven’t tried any Bentley Little yet, although I’ve heard he’s good.

    It’s funny you should say that about The Dead Letters. I tried reading it a while ago, but I couldn’t get into it because the characters didn’t grab me. Maybe I should give it another try.

    Sep 04, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  4. Jess

    Yes and no. If the stakes and suspense are there, I’ll keep reading. I prefer my killers to have a believable motive, but what is believable? Most of us will never kill a person, and most killings are done without premeditation, so a motive doesn’t strictly apply. The most reason book I read, the person was horribly abused and the only thing he knew was to “kill the one you love”, which worked in the book, but… I don’t necessarily like that “excuse”. Not all abused people turn out loony, and being abused does not justify, sympathize or in any way rationalize the actions. It gives us a “why”, but to be honest, I’m not sure it’s really a why at all. The better question would be, in this case, why did he allow the abuse to make him deviate? What in him, his deeper Maslowian need, made him do it? I think if you get to THAT, whatever external-looking motivation you assign him will be believable. It all, of course, comes down to execution. :)

    Sep 10, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  5. Shayne

    Jess, I think too many stories out there try to excuse the serial killer from any responsibility. I think I’d rather have a story where the author makes no attempt to justify the killer’s actions at all, and just makes the killer unapologetically nasty.

    Basically, I’m getting the impression that people will be willing to accept any kind of story, as long as you put the effort into making the characters interesting and fun, as Michael said, and the tension is high enough, as you said, Jess. And, of course, the plot isn’t so full of plot holes that you could use it to strain your spaghetti.

    Sep 11, 2008 @ 11:41 am