So many possible M words for my theme of mystery terms. Mystery, itself, of course, is the big one. But I’ve written a lot about mysteries on more than a few blogs.
And McGuffin, a favorite M word, is scheduled for its own post later this year. Other M words abound, but I focused on two critical M words for this post.
The bookends for MOM, Means and Motive are the detective’s opening sorter for suspects. Means and motive provide the guts of any mystery story. The O is coming up on, you guessed it, O Day!
Most murderers are not psychopaths or hardened criminals. Psychiatrists who study murderers agree that most of them appear perfectly normal until they kill. In those cases, something happens that tips them over to murder. And your bias is true. Most murderers are men. In a study with 5000 participants, researchers found that 84% of women and91% of men have had at least one clear homicidalfantasy.
So let’s get to means and motive.
Means is an interesting word, a polysemous one, in fact. But in mysteries and crime fiction means has a very specific definition.
Means, in general, is an action or a system bringing about a result. In murder or other serious crimes, there is an intent component. The intent is to kill or to burgle or commit some other felony. Intent causes the perpetrator to select and hone the means in order to conceal the action or system or the creator of the action or system. The perpetrator does not want to be found out or caught. Additionally, the means includes the murder weapon and the facility of the killer to wield the weapon, be it car or gun or knife.
Thus means, for a felonious act, typically involves manipulation of dates, times, places, other suspects or additional aspects of the crime in order to conceal involvement. Perhaps the murderer takes shooting lessons to ensure the ability to perform the task. Means is more than the action of the crime itself. When writing mysteries, the means is one of the earliest decisions the author makes. Right means keeps the book focused and on target. Messy means, inconsistent means, illogical means and your book is in danger of falling apart.
Motive is the impetus for the crime. Motive is the raison d’être leading to murder or theft or kidnapping or other felony.
P.D. James says there are only four motives for a crime: Love, lust, lucre, or loathing. Maybe. But I do think that is simplifying the term overmuch. In the article cited above, criminologists think crime has two bases: instrumental (gain of money or something else) or expressive (anger leading to impulsive killings). Perhaps. But there is a pathology for serial killers that doesn’t match that. Motives are complex and thus can be fun for the mystery writer to develop.
After extensive research into kinds of motives (okay, an hour on the Internet), I came up with dozens of motives. I am categorizing murder motives in a future blog post for you to use in your books. I will give examples of how the motive plays out. I could do a similar chart for other felonies, and I may.
Think of why someone would resort to murder. What could be a motive for a heinous act? Could you ever reach that point? If so, what are the circumstances of such a situation? I would kill, I think, to protect my children. Try putting yourself into the mind of the murderer as a way to develop a reasonable motive and one you could write about honestly and authentically.
Read on to see what happens with Mort and Frieda in “The List”.
Mort faced Frieda. “Is that what you think of me? Is that how you see it when I try to take care of you?”
“Take care of me? Oh, yes, I see you very clearly. Everything’s about you and your comfort. What you want with never a concern about me and the pressures I face and the magnifying glass that is on me and all my actions. A nobody like you can fly under the radar, but I, I am always on display. Why, not more than a week goes by but I don’t get asked for my autograph. Whoever asked for your autograph or asked you to speak to ten thousand people?”
Mort picked up his gin and tonic and sipped. Putting the glass back on the table, he peered into her concealed eyes. “Nobody knows me, you’re right, and that’s just fine with me. I’d rather make my millions quietly. And just when did you last speak to ten thousand people, Frieda? I think you don’t get it that your star is no longer rising. I’ve tried to shield you, but your contract may not be renewed. It’s time to start making plans for the future.”
“I have my future, and it’s just like my past. Calm, ordered, boring even. I hate drama. And you’re wrong about my contract. There’s just a delay getting the details worked out. I’m certain the contract is in the works. But my car? How could you get rid of my car?”