Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Motive–how important is it?


There’s a cop show on Canadian TV called, “Motive,” and the network’s description reads:

MOTIVE is an unconventional way to watch a crime drama unfold. Each episode of the new CTV Original Drama begins by revealing not only the victim, but the killer as well. It’s not a “whodunit,” it’s a “whydunit,” a question faced by spirited female Vancouver homicide detective Angie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) as she begins to piece together the clues from the crime. How are the victim and killer connected? What is the motive? As the mystery unfolds, the audience navigates a complicated maze of clues alongside the detective and her team.

So, do we care that much whydunit?

I sometimes say that my favourite crime fiction song is I Fought the Law because it explains itself so directly wit the lyrics:

“I needed money because I had none.”

That seems like all the motive necessary but maybe we’re past that now. Maybe we’re more interested in the why than we are in the who (or at least equally as interested).

Maybe I’m just afraid of the too cliché motive, the childhood trauma that leads to adult serial killer (maybe I see that as too much of an easy out and a slight to all the people who have overcome childhood trauma or are battling the effects of it without hurting anyone else).

Maybe it’s different depending on the crime. I like a good heist story and usually the motive for the robbery is pretty thin and dealt with quickly so we can move on to the real story.

In my novels there are a lot of criminals who commit crimes because… well, because they’re criminals. I like that approach, the idea that someone has looked at the opportunities available and decided to break the law. One marijuana dealer I spoke to more than ten years ago told me that laws change, someday his business would be legal and he’d be as respected a distiller or a brewer.

So, when it comes to the non-murder crimes, the drug dealing and bank heists and art thefts, how important is the character’s motive?


Jay Stringer said...

I always say that the crime in the story should be the quickest route between what a person wants and what they have.

I'm far more interested in whydunit than the whodunit. BUT the caveat I'd add, is that I think a lot of crime fiction -both books and network TV- puts to much emphasis on the crime. So with such focus on whatever wacky and inventive crime has been committed that week, they need to create a matching motive something worthy of a few scene chewing moments, something that justifies the gimmic of the week/episode/book.

I think crime is simple, and it's done for simple reasons. And I'd much rather explore the world around it, and why people are in that position, what leads up to the crime and what the repercussions are.

So, yeah, I care more about the whydunit than the whodunit, but not really in the way that tends to be presented to us.

Dana King said...

Jay beat me to half my comment. Motive is important, but, for property crimes in particular, the motive is usually "I want money and this is the quickest way I can get it." The "motive" is often more a personality trait than anything else: the criminal lacks impulse control, seeks instant gratification, has no patience, or needs more money quicker than he can legally acquire it. (Drug addicts come to mind for that last one.)

Crimes of violence are somewhat the same in general, even if we leave out the crime of passion, where no thought went into it. (Though such a story can be compelling when the cover-up is the engine that drives it, along with the ripple effects of the act on the victim's--and perpetrator's--friends and family.) Read enough cop-based crime non-fiction--where a cross-section of criminals are discussed instead of a single, sensational case--and you'll find the motives for a large majority of crime has at least something to do with the criminal being an asshole who acts out, whether he's a rapist, unnecessarily violent mugger, or a murderer.

Damn it, McFetridge, you've provoked me into another blog post.

John McFetridge said...

Motive as personality trait, I like that.

I'm also curious about crime-for-money when the criminals already have a lot of money, the Oceans Eleven kind of heist or once someone turns criminal activity into a well-paying career. I guess that's personality trait.

John McFetridge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dana King said...

I think the Oceans Eleven type criminal is the best example of personality type as motive: they do it because they get off on it. They're probably adrenaline junkies, and live for the planning and execution. (Understood, Clooney was motivated by vengeance in Eleven, as were Wahlberg and Charlize Theron in The Italian Job, but Wahlberg was already an affluent pro.)

Then we get into the outlaw realm: it doesn't matter if its legal or not; they just like doing it. (I realize this is why I can never hope to write literary fiction.)