Long Distance Death
I’ve killed a lot of people. I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team at a lost Inca city high in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the international space station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths—I just can’t remember them all.
I confess that I’m a killer.
It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who was annoying. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent. But he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers. In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased person is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating. But there’s a different level of death that we all encounter each day that rarely causes us a second thought. Long-distance death.
A thousand passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Hundreds are trapped in an earthquake in China. Thousands starve to death in Darfur. A plane crash in Columbia kills all on board.
Do we care? Of course, unless those victims are family or friends, we only care long enough to turn the page or switch channels.
In developing main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader cares about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love them or hate them. And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies, and TV shows. Sometimes I give up reading or watching because I just don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting, but they get buried in the plot to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the plot and the story winds up in the ditch.
I use long distant deaths in our books because we write high-concept thrillers that span the globe—what my buddy David Hewson calls telescope stories rather than microscope. We need long-distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes down to the main characters, they better be worth caring for or the wheels just might come off.