Breaking the Law

One of the major goals in plotting a novel is righting a wrong. The nature of the wrong comes in many guises, and the steps toward remediating it may be as complicated as an author can concoct. Underneath all of the machinations, though, lies the principle of fairness. The meek shall inherit the earth writ large. 

Aiding the author’s efforts is the moral code that readers bring to a book. One salient truth that has emerged amid the decline of religious belief is that social norms and peer pressure exert a powerful ethical force. You need look no further than the acceptance of mask wearing during the epidemic: a lot of it was driven by what the people around us were doing.

That is why a character committing a crime has different levels of impact. If the person is a known villain, each new murder may not juice up the tension more. The exact opposite could happen, because the crimes become numbing. An act of evil committed by a good person, by contrast, can inject a tidal wave of uneasiness into the proceedings. 

At its base is the worry of getting caught, which we have all felt when committing a petty larceny of some sort. Never mind the shame. A life can be ruined by exposure, depending on the severity of the crime, and if we have come to identify with the character, it feels like our life that may be ruined. Or at the very least, our enjoyment of following that character.

The good character that commits a crime becomes charged with danger. That makes them more alluring, because we read books in part in order to dare to do things vicariously that we would not attempt in our real, boring life. The attraction to what has turned wild is combined with the character’s other qualities, the good side that assures us that the criminal behavior can be rectified.

Attention also needs to be paid to when is the crime committed. If it occurs early on, the book’s calculus is changed for the remaining hundreds of pages. First off, without enough circumstances forcing characters to commit a crime, the reader wonders how good they really are. Can I trust this person can, or wants to, turn things around? If the crime is committed later, it may be that the character has to fight back against the evil that has sprung up around them. Second, the character is on the run, so to speak, from that moment on, and is the book ready to free them from the familiar bounds of their loved ones or friends? Being a fugitive has plenty of tension, but how many near escapes can they undergo before the plot gambit becomes tiresome?

Exercise: When choosing a crime, try to pick one that suits the character. A likable person who tends to be devious may even earn laughs if they embezzle company funds. Or you can use contrast. A mild-mannered person who commits a horrific murder truly shocks us. You’re not writing for automatons; use their moral boundaries to your storytelling advantage.

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine 

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