“If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.” Why corpses can’t just be a McGuffin.

This is something we say in this household, sometimes through gritted teeth, when a scriptwriter has hit us hard by killing off a favourite character in a TV show or film. The same applies to my reading, certainly these days. I have long since moved on from the fun, formulaic mysteries where the body in the library or wherever might just as well be a realistic dummy, because their role is simply to get the plot rolling. A McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock explained, and frequently demonstrated in his work. Rear Window is a fantastic film, but does anyone ever remember the dead woman’s first name, or why she was killed?

For crime fiction to have emotional depth, readers (and viewers) need to make a connection with the victim. This death has to matter. On the other hand, the crime is generally what starts the story. So making that connection can be a challenge when our first encounter with someone is with their corpse. It’s getting to know who this person was, and why someone else would be driven to kill them, that draws us on through the book, in most cases. There are exceptions of course, but it takes an accomplished writer to do this well. Even so, that won’t be what a lot of readers are looking for.

So how do we make Mr or Ms McGuffin matter, if the reader will never get to meet them? The most satisfying way for me as a reader is to see the dead person reflected in the reactions of other characters in the story. The more complex and varied those reactions are, the more interested I become. Someone blameless and beloved by all, who’s murdered by an unrepentant monster, is certainly a tragedy, but that can make for an ultimately one-note, and depressing, novel. Reading about an unrepentant monster who finally gets what’s long been coming to them is most likely to leave me thinking ‘good riddance’, closing the book, and moving briskly on.

Thankfully there are infinite possibilities between the two extremes. We can see one person who knew the victim is genuinely grief-stricken, while the next is really struggling not to speak ill of the dead. Or maybe they’ll have no hesitation at all, venting some fresh or festering grievance. What does any or all of this tell us about the victim, and why they were killed? Or maybe this particular quarrel has no significance? The opportunities for false leads and red herrings are endless.

But there still has to be an emotional connection in all this, not just plot mechanics. We have to see that this person mattered, that they had value or significance, at least to someone. No man or woman should be an island, any more than they should be a McGuffin. Their death should diminish someone. As readers we need to see this, if we’re really going to feel it. We won’t make that connection if we’re simply told about the victim’s virtues and/or vices.

This is why Xandyberis had to be more than an unexpected dead man in expensive shoes, when I came to write Shadows of Athens. I had to think through all aspects of his character and his life, as well as working through the events and motivations that ultimately led him to meet his demise. Philocles discovers some, but but no means all, of this through the course of the book. That he doesn’t learn everything doesn’t matter. I still had to do the work that didn’t end up on the page, to make sure that this story would count.

And yes, some recent notable deaths in recent film and TV got me thinking about this, but No Spoilers.

“The thugs vandalised the wall with vile grafitti” – words you won’t find in Shadows of Athens

As those who’ve already read the book know, this line could have been in the book. It’s stuck in my mind because that was a point where my typing completely crashed to a halt over the question of vocabulary. It’s something that definitely challenges historical fiction authors.

Where do you draw the line between ‘realism’ and clarity for readers? Because on the one hand, complete realism for readers would mean me writing Philocles’ adventures in Attic Greek, writers like Simon Turvey brushing up their Latin, and James Wilde reaching for his copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. That would be ridiculous.

On the other hand, the wrong word can throw a reader out of a story completely. That’s happened to me more than once. The last time was thanks to a Roman legionary using a Napleonic era military term. No, I can’t remember the book, and wouldn’t cite it if I could.

The fact that English is full of so many loan words complicates things still further. Just look at that sentence above. ‘Thug’ comes from the era of British rule in India, ‘vandals’ harks back to the rampaging Germanic tribes in the so-called Dark Ages, while ‘graffiti’ comes from Italian and wasn’t used before the 1850s. All of which are so far removed from Classical Athens, that the sentence above would surely have been a real stumbling block for the reader.

Though I wonder if it would be the use of all three words so close together that would make the real difference? Would the reader’s eye slide over ‘thug’ or ‘vandal’ if those were the only potentially out-of-place/period words in a sentence? Perhaps, and also, any reader response is going to be a very individual thing. One reason why I wouldn’t cite that time-travelling Roman legionary, even if I could, is because, let’s face it, you have to be a major military history nerd to pick up on something like that. The majority of readers wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. Indeed, that probably added atmosphere to the book for a lot of them.

Add to that, I know full well that I’ve seen ‘graffiti’ used in books set in Ancient Rome, and my Pedant Sense barely buzzes. It’s an Italian word with Latin roots, and as a consequence, that doesn’t seem nearly so far out of place in that setting for me.

Then there are the times when using wholly accurate vocabulary can give an entirely misleading impression of a historical period and place. I remember seeing an interview with the scriptwriters for the TV series Deadwood, set in the Wild West, i.e. America from the mid 1860s to 1900 roughly. The writers were being criticized for the frequent use of ‘cocksucker’ in their dialogue. They pointed out that contemporary newspapers and other records invariably mention the unmitigated and incesssantly foul language of these frontier territory towns. Men and women alike couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’… Er, that would seem positively quaint today, wouldn’t it? It would certainly fail to convey anything like an accurate sense of the era and setting.

So as with so much in language, context is everything. Writers certainly have to be aware of potential unhelpful associations with particular words, but an excess of pedantry/accuracy can be a waste of everyone’s time, and sometimes actively counterproductive. I will continue to examine my own word choices to strike the best balance – and to discuss borderline cases with my editors to see if I need to put my Inner Nitpicker firmly back in its box. Fresh eyes are always invaluable for things like that.

And yes, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Deadwood movie on Netflix. Seeing that advertised got me thinking about the use of historical language, hence this piece.