By Mark W. Danielson
Without light, color cannot exist, but its absence can create stunning suspense. Mysteries like Dracula, Batman, Frankenstein, and The Shadow use darkness to raise tension and fear. However, real-life criminals don’t always operate in the dark. In fact, our world has become so packed with psychos, beasts, and murderers, it’s enough to make Dracula scream. While these people unknowingly inspire fictional murder mysteries, their characters can only be effective if they are portrayed in living color. After all, in darkness, red blood on a white carpet means nothing until a character steps on something soggy and then turns on a light. In that moment, their discovery changes their world forever.
I’m not saying that darkness doesn’t create spectacular settings. After all, the majority of Batman, the Dark Knight was filmed using dark sets. But to make Batman’s character relatable, he had to be portrayed as someone with the same emotions as the rest of us, except on a grander scale. Without this emotional bond, the audience cannot relate to his character. The same holds true for the empathy given to Heath Ledger’s Joker character in the same movie. Soulless characters add nothing to novels or films.
In comparing these fictional characters to Susan Smith who in 1994 intentionally drowned her children in her car demonstrates how anyone can be evil. Imagine this daylight scene: bubbles breaking the surface over her submerged car, then the tow truck’s chain grinding as it pulls the vehicle from its murky grave. Observers wearing tees and jeans and perhaps a few in summer dresses shed tears as the two infants who were trapped inside are removed. Emergency lights flash while police officers stretch yellow perimeter tape. Divers’ footprints emerge from the water under an overcast sky. No one notices the barking dog or the rattling leaves, yet they are both part of the scene. And so murder goes in our colorful world.
The above example proves that we don’t need bloodshed to create anxiety, fear, sorrow, empathy, or even hatred. All we need is a believable scene, and to do that, we must include the dust-covered light bulbs, the helicopters that stir the air, and the diesel fumes that choke us. Add our lack of trust and lost faith in God from a world perceived to be nearing its end and anything is possible. Whether writing about fictional Gotham City or Southside Chicago, believable shady characters will always generate fear.
Authors must present their characters in sufficient detail to make readers care. Readers want to know what drove a character to murder a fellow human being, or as in the example, why a mother drowned her own children. At the same time, scenes must be vivid enough so our readers can delve into them. In this sense, the background setting becomes as important as a character’s dialogue or actions. To accomplish this, writers must learn to observe the tiniest details and then infuse them into a scene.
Observation is a leaned skill, but anyone is capable. Many MWA chapters sponsor “rabbit” activities where you can learn to ditch or track someone. I encourage everyone to engage in these opportunities, but most of all, have fun writing.