Thursday, November 13, 2008

Today's Theme: Character Murder

I was going through my Google read, and came across this post by David B. Coe from the blog Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists. Since it matches so keenly with today's extremely obvious theme development, here it is:

"I’ve just started work on a new project — new series, new world, new everything. I’m actually very excited about it. Yesterday I finished the first chapter of the first book. I mentioned this to my wife last night and then added in passing, “Yeah, the first chapter is done and I haven’t killed off any characters yet.” To which she replied, “Wow! Have you ever done that before?”

I started to assure her that of course I had done this before, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I probably have never written the first chapter of a first book in a new series and NOT killed off at least one character. And in fact, if you take into account all of my completed novels (including the one that’s due out in January, the one that I just submitted, and another that hasn’t been contracted yet) I’ve killed off a character in the first chapter of more than half of them, accounting for some six or seven books. Actually I have something of a reputation for this among my readers. They joke with me about it, telling me that they rarely get too attached to anyone they meet in the early sections of my books because they know that there’s a good chance that the nice person in chapter one won’t be around long enough to see chapter four or five.

What does this say about me? As a writer, I mean. I’m sure it says lots about me from a psychological standpoint but I really don’t want to go there. Why am I so ruthless with my characters early on? Is there a point to it, or is it just a quirk of my writing?

Well, I can tell you that as far as I’m concerned there is a point to it. Several, in fact. First off, I like to start my books with action, with something that will grab my reader by the collar and drag him or her into the story. And let’s face it: there’s nothing like a good murder to kick off a plot. But there’s more to it than that. One of the things that sometimes bothers me as a reader is meeting a character who (whom? I always get this wrong….) I know from the start is untouchable. Oh, this character might get beaten up and will surely find him or herself in one tough spot after another. But I can just tell that this person will survive every predicament and prevail in the end.

I don’t want my readers to feel that way about any character. Of course in my own mind there are characters who I won’t kill off. But I don’t want my readers to know that. And one way I maintain that sense of danger, the feeling that no one is safe, is by introducing a character early on who seems central to the plot, who appears to be one of those untouchable characters. I get inside this person’s head. I give my readers reason to care about this person, I allow them to get comfortable with this person’s point of view. And then, just as my readers are growing attached to this person, I kill the character off.

I know. It’s terribly cruel. I’ve angered readers by doing this. I’ve gotten emails from people who can’t believe that I would kill off so-and-so. They rail at me. Some tell me that they cried. But not one of them has ever said that they stopped reading the book. And in fact they usually tell me that they loved the book in spite of the loss. I believe they loved the book, at least in part, because of the loss.

I’m writing all of this because there are times when I’m reading the work of a beginning writer and I find that the plot isn’t moving anywhere. It’s clogged in a sense. And without wanting to seem too heartless, I will suggest to this person that one way of unclogging the narrative might be to kill off a key character. Many object, at least at first. But many others consider the suggestion and immediately see the possibilities a well placed murder might open up.

Let me put it this way: If there are characters in your story who you can’t even conceive of killing off, then chances are your reader can’t conceive of you killing them off either. And that means that when you place them in danger, the threats to them don’t carry as much weight as they ought to. Think about it. And then consider whether it might be time for you to murder a character.

I have to say, I agree completely. And, as anyone who reads what I've written or listens to be babble endless about my plans for my project in the works, I have no issues killing off important folks. In fact, I find it to be a staple of my writing.

I mean, seriously (granted, all this is in the context of the type of story I enjoy to read and write. Yes, happy stories with fuzzy animals are cool too - but someone even died in Kung-Fu Panda, yo.) The world is at war, millions of people are dying all over the globe, but the group of ten adventures get through amazingly without ever suffering a loss? In stories where tragedy is everywhere, violence and evil are your next door neighbor, and the characters are constantly thrown in the way of a freight train for the sake of adventure, some one is going to bite it. And they should! And if they don't, the story (fiction as it may be) looses some sense realism, at least for me.

That being said, my readers better watch out. I'll off anyone at anytime! Bwahahaha! Even at the whim of Jenn's crafty suggestions - who will be getting all of my hate mail.

No comments: