Emotional Connections to Characters that We Kill

My treasured spouse The Blonde likes to watch those awful forensic crime dramas. I still love her.

So one of them, the other night, shows us the household of a nice family, mom, dad, a little boy, and a toddler.  They’re written as a pretty normal family and we like them.  They’re getting ready for a trip. There’s something going on with the large dog they have, and that turns out to be an Important Point In the Story.  Of course it is. They only include the clues we need so we don’t get too mad when they draw conclusions later and we’re not able to find out the bad guy because they didn’t give us the same clues the protags are getting.

But I already know that this crime drama is going to do something mean to these characters. How Olympic.  Zeus creates a mortal, and then he toys with him.

Nevertheless, we start to identify with the family, and the tension we feel is real: What are those awful writers going to do to them? Who is going to be killed/kidnapped/have something awful happen?

The family goes to sleep, and the mom wakes up. It’s her POV. She sits up, says “Honey?” and looks to her left. Shot of the husband, eyes wide, gagged and duct taped to a chair shaking his head.

Then to the crime scene: the entire family was killed and left in the basement after being tortured for a few days.

I curse the writers, because I was emotionally identifying with the family, similar to my own, and now I’m going to sleep with the loaded shotgun nearby for a few nights due to being paranoid.  Good writing? Yes and no.  Good in the sense that it’s a crime drama and they made the family charming and normal and interesting.  Bad in the sense that they took that and snuffed ’em all out.  The writers killed a three year old. And they made me feel it.

So how does that tie into writing fiction? Do we build up a character to kill them later just to wrench an emotional reaction from the reader? Is this cheap and tawdry? Can it be done classy? Or is it gimmicky?