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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"Outstanding" is subjective, of course, and "the old traditional novels" a bit vague, but I agree that emotional involvement is practically essential if you want the reader to keep turning pages. Thanks for the thoughts, I.J.
Like on Star Trek. You know the guy you've never seen before is going to get it.
Hmmm.... it's not unconventional in traditional and cozy mysteries. Quite often the murderee is a jerk who every other character has motive to murder. That way you have plenty of potential plot threads - and no unpleasant aftertaste!

Personally, I prefer to feel sympathy for the victim, though they don't have to be saints. In fact, I'm more likely to sympathize if they aren't saints, because they'll be more like me.
Readers identifying with the characters is another important consideration. Thanks, Barbara.
The victims in my novel on submission were genuinely innocent, although they had unwittingly gotten involved in some very hairy circumstances. I was working a straight kidnapping plot, and the murders just sort of happened--with strong motivation from the villain. It was a surprise to me, and I hope the reader is also surprised, but I didn't start with the intention of manipulating emotions.
Oh, I know, Jon. Absolutely no offense taken. I just wanted to note that sometimes emotions can come honestly, without any manipulation in mind.

I started reading Harlan Coben's No Second Chance today. The main character wakes up in the hospital with gunshot wounds, and finds out his wife was killed and daughter kidnapped. Talk about honest, powerful emotions. Wow. Coben's got game.
But woe to any writer that puts a pet or child in the victim role. The vocal minority who love reading most mysteries, but despise any book and or author which victimizes kids or cuddly pets will git ya. Slaughter a couple of dozen deserving or undeserving adults, and all is dandy, but, as the lyrics say: "Hey, writers, leave those kids alone!"

Note: I don't agree with that thinking, but see it comes up all the time in commentary and discussion lists.
I've never understood why people get so upset about pets, but not people. As far as I'm concerned, it's all fair game, as long as it's presented realistically and it fits in the story.
I think pets and children can work. It all depends on how it's handled. Patterson's Along Came a Spider comes to mind, as does Stephen King's The Dead Zone.

For the most part, though, you're right Doug. Kids and pets are touchy.
Yeah, I thought of The Dead Zone, too.
The victim is an interesting thing.

One of the books that has stayed with me for years now is Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead. In that one you actually heard from the "victim" on an ongoing basis as she wasn't "quite" dead, but she was also no longer a "victim". So it wasn't one of those flashbacks or scenes where the victim is in ongoing peril - what had been done to her was done and the killer was out of the picture.

Amazing book - totally unforgettable for me.
Sounds like a good one, Karen.


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