There is little debate over the fact that crime fiction is the most popular genre with a female audience, and that over half of these novels are written by women who can be every bit as shocking in their graphic depiction of crimes as their male counterparts.
Just about everyone has some limit to their tolerance for violence in a story though. So, how does one write about the depravity humans do to each other and still make it palatable and safe for readers to keep on reading? How can a writer stretch those limits of tolerance for violence without glamorizing, stereotyping and desensitizing readers to the victims of their fictional crimes?
Personally, I feel writers have an obligation to use their fictional crimes in a way that will expose the social justice issues and moral components of the crimes. This is not about writing titillating violence where there is only the desire to shock readers. This is about putting a human face to these crimes. These victims had a life before the violent act. And, the perpetrator, as deviant as he or she may be, also had a life. At some point, these separate lives intersected violently. The ramifications of that go on to affect the lives of those who cared about them, or who may wish them their due.
Why do the most terrifying plots of violence against women seem to be written by women? Part of it seems to be due to the demands of a market of women who enjoy reading about blood and guts. The other reason is that women are better qualified to write about violence against women because they write it from having an inside awareness of it. Women grow up with the knowledge that there are perpetrators lurking out there who don’t see us as people but rather as potential prey. Writing about it from this standpoint has the benefit of allowing readers the opportunity to feel what the victims are experiencing and to empathize with them.
When writing about violence there are certain elements to think about when plotting.
Help readers to get to know the victim(s) before the crime happens. Show them as people going about their every day activities who were not expecting to be victimized. Describe emotions during the commission of the crime, both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s, the emotions at the crime scene and the emotions going on during the investigation itself. Make a reader feel the victim’s vulnerability, how they may have fought back, or their submissiveness, their courage, their thoughts as they experienced the crime and especially when they know they are about to die.
Detectives are people too. Facing the results of a violent act isn’t easy, no matter how well trained they are. Stone cold, tough as nails, emotionally detached investigators do not elicit admiration from readers. They need to see that a victim’s death touched them in some way because of their own humanity, and not regarded as just another day, another crime.
Think about the best way to narrate the crime. Only using witnesses to give the details is not all that reliable because everyone sees things differently. If you use another character to recall witnessing the crime, it should be told with some sense of emotion regardless of how they felt about the victim, or it will read like a police report. One of the best ways of narrating the violence is to use the thoughts of the perpetrator of the crime. Tell the crime through his or her eyes in the form of his/her inner dialogue. You will give a better feel for the motive and details of the crime. If possible, don’t forget to contrast that with the thoughts of the victims as they are experiencing the violent act.
Violence portrayed against women should never be dismissed on the grounds that only certain “types” of women place themselves in dangerous situations and therefore, the consequences of their behavior are to be expected. Never dehumanize a victim. Violence can happen to any woman, as well as men and children.
With the right back story it’s even possible to humanize a perpetrator. However, you can still give them their just due in the end. Readers like to know justice was still served for their victim(s).
If it’s not germane to the story, leave the graphic details out. But, if it’s used for emotional impact to allow readers to feel the depravity of the crime, use it to create an emotional identification with the suffering of the victim.
Make sure you’ve done your research so your facts are accurate and plausible. When writing about the use of weapons, drugs, poisons, or whatever in the commissions of crimes seek expert advice on the suitability of what you’re trying to use. Also, make sure to get the facts behind your forensic details correct. Violent crimes can be messy.
Pat Concodora writes as P. J. Woods and is the author of the Harper Simone Novels. You can keep up with Pat at her website: http://pjwoodsauthor.com or her professional website for editing manuscripts at: http://bonmotsandprosepublishing.com.