In crime fiction, we have at least three main characters: The hero(ine), the villain, and the victim. We root for the protagonist, despise and possibly fear the antagonist, and...

What about the victim? Should the victim have a face, and be as well-developed as the other principal characters? Or should the victim merely be a slab of meat on a stainless steel table? How much sympathy do we, as writers and readers, owe the victim?

Plenty, IMO.

In my novel currently on submission, a body doesn't turn up until the beginning of Act II. The body happens to be, I hope, someone the reader cares about by that time. S/he lived and breathed for the reader--and for the other characters in the novel--but now s/he is gone. Brutally gone.

To me, this leaves a bigger impact than if I had started with the murder and then developed the victim through backstory. I've seen it done successfully both ways, but...

Think Silence of the Lambs. Why did that book work, even with no murder onstage (other than the faceless--no pun intended--guard when Hannibal escaped)? I think one reason SOTL worked was because the victim (who ultimately survived, of course) was as well-developed as the heroine and villain.


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The victim should be developed and the victim should matter; he/she should be a sympathetic character. Otherwise, who cares if the person gets killed (and it's interesting that in crime fiction there are three main characters, and one of them is a murder victim [yes, you didn't say murder, but it's obviously what you're talking about] because that kind of reinforces Jon's point from earlier)?

If the victim doesn't demand some kind of sympathy, than where's the conflict? And without conflict, there is no good story.

Now the victim doesn't necessarily have to be as well-developed, but I think the more developed the victim, the more impact the story will have.
Thanks, John. I agree.

It's surprising, though, the number of crime stories you see where the victim is mostly forgetable.
I have a problem with thrillers that open with murder as the curtain-raiser. While we're seeing the victim (usually a woman) go through the motions of the date / bar scene / walking down the dark alley, you know what's going to happen. You know it won't be pretty. And I find myself skipping to the end of the chapter because I've seen this too many times before.

This discussion reminds me of the scene in Hitchhiker's Guide in which a whale appears high above the planet and dies from too much gravity about a page later. Douglas Adams said in an interview that he wrote the scene in an attempt to get the reader to sympathize with the whale during his brief existence, because he was bothered by too many books who don't humanize their victims. Even with such an absurd set-up, he succeeded.
Douglas Adams succeeded at everything. The Hitchhiker's Guide "trilogy" is good reading. I need to read that again.
Wouldn't it be interesting to write Moby Dick from the whale's POV? :)
Not if it's 600 pages long.
I agree it shouldn't be black and white. No one is all good or all bad. A sympathetic character isn't necessarily a "good" character. For example, Darth Vader became much more interesting once we learned how he became Darth Vader.
Hmm. Not sure about that, Jon. If the victim is reprehensible, why should I care as much if the villain is brought to justice?

I'm not suggesting everything should be black and white, but I'm not sure exactly how all black would work, either.
I do enjoy a villain who's somewhat sympathetic. Sounds very dark and interesting, Jon. And, dare I say it...noir?
I agree, although The Lone Ranger and Tonto racing to save Rebecca from Sunnybrook Farm who was tied to the railroad tracks by the guys wearing black hats still seems to sell more books.
Now that would be a story, LOL!
I doubt I'm "noir influenced." I am influenced by outstanding novels. Some of these have been mentioned among works by "noir" writers. The term is immaterial to me. Some novels are darker than others. So what?
I dislike novels where the victims are expendable. In the old traditional novels it got to be predictable that the least likable characters would be bumped off first. No doubt to spare the reader.
But the reader shouldn't be spared. And the good novel requires that the reader become emotionally involved.


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