Article: Craft Corner
Kill Your Characters: The Facts
By Steve Rush
Article by Steve Rush
When you think you have heard or seen it all—surprise! A story broadcast on TV, radio, or in print relates unimaginable facts of a crime committed against another person or group. Doubt prompts questions to the story’s plausibility.
You are not alone. I supposed the same thing many times. Death galvanizes a reaction. New twists in some form or other—related to either who, what, when, where, why or how—complicated what otherwise appeared straightforward. As startling or amazing as facts seem, how we process scenes remains the same.
Authors slay characters. We execute them to drive our story forward. We plot murders. In some works we devastate character’s families with suicides. We arrange accidents or other events—transportation crashes, slips and falls, on-the-job occurrences, and exposure to toxins.
We create dilemmas. These dilemmas require details. After chosen evidence supports the incident of choice, we introduce clues. Insert red herrings. When every element fits our premise, we invent police detectives, private investigators or amateur sleuths to solve our character’s deaths.
To catch those who kill we assume the role of killer. This calls for writers to think like killers. In addition, writers must adopt the roles of crime-scene technicians, sleuths, and prosecutors.
Facts validate scenes. Often these details reflect real-world situations. Skepticism turns focus away when readers see events as far-fetched and unbelievable. Although instances in life often prove true, many surprise us.
Here are two examples:
- A man arrived to the emergency room with a screwdriver stuck in his head.
- Police responded to a dispatch and found a man seated at the bar. A tire tool impaled his neck. Radiology exams showed the tool missed his carotid artery by one millimeter.
Both men remained conscious despite the odds. They spoke to medical staff. They received treatment. They recovered from their injuries.
These and other bizarre stories of survival fascinate us. They spawn ideas. We ask: “What if?” We decide to share one of these A-HA moments with our readers. To accomplish this, we must write to the point of believability.
Readers expect accuracy. Accuracy confirms credibility and, therefore, enhances believability for our audience. Accuracy requires research. We explore the issue to obtain answers to these common questions:
- How did the victim die?
- What prompted the incident?
- What happened afterward?
- Did anyone seek revenge?
- Who was the assailant?
- Were charges filed against the antagonist, or did someone choose vigilantism?
- Were actions taken based on conjecture or confirmed facts?
Facts necessary for criminal prosecution extend beyond reasonable doubt. The level an investigator must prove their case extends beyond requirements essential to convict the criminal. Protagonists search for, secure, and analyze evidence to expose and support truth. Their accuracy—devoid of doubt and uncertainty—convinces prosecutors to take cases to trial.
The scope or parameter of death investigations begins with a narrow focus of known facts. It broadens to discover unknown facts.
Known facts include:
- The body.
- The evidence.
- The environment.
- Statements of witnesses and first responders.
Unknown facts include information gathered through:
- Background checks.
- Neighborhood canvass.
- Interviews of persons known to the victim.
- Interrogation of suspects or other persons of interest.
- Search warrants.
- Results of scientific analysis.
Witnesses include persons who witnessed the event leading up to and including death; or people with knowledge of one or more involved parties.
Investigation of death scenes begins with the body and presence of physical evidence within its environment. The size of our scope depends on location. Where did your antagonist kill the character? At home? In a place of business? At a job site? On a city street, or out in the middle of nowhere in a field or forest? Each location defines a scope of different parameters.
Elements of the story direct readers where we want them to go until a twist of facts proves otherwise. Our words control the story’s course. This includes any device of misdirection. One tidbit of information alters the outcome. An example of this is seen in the following scenario based on an actual event.
Police received a call of a vehicle crash into the front of a business at one o’clock on a Saturday morning. An officer responded to the site. The front of the sedan—from windshield forward—intruded into the building. The officer discovered a woman slumped forward in the driver’s seat. Blood matted the woman’s long hair. No signs of life. The officer requested the agency’s traffic specialists and the medical examiner.
The traffic specialist documented the vehicle’s path of travel from a shopping center across the highway. Based on preliminary facts given to the medical examiner, the sedan speeded from the rear of the shopping center, shot across three lanes, and crashed through the building’s brick facade.
The medical examiner began the on-scene part of his investigation. Blood-matted hair obscured any visible injury to the head. He parted her hair, and examined her scalp. What he discovered in the tangled hair aimed the investigation in a new direction. When he ran his fingers around the back of the head to the right side, a small caliber copper-jacketed bullet dislodged and fell out of the victim’s hair.
One item of evidence redirected the investigation from an alleged traffic accident to a homicide.
Circumstances often confine a search for evidence to one locality, whereas in the above scenario the scope expanded to the area behind the shopping center where the perpetrator shot the woman.
An investigation might lead to an open field or forest where the scope expands beyond the initial event. This proves true for cases when the antagonist moves the body from the site of the crime to a secluded site. In cases of skeletal remains, a perimeter search outside the core area might expand to hundreds of feet.
Consider the reader’s wants when writing death scenes. Readers crave entirety. Who died? What inciting incident led to the person’s death? When did death occur? Where did death occur? How did they die? You may well decide to unload all information about the victim in a single scene, or add suspense and extend it over multiple chapters, such as identifying the character as “unidentified, pending further investigation.” This depends on your goal.
The reader wants to know the victim’s identity sooner or later. On occasion, a law enforcement officer responds to a death call where identity is known. The source of information could be a relative, acquaintance, neighbor or co-worker. Identity simplifies matters at the onset of the investigation.
At other times, no one present knows the victim. A means of identification—driver’s license, credit cards or other proof of identity—might not be on or near the body. Often characters meet their demise other than in their home or workplace.
The body’s condition—decomposition or mutilation—might preclude visual identity. Protagonists or other character experts document scars, marks, tattoos, and old fractures observed on X-rays. They take fingerprints, dental impressions, and samples of blood and tissue for DNA analysis and toxicology.
One tidbit to note when constructing facts for death scenes: jurisdiction of the body belongs to the medical examiner/coroner or their designee. The surroundings fall under the jurisdiction of the appropriate law enforcement agency. Police and detectives on TV or in the movies manipulate bodies at scenes. Beyond any check for an ID, coroners and medical examiners deem such behavior inappropriate in real-world death-scene investigations. Any manipulation chances loss or contamination of trace evidence otherwise preserved with proper handling of the remains. ■
Article by Steve Rush “Kill Your Characters”
Steve Rush’s experience includes tenure as homicide detective and chief forensic investigator for Burton & Associates, a national consulting firm in the field of forensic and environmental pathology and medicine. Once hailed as, “The best forensic investigator in the United States” by the late Forensic Pathologist Joseph L. Burton, Steve has investigated 900+ death scenes and taught classes related to death investigation. His specialties include injury causation, blood spatter analysis, occupant kinematics, and recovery of human skeletal remains.
He is the author of two novels published under the pseudonym, Shane Kinsey, three Christian non-fiction books including, “Cause of Death: Autopsy of Jesus,” and was part of the development team for “Quincy,” a software program designed for coroners and medical examiners.
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