Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Killer's Confession (WW? #27)

While I’m not published, I’ve killed my share of characters during the past fifteen years. Like any serial killer, I like to think I’ve improved my craft as I’ve added to the long line of literary bodies in my piles of amateur dreck. Have I any remorse for my crimes against these characters? Well, I’m not without a heart, but for now, let me focus on the reason for my killer’s confession: Jess’ latest Writer’s Weekly Question.

Writer's Weekly Question #27:
Have you ever killed one of your characters before? If so, what was the motivation behind the death?

My early attempts at killing characters were a much more forced act, poorly handled as I gave more weight to plot and less to true character development. Early drafts of a book based on my childhood super heroes, The Demon Riders, included a character fated to die. Anderson just served little purpose in my mind. Yes, I made this young man a part of the team, but he never quite worked, so killing him seemed the way to go. I wanted him somewhat to blame for his own death, making him into someone who regretted his decision for the life of a heroic adventurer (in later drafts, an analyst-turned-field agent). As I look back on this character, I realize some of the reasons Anderson just never worked. First and foremost, he was made to die. As a writer, I knew this and failed to develop him to the level I did the long term characters around him. I just didn’t see the point, and I suspect that’s why his death just never really carried the impact that it should have in those early drafts.

There’s a lesson there, and while I think I’ve subconsciously learned from it over the years, I’ve never really analyzed it until now. Death is a dramatic event, but as a writer, I cannot effectively force it to happen any more than I might force a character to commit an act that isn’t in keeping with his or her personality.

I’ve often heard other writers make the comment that they decided to kill a character because it simply didn’t have anything left to do within the book. This same line of thought applies to several characters within the book my wife and I are now writing together, The Last VanDaryn. I find I’m more premeditated about these “murders,” though. I’ve learned killing off a character isn’t a simple matter of saying, “Why not just have the stupid sot run through with a sword and let the main character brood about it for a page or two?” Killing off one of these characters has to make sense. After all, there are other ways to remove a character from the story that don’t demand a death.

If one is to kill off a character, then the work to make that murder matter comes from giving that character a life worth taking. He or she must be as carefully developed as any other character. Even better is to find a way to make that murder add another obstacle for the surviving protagonists. I like to think that latter detail proves very true for the characters my wife and I kill within our book. The kind of story we’re writing demands a high body count, but that only makes the demands on us all the greater. After all, if we don’t work to make each death matter, then we will only numb the reader.

Perhaps the author, out of those I’ve read, who makes the most use out of killing characters is George R. R. Martin. This past fall, I read his book A Game of Thrones, and as I think back upon that book, I am struck by his skill at employing death. I’ve heard some of his fans jokingly call the series that started in that book “Everybody You Like Dies.” There’s some truth to that, but his bloody trail includes some of the less likeable characters, too. To make it work, he employs a huge cast of characters, so that you aren’t left without a player to root for or loathe. For all his kills, I don’t know that I can think of one in which Martin failed to make that death not only appropriate and credible but an effective twist in the plot. Definitely some lessons to be learned there, and I suspect I will revisit his works given the added respect writing this entry has given me.


DesLily said...

OMG! I'm friends with a serial killer!!! agggggggh! Luckily I know Frank will protect me! (after all I named him! heh) So unless you want to be slowly clawed to death you better be nice to me!!

(good response to the question!)

Sheri Blume said...

Wait! You're naming me as an accomplice! That wasn't in the contract!

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Pat, don't worry. I promise not to serve you up with fava beans. hehe