Professional Killing

Lately I’ve come to see the need for professional killing.

No, put the phone down.  There are no corpses in my back yard (would be difficult since I don’t have a backyard) or in my crawl space (the cats run there periodically and it would be so unhygienic) and I haven’t been dumping them into construction sites.

I’m, however, perfectly willing to admit that this realization might owe a lot to the fact that I’m a woman nearing fifty.  I mean, hormones are destiny.  And it could get dangerous, if I didn’t have this professional sideline.

A professional sideline as a writer, of course.  Because you see, the people I kill mostly live in my head.  (Mostly because some lived, long ago in other lands.  And I bring them to life on the page, for the purpose of killing them.)

Joking aside, when I started writing, I was in mortal fear of hurting my characters.  When I hurt them, it not only hurt me, but it made me wonder if people would think I’m cruel.  Nearing fifty, I wonder why I cared what people thought.  (This is probably a bad sign.)

The needed killing – there was always some needed killing, even if just the villain – was handled behind the curtain and often reported at two removes.  “He killed himself.  His second cousin told my friend who told–”

In my last book I killed hundreds of people, two major characters and a continuing one (who had never been seen, only referred to, but who came on stage to die a horrible death.)

What makes the difference, other than hormones?  (I am mostly joking about that, though I’ll note, not as hormonal changes, but as an effect of aging that I DO seem to be becoming more myself and less afraid of “what will people think?”)

Two things changed: First, I realized reading fiction was not an intellectual exercise but an emotional experience.  What?  How could I not have known?  Don’t ask.  Perhaps it was the fact that my early fiction reading were stories set in other lands.  I was learning, as well as feeling, and I thought the learning was more important.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was taught not to display emotion, so as I writer I tended to emphasize thought over feeling.
Second: I realized death is part of life.  As much as we hate it, as much as we dread the idea, as much as losing others hurts us, life would be very odd if you eliminated life.  Books feel more real if people die.  (Okay, your fluffy romance is excused, and your fluffy mystery and fantasy, other than for the needed murder in mystery.)  If you track consciously, you’ll realize that not a week goes by without your hearing of a death, either close or far, important or not.  And I think that heightens our interest in life.  (Or I could be insane.)

So, once I realized that some people simply needed to die – in my books – how did I go about killing them?
There are many, many ways to kill people, but below is a brief and incomplete list of ways to make their deaths professional.  (And not just leave them to bleed out, unnoticed, on the hearth rug.)

1- Make it count.
We can’t all kill our main character.  In fact, most of us can’t kill our main character.  Given my penchant for writing first person, it would be odd.  I grant you it can be done.  Connie Willis killed the POV character in Passage – well, the main POV character – halfway through, and the book still works.  BUT not all of us want to go that far.  Many of us, who write series, can’t even kill all important secondary characters with abandon.  Oh, sure, the occasional one fine, but if you make it an habit, you’re going to run out.
So, how do you make the death count?
Have the character matter to your main character or your secondary character.  Have it be someone near and dear.  Or have it be someone the character just met but who matters.
Clifford Simak spends half a page describing a doggy, happy with the world, crossing the street to lie in a patch of sun.  Then he kills him horribly.  I cried.  And I don’t think it was just because I’m an animal lover.

2 – Make the death interesting.
By this I don’t mean you should go to my friend Kate Paulk and ask how to kill people interestingly.  (No, trust me, you don’t want to do that.  She writes Dracula, people!)  While that’s appropriate sometimes for historicals, I don’t mean elaborate or outre means of death are needed.  Most of my people die at blade’s end or shot through the heart (sometimes with lasers.) A few linger on only to die (though I just realized I’m reluctant to do that in future societies.  If you survive the initial hit, you’re likely to live.
No, what I mean is that your death shouldn’t take place in a line and never be referred to again.  Sometimes a line is important, for the “death knell” effect, but your character should feel something, as a reaction.

3 – Kill The Best
This is a variation on #1.  And while it’s always good to remember “Only the good die young” or early in the page count, it also helps to remember “good” can just be a way of saying “important to the main character.”  Kill the person, whether the main character loves them or not, who will twist the main character’s emotions into a pretzel, make them feel guilty, make them get in more trouble.  Remember, the name of the game is to make your main character’s life difficult.

4 – Kill the influential.
Make it matter for the plot.  “If only Georgiana had been here, we wouldn’t have lost that battle, but the dang author killed her on page one,” type of mattering.  That allows you to get the most bang for the death.

5 – This one I’m passing on for the price I’ve got it.  I’ve never tried it.  I think my youngest victim was fourteen.  However, I’m told that you should never, ever, ever, kill a baby or an animal, and that for the US market animals are even worse than babies.  I don’t know.  The only time I minded an animal dying was Pixel in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and that’s because Heinlein kills him at the end, and that’s not good.

6 – Numbers count – for a sense of realism, kill more than one character and in differing circumstances.

7 – Don’t overdo it
Like anything you learn to do well, killing can be addictive.  Remember if you kill too much, it dulls the impact of each death.  And if you kill everyone in the end, as many seventies novels did, I shall come to your house and beat you to death with a sock full of butter.  You have been warned.

8- Remember some people just need to die.  It is our job to kill them right.  We’re not murderers, not even virtually.  We’re just easers out of life, or literary mortality facilitators.

Now, happy killing.

58 thoughts on “Professional Killing

  1. I’ve only killed two characters in my unfinished stories.

    One was a minor character that had to die because his death drove the rest of the story. He was the Clan Ruler and the struggle between the rivals to his position drove the story.

    At the end of the above story, I killed the “bad guy” by having him fight a duel that he knew he’d lose. Basically he had put his Clan in a very bad position when his “evil” plan had been revealed. He knew that he had lost the rivalry but he also trusted his rival to save the Clan from his mistake.

  2. So how do you handle multiple deaths in battle? Because not everyone who buys the farm in a battle-scene can be of paramount importance to the plot. They’re basically window dressing. But I hear what you’re saying about killing those who are more pivotal. I’m working on a piece where quite a few secondaries have to be eliminated in order to make the plot work. But not every death is a major-emo deal.

    1. At least one person in the battle scene should matter somehow to the hero. The hero also should feel in some way responsible for all of the death on his/her side if in charge of an army. If a regular, he/she should feel responsible for the deaths of close compatriots.

      Also, if you’re working with a fantasy or historical setting, you can wring a lot out of injuring your hero’s best friend and having the friend die of some kind of nastiness later. If you’re working with SF and spaceships, someone the hero knows and cares about is on one of the vaporized ships. Powered armor, what-have-you, they die before medical help can get to them.

      Also, it’s a very fine line, but if you don’t shy away from the aftermath of a large battle you can have a solid emotional punch. Something as simple as the POV character trying desperately to think of what he’s walking through as merely “mud” is enough to bring the horrific amount of gore in a battle with swords to a reader’s mind without grossing them out. I used that in Impaler.

      What I did in ConVent is probably beyond the pale even here. Those were some very interesting deaths.

      1. Listen to Kate, who is the font of all WISDOM. Seriously, she’s right, except about ConVent. yeah, they were horrible. They were also hilarious. Okay, I have a SICK sense of humor.

  3. My first (and so far only) novel has so many deaths that its a bit scary, but only one killing, and that is at the climax. Then again the protagonist is a priest who has been given a “gift” from Santa Muerte: everywhere he goes people die, he just doesn’t kill them. A distinction not always appreciated by the local law enforcement and by members of his parish.

    I’ve always thought death was an important part of life, not just and ending, but something more.

    1. well, it is, even if you don’t believe in life after death. Knowing we’ll eventually die changes the way we live. Sometimes I think our species got JUST smart enough to understand that each individual dies and then went insane. We call the result intelligence.

  4. Deb, IMO, in the middle of a battle, the main character needs to be fully engaged with (1) staying alive and/or (2) managing the battle as a whole. He can wince when one friend goes down, but all the pathos needs to be saved for after the battle. (And on a side note, please! No break in the action to kiss the love interest!)

    One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. I’m not only mangling the quote, I don’t remember who said it. To avoid the million deaths being nothing but a meaningless number, sometimes a single death has to “stand in” for the whole. The Main Character is disturbed by rumors that the Evil King is slaughtering people right and left. But it’s the royal guards slaughtering someone he knows, that evokes the emotions.

    1. Good thought, MataPam. I do have my main reacting to his father’s death in the closing moments of the single battle in my “romance” story.

      Funny enough, I’ve been told that the Viking raids and the battle mean it’s not a romance but a straight historical with romantic elements! This industry’s like a young cat on uppers — you never know which way it’s going to jump.

      1. I was trying to respond remotely, then I saw Matapam’s answer and let it go. She is exactly, absolutely right. Deaths in battle are expected, as is death in a mystery, but they’re windowdressing, not real “death” unless you personalize it.

        BTW, whoever is telling you that is a cat with ADHD. More than not, these days, romances have elements of other stuff, including some d*mn fine mystery. Which is why I read them. As for the battles, have you considered re-reading Infamous Army? I re-read it recently and was struck by how well she handled the deaths, battle and not.

    2. One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.

      Usually attributed to Josef Stalin. Rather a different quote if it came from, say, Winston Churchill.

  5. Number 7 is not necessarily so, we know a Baen author who kills millions or billions to start his average novel. For that matter MMike kills billions in some of his work. Of course both of them have some personal pathetic death in the middle of the carnage.

    1. Yes, but millions or billions is not “real” — it’s window dressing. The excessive deaths I was talking about were the more personal ones. Three deaths in a book is a shock. A death a chapter is a metronome beat.

      1. The best, “millions of deaths” example I’ve read is Lucifer’s Hammer. While some, like the surfer, “personalized” matters, it was the description of London after the tsunami flattened it that chilled me the most.

        I really appreciated having read that book. I’ll probably never pick it up again.

  6. I loved Passage, and the death in it caught me by surprise. The ending was even more of a surprise. Willis could have been banned for life from respectable f/sf circles for it.

    1. There ARE respectable sf/f circles? My word. Where have they been hiding? I’ve never even FOUND them. Actually, I’m only half joking. Most of us are oddities. I think it applies to us what someone (Podhoretz?) said of the young communist circles he once ran with, in his misguided youth. You can enter a room full of sf/f people, authors, fans, etc, and look around and think “Everyone in this room is some respectable family’s tragedy.” (Well, except we’re now spawning entire family circles. Look at mine. Don’t ask my parents or inlaws for their opinions of our “lifestyle” though. My mom hasn’t given up hope I’ll finish my doctorate and get that professorship or come to my senses and go back into translation.)

      1. I got the doctorate and the professorship. It ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. Strangely, my parents supported me in everything I ever did, including this writing thing. I think must have the only two parents like that.

          1. I love teaching actually. But teaching is only about 1/5 of what I do. Committees, paperwork, ass-covering, sucking-up, stroking egos, trying to get my academic work published. That’s the part I hate.

            1. YES. I know. I was an instructor in two different periods — first when I was very young at about 28? — I loved teaching. I like teaching almost as much as I like writing. I could handle the office hours. The paperwork was negligible and therefore the experience was good. AND THEN I did it again at thirty eight. The paperwork, compliance bs and bureaucracy around teaching had grown to such an extent that I couldn’t TAKE it. I spent ten hours doing make-work per hour teaching or actually helping students. I was offered a long-term contract, but didn’t take it, preferring to work ten times as hard at writing, because it didn’t feel as futile.

              1. Off topic, a mite, but one reason tuition costs have grown far faster than inflation is reflected in the fact that at many “institutions of higher learning” the administrative personnel (“diversity” monitors, “awareness” proctors, etc.) outnumber instructional staff.

                1. Budget cuts in TX. My program is currently under threat of getting the axe, but I notice how we have four more Veeps in the admin that when I was hired. None of them are going anywhere.

                  The purpose of universities is no longer to educate people. That’s what they do to pay the bills. The real purpose is to pad Admin’s perks, build big prestigious bldgs and provide sports for the alums. Education is far down on the list.

  7. I think that heightens our interest in life. (Or I could be insane.)

    Not mutually exclusive conditions.

    1. Weirdly, I’ve had a character I MEANT to live die on me in the middle of a fight sequence. Those who betaed AFGM probably know who. It was like “Oh, no, she fragging isn’t dead. She was sequel material!” BUT she was dead. And I couldn’t bring her back. No, I’m serious. She was gone. Bizarre.

      1. I had the opposite experience. I had someone who was supposed to die live. I didn’t want him there, he just wouldn’t go away.

        One thing though, my book takes place partially in the afterlife and partially in our world, so I’m severely tempted to kill them all.

      2. As I said at the time, her death was important in making it a good book. It hurt on many levels. As a reader, I despise books where there are lots of deaths but no good guys. A specific example of this is in The Sword of Shanara. The book wasn’t that good IMHO and felt like a direct rip off of Tolkein. The unforgivable part however, was a character who “died” during a rear guard holding action showing up at the finale of the story. I read that book 30 years ago and haven’t liked Brooks since. Mostly because of that one scene.

  8. I hated PASSAGES for the same reason. Just goes to prove no one work can please everyone. I like Willis’s other work, though the double novel BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR didn’t please as much as I hoped it would, largely (IMO) for the lack of coherence with too many characters doing too many things under too many names. Could’ve used a cut by half and refocusing on one or two characters, but that’s just my opinion as a book buying reader. She’s a superlative writer and an auto-buy for me no matter what she does.

    That said, I hated PASSAGES but the funny part is how long and how intensely the book stuck with me, even the parts I didn’t care for. That means the author did her job (!).

  9. Well, in the WI(excruciatingly slow)P I started off by turning a top-secret lab full of top-secret scientists (and top-secret secretaries, etc.) into subatomic particles. Since then I’ve only killed off an anonymous airplane driver, but sometime in the next chapter I’m gonna kill an entire planeload of Dedicated Public Servants. [shrug] writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do, and they needed killin’ anyway.


    1. PS I would’ve let ’em live, even after kidnapping the protag, but they didn’t show respect.

  10. I dunno how you’d characterize this, but… I made a set of characters specifically as red shirts. Then I gave them names and it was Katie! Bar the door! The protagonist fell in love with one of them despite his better judgement and she ended up taking over the story. Her death in the climax caught the betas by surprised. I got more hate mail on that…


    1. My red shirts – unless by special request – are lovingly chosen for “special” treatment. Funnily enough the co-workers who’ve received the treatment are no longer co-workers. And none of them ever read the stories where I killed them.

      Author voodoo. It works.

      (Yes, I take special request redshirtings. I even find ways to arrange the death the way the requestor asks. For those who’ve read ConVent, Hello Basset is by request, down to most of the details).

      1. I think Cliff is waiting for the book to come out on paper so you can sign his death scene and he can frame it open to that page. Don’t ask me. Strange man.

      1. (Tries desperately not to make a joke, but fails.)
        You killed him because he wouldn’t go down? Harsh. You’re being sued for sexual harassment and unfair work conditions RIGHT NOW in character world.

        1. Bad word choice on my part perhaps (or intentional curmudgeonery and dirty-mindedness on someone else’s part. grrr.) I of course meant “down” like a dog, as in when you put a dog “down.”

          He was a toss off character without a name at first. I needed someone, a necromancer, to visit a morgue. You can’t do that unattended, so I had an lowly orderly escort him there, a doctor or coroner would have been too important. I fully expected the necromancer, or the corpses that were newly re-animated by the necromancer, to off him quickly, just to show they were serious baddies. But then I realized, the corpses needed someone to get them clothes, drive them around, etc. All of the summoned souls occupying these corpses were from centuries ago and couldn’t manage a zipper let alone a Chevy Impala. And it didn’t make any sense to kill one toadie just to have them round up and try to find another.

          It was frustrating at first, but it began to take on comic value to see this guy freak out all the time. It was funner to push one person to the edge of sanity than to slaughter a half dozen.

          So people are getting killed all around this schmo and yet he survives. It’s like if a redshirt and Kirk go down to a planet and only the redshirt comes back.

          I thought it was funny and ironic.

          1. You can’t blame me. I’d spent the entire afternoon talking to Kate Paulk and dirty mindedness rubs off. Complain to HER. (In the interest of friendly advice “toss off?” REALLY? Yes, I have Kate on the phone as we speak. Why?)
            On the more serious side, getting your characters to have sex when they don’t want to is ALMOSt as bad as trying to make them die when they don’t want to. Or coming to life when they don’t want to. We have to either assume we’re reflecting another reality that EXISTS and exists a certain way, or our subconscious has ways that are not ours to inquire about. I waver between the explanations depending on which seems less crazy that day. 🙂

            1. In the interests of convenience (and avoiding more distracting sexual innuendo), may I propose that such characters be hereinafter referred to as DPs – Disposable Persona? They exist as cannon-fodder, to be killed by the antagonist as a way of demonstrating ruthlessness, cold-bloodedness or other such traits common to villains. Examples abound, but one such dual-purpose character that comes to mind is the female character at the beginning of Goldfinger whom Bond schtupps (demonstrating his virility) and Auric goldplates (demonstrating his you-know-whatedness.)

              Ideally a DP should possess enough personality and die in a sufficiently notable way to make the needed point, but not so much as to constitute an emotional crescendo in the story, as the focus here is on the villain, not the red shirt / DP.

  11. I’ve killed, oh, I think three people in my published fiction (well, four if you count . . . but that was a Heroes in Hell story and he was already dead so I don’t know if that counts. ;))

    The first one was in the opening scene of a story and was basically intended to set the stakes for the plot: If they don’t solve the problem people die. The other two were in “Time for Tears” (Sword & Sorceress XXVI–available now from Amazon and other fine booksellers ;)). In that one the deaths were the climax of the story, were heavily foreshadowed and, frankly the story may have gotten a little maudlin (but the check cleared so I can’t complain too much). 😉

  12. My novel takes place partly in our world and partly in the afterlife. For reasons too complicated to explain here, you can “die” in the afterlife, after a fashion, so some of the people I kill…I get to kill twice!! What fun.

    As always, I usually love these lists, because I’m usually right in line. Makes me feel like I’m doing something right!

  13. Also, my novel really never came together for me until I realized someone had to die. I had lots of notes but never started writing until I realized it had to be begin with a death.

  14. I’ve got a… well, a far-out book, with others that have to be written first, where one logical person to die is also a minority of a particular type, and I’m running up against “*headdesk* …can’t kill [____].” I suppose I could off someone else, but that might break other characters in un-fun ways; they need to be wounded, not broken. Wounded gets up again. Broken… not so much.

    Hopefully things will resolve once I get closer to that book. *sigh*

  15. I’ve been trying to figure out how to kill the parents of a group of protagonists for several years, and I still can’t make it work. Maybe because it’s such a cliche. Problem is that I think for this particular story it’s something that needs to happen. Kind of personal, perhaps, I think I have mentioned it here before but I got to know the fact that everybody can die in my own life fairly young, during my teen years my grandmother, two of my cousins and their father, from my mother’s side, and one other uncle from my father’s side died, and my mother died when I was 26. So put my need to write those protagonists down to therapy, but I would still prefer to write something that also works as a story.

    About deaths in combat – I’m old enough to have parents who were in front lines during the Finnish continuation war, mother as a Lotta (she cooked food for the front line soldiers in Lotta Svärd, a Finnish women’s organization which trained women for those tasks which did not involve combat in order to free men for the combat duties – was discontinued after the war, by request of Soviets), and my father as a soldier. Some of the stories father has told now that he is old – the effect of the first time he saw deaths of his fellow soldiers seems to have been simply personal fear. He was 18 when he got there, and it seems he didn’t quite comprehend the idea that people can die, not for real, so when it happened was the first time he really got scared because that was the first time he understood that he, and his friends, might really die there too.

    And the one Soviet soldier he killed face to face still eats at him, now. He thinks he killed others, but those were figures falling down somewhere in distance. This one young man was somebody he came face to face in a trench late at night, perhaps some idiot youngster who wanted to play hero and had sneaked to the Finnish lines in the cover of darkness, because there was no attack going on at that time. So those two kids run into each other, both fire, and my dad was the one who got lucky and was just wounded.

    What he remembers now is how young that Soviet was. But so was he, back then.

    1. You have the combat thing EXACTLY right, Marja, and I warn you your father’s experience might appear in a book later on — even that simply sketched, it’s very moving. And I’m sure it’s the experience of thousands of young soldiers.

      My up-close experience with death came when my grandfather died when I was fourteen. My other grandfather died when I was 22.

      Anyway, what’s the problem with the deaths you’re trying to cause? I fail to grasp it?

      1. I don’t seem to be able to write it well, it comes out as too cliched every time. I’m never happy with the reactions of the siblings.

        I guess it could simply be a case of perfectionism – it means something personal to me, so I want it just RIGHT, and because of that I’m just never happy with what I have written.

  16. Let’s see. One short I wrote everybody died. Good story too, it sold. You can do things like that with horror.

    But I like to go back to the classics. John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps with only one death, and that early in the book. The rest was shear suspense.

    Robert E. Howard was a brawler. His Conan fight scenes were awesome. He didn’t do emotions very well though.

    Raymond Chandler was almost too emotional as a “hard boiled detective” writer. Some of his scenes were, well, let me say the connected and leave it at that. But boy did they connect. The Big Sleep is a good example, the death of Rusty occurs before the book starts, the reader never gets to know him other than through the memories of the characters.

    I don’t think death is necessary for a book to work. The issue is emotional connection, and how the writer handles it.

    Of course in a heroic fantasy, hard boiled mystery, horror, or space opera, fields that I lean towards, blood and guts tends to be the order of the day!


  17. Okay, I know I’m coming to the plate late here, but here goes:

    In my Stage series, the leader of the bands street team dies in a car accident and leaves the bass player a widower with a baby girl. Later the band’s young mascot after witnessing here kidnapper kill the two accomplices and walk away, goes after him and brutally murders him. In front of the police.

    In my Maraude Series, I deal with a regular mass of deaths as the MC of the first book is forced into retirement of the military and into a covert secret society. He thus becomes a gun for hire. As he gets deeper into the ‘religion’ of these societies use white slave children as money and power moves. They make decisions that affect the whole world’s economy and such with which child wins in the Blood Ring. I know very Hunger Games-like, but to be honest, as much as I’m waiting for the movie, I’ve yet to read the series. [shrug]

    In Neighbor’s Basement (which is slated for a rewrite this summer) two of the main characters are killed by the scientist who made the five of them like Tia and Tony from the Witch Mountain series.

    I have a bad habit of killing kids though… The Blood Ring fighters are usually under the age of ten, and I just detailed a fight in the second book that kicks off the events that becomes the inciting incident for the members of the newly formed Omega Team. It wasn’t a pretty fight and the wrong kid won.

    The second book of the Stage series deals with the accidental shooting of a gang leader’s little sister in the dark by the drummer, and he goes through a breakdown.

    Great post. I do recommend Rory Miller’s Violence on Kindle. A police trainer details the true nature of violence and why most us couldn’t handle the repercussions of true violence. I picked it up because I was struggling with this myself. You know – enjoying it too much. 😉

    1. Sigh. I think part of the reason I was killing-shy when young is that I’d seen quite a lot of real violence as a young woman. (No deaths. Well, not that I knew were deaths, but a good deal of fighting.) Now, I have almost thirty years of peaceful living at my back, so I can distance enough to kill characters.

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