Monday, July 20, 2009

The Times They Are A'Changin--small is now the new BIG!

Writing crime fiction is an interesting and challenging endeavor. We have explored various aspects of crime, and even various types of crime. But just as important to discuss are the various levels of crime. In this post, we will discuss what are commonly referred to as "small crimes", and their place in works of fiction.

Now, you might think to yourself, small crimes? Is there such a thing? Isn't a crime a crime? Not according to various police districts around the world. I have read many articles, along with their unfavorable comments from the general public, about police departments being 'unable' to investigate what they term as 'small crimes'. This is due, as was explained, to a shortage of staff. What constitutes a small crime in the eyes of the law you might ask? According to the articles I've read, they all pretty much agree that small crimes would be certain thefts, criminal damage (defined in one as vandalism), common assault, harassment and non-domestic burglary (what?). Exceptions would be if any of these involved the elderly, the disabled, were racist or homophobic in nature, or a victim who had been repeatedly targeted. In those cases, the small crime would be classified as 'aggravated' and would possibly--I stress possibly--be pursued further. If, however, the crime was screened and determined to be small, it would be recorded, but not pursued. Interesting.

While it is very tempting to use this platform to make a social comment regarding how completely deplorable this practice is, I'll leave that up to you, the reader. I will say only that a crime against a person or a person's property is still a crime/violation, however 'small' a third party may determine it to be. And, it is the fact that in 'real life', if you will, the police do not strenuously pursue what they consider to be 'less serious' offenses, if at all, that lend these crimes perfectly to a work of fiction.

How could that be, you might be asking yourself? Who cares about tiny little crimes in a story anyway? Well, frankly, it's the new rage among a lot of crime writers because writing this type of fiction is a tremendous challenge. Oh, come on, right? How hard can it be to write about somebody commiting an act of vandalism? Okay, on its face, it may seem like a lot of drivel, but think again. How difficult can it be to incorporate a small crime, or crimes, in a story and still keep it interesting? I personally feel it would be quite the challenge, and in remembering some of the stories I've read recently that had utilized the 'small crime' plot base, the writer obviously dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to grab my attention from the first sentence and hang on to it until the very last word.

The way I see it, they accomplished that in one of two ways--the first, by having created incredibly strong characters. This can tie back to how you gear your writing--it is character-driven or event-driven? If you're the type of writer who allows their characters to drive the piece, then this is ideal for you. Your characters need to be complete in the sense that they have a past, a present and a potential future of some sort. They don't just need to have a few memories or whatever, they need to be so real that the reader sees them around every corner. Of course, whatever style you use, your characters should be written that way, but it is especially important when utilizing the small crime scenario. One or more of your characters could commit some type of small crime or crimes due to a compulsion or quirk of theirs. Maybe they are a prelude to a 'larger' crime, maybe not though. Don't assume the small crimes have to necessarily lead to grand theft auto or mass murder, because they could, but they do not have to. The small crimes, in and of themselves, or the drive to commit them, could simply be what make up and drive your character to whatever interaction with others and/or end awaits him.

Secondly, if you are the type of writer who allows events to drive their story, utilizing these little bitty crimes is perfect for you as well. Your character could be obsessed with performing some type of ritual that is, in reality, a small crime, or a series of them, in hopes of attaining some type of status or twisted reward they feel they're entitled to. They could perhaps use a series of small infractions occurring throughout to either taunt the authorities, or if they are planning to do something on a larger scale, they could be using the small crimes to try to redirect suspicion away from themselves to another individual. That way, when the larger event occurs, the police would already have someone else in their sights--someone they suspected, but never approached because the previous events had not been deemed serious enough.

The possibilities are endless using this type of scenario, but they take a lot of planning and plotting. All stories do--yes, but depending on what your premise will be, that will determine what type of plan and plot. And always remember how critically important the strength and depth of your characters are. Give them control, and the belief that they can successfully pull these off right under the noses of the police. That's not to say they'll never get caught in your story; although, it's okay sometimes to let the bad guy get away. Honestly, that can be fun too. But getting back to the small crime thing, I would strongly advise picking up some stories that use this base. You will find them fresh and innovative and impossible to put down. Don't let the phrase 'small crimes' mislead you into thinking you're going to read about someone overstaying their welcome at a parking meter--although, come to think of it, that might have potential...

The fact that in 'real life' police probably wouldn't be taking too hard a look at these petty offenses gives your criminal infinitely more freedom in your story to do pretty much as he/she pleases, and this is what makes for an interesting read. The more believable a crime fiction story is, the more potential it has to actually occur, and, for me (an avid reader of the genre as well as a writer), that's what keeps me hanging on and coming back for more of the same.