Thursday, May 5, 2011


When you write crime fiction and your plot includes a murder, what kind of murder do you use in your story? Now, I’m not referring to how your character gets bumped off (i.e., shot, stabbed, etc.). I’m talking about the various ’categories’, if you will, of murder Let me explain.

Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. What it really comes down to is intent. Was the original intent to kill and then death achieved? Was it a premeditated, willful, and deliberate act?

A lot of plots are geared around this type of killing, but you know, there are many different ways to kill off your character that would perhaps add an extra layer or two to your story.

Why always use murder in the first degree. How about sticking in a second degree. The definition of second degree murder is pretty close to the one for first degree, but again, it comes down to original intent. Second degree murder is non-premeditated and can result from an assault. What makes it second degree vs. manslaughter for instance though, is that while the individual committing the assault did not set out to kill the victim, he or she is aware during the assault that death is a real possibility, but continues just the same. I know it’s a fine line, but under the law, the line is there.

Then we have manslaughter (sometimes termed as third degree murder), and actually, there are two types there. Voluntary manslaughter lacks a prior intent to actually kill, but does involve the intent to cause serious harm with total disregard for human life, and death results. Involuntary manslaughter is unlawful killing without intent. This would involve justified or accidental killings, which by the way, are still considered homicides, though depending on the circumstances, they may or may not be criminal offenses.

Self-defense, of course, is not included in any of the various categories of murder. That could create an interesting situation in a story since your character killing in self-defense would only be witnessed by the one who did the killing and the one who was killed. Tough perhaps to prove self-defense to the authorities, especially if the ’killer’ flees the scene. Possibilities? Definitely.

Lastly, let’s not forget suicide. Yes, I did say suicide. I have read actual cases where an individual made their suicide (or at least attempted) appear as if a particular person murdered them. It worked too, at least at the beginning. With the advancement in the various fields of forensics, however, that kind of plan would hopefully be easier to see through. One case involved a man who had a terminal illness and despised his neighbor. The reasons were ridiculous to any rational person, but not to him. He came up with this elaborate scheme to actually kill himself, but set up his neighbor as his killer. Almost got away with it too. The neighbor was arrested, which made it difficult to act in his own defense. But he had very supportive friends and a devoted family, and together, they were able to bring out the truth. In the meantime however, the man sat in jail just waiting. Scary, huh?

All these different twists and turns with what your characters are thinking, what they may or may not be planning, how they react when certain events occur, do they run and try to clear their name from behind the scenes, do they stand their ground and hope that really being innocent is enough?

If your guy wakes up one morning and decides to add another notch to his belt just because he enjoys it, so be it. Nothing wrong with a down and dirty serial murderer now and then. But take a chance. Get inside your character’s head and put different kinds of intent in there, or pull out any that’s already lurking, and then send him on his way to meet somebody, and the somebody dies. How? Why? Accident? Was he lying in wait to punch out the jerk who cut him off on the freeway, but the poor sap croaks on the sidewalk?

The possibilities are endless. There’s so many different paths your story can take, so many different situations your character can find himself or herself in when a death occurs. Be creative, be clever, use one type, use all of them, deceive your readers without mercy, make it impossible for them to put your story down until you decide to reveal how things really happened.

First degree, second degree, third degree, manslaughter, suicide… Decisions, decisions…


  1. Hmmm... very interesting... a lot to think about. Looking back, a fair amount of the deaths in my stories have been premeditated, decidedly first degree... I don't suppose my protagonist's mental state would mitigate a lesser degree? Is it still first degree if a crime of passion?

    I'm thinking that in my latest F3 submission... that death could fall under the heading of manslaughter... there was certainly no premeditation or intent.

    I will have something to think about with the next story I write that has a death in it.

  2. Interesting points, Joyce. If you are driving happily down the road and some butthead comes within an inch of putting you into an embankment or a bridge buttress you can make a citizen's arrest on the charge of attempted murder. If the police agree then the DA sometimes will make that the charge. Usually though the defendant pleads down to Depraved Indifference, which can buy him as much prison time as an attempted murder charge would -- though with better prospects for faster parole.

  3. Joyce this is a really useful informative post that takles into consideration every aspect of what is at the centre of crime writing. The use of chemicals is an interesting slant especially if people know what they're doing with them.

  4. Veronica, Most of mine have been murder in the first as well. Doing the research for this post, it gave me a really good look at all the ways a death can be incorporated into a story. Change the circumstances surrounding the death, and it impacts everything. Makes me want to experiment with all of them.

  5. AJ, Good points. Events that chain react into others, possibly horrific ones, can be deemed criminal even if there was no actual intent--just basic stupidity at work. Charges can vary, as can the punishment. So many possibilities with fiction. Looking at life, such a complex layering concerning just one event--that of a death. It boggles the mind.

  6. Richard, Thanks for your comments. Good points about the use of chemicals. They can be used to subdue or kill, depending on intent. If the knowledge isn't there, death could result when the intent was to frighten only. It's a dangerous game using that type of 'weapon'. Incredibly fascinating though. So many chemicals and/or drugs to choose from!