Killing The Ones You Love

When I was very little I used to watch my mom cut clothes and lay them out and pin them.  I remember her fussing for hours with a corner of a skirt or the fit of a sleeve that simply wouldn’t “lie right.”  She would pin and unpin, and cut a little, to accommodate defects of weaving, or whatever, until the thing at last assumed the shape she wanted, or did what she wanted.  (And sometimes she was trying to get mere fabric to do rather unusual things in terms of draping and hiding or flattering a bad figure.)

It’s weird the images that stick with you, that you take with you into adulthood and your own work.  For weeks now, I’ve been pinning and unpinning the end of Noah’s Boy, because it refused to “lie flat” or in this case to crease excitingly at it tilted and sped its way towards the end.  I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was doing wrong.

Like mom, unpinning and creasing a corner, I thought “Maybe I need to kill a character.”  But the character it occurred to me to kill didn’t seem to do anything for the plot.  I just lighted on him because he was – and is – one of the important pillars of this novel, and because – well, you know, writers are despicable – he seems to be in a path to get everything he wants, so, you know, shock horror and only the good die young…

Only I told Dan I might have to kill Conan and he said if I did he’d divorce me…  Look, I’m no fool.  I really want the book to be the best it can be, but I like my marriage better.  And while I doubt Dan would divorce me, there would be a coldness.  And I don’t like coldness.

I tried to work around it, but I couldn’t get Tom’s decision at the end to make sense (truth be told, I couldn’t get it to make sense by killing Conan, either, it’s just that I could hide the not quite right crease under the sleeve of emotion, where no one would go looking.  But it would probably make for an inferior book, and I don’t like that.)  And anyway, it didn’t feel RIGHT.

It’s been worrying me so much that I’ve been writing and erasing the “same” ten thousand words for weeks, and my eczema is kicking up a fuss (not as bad as ALWAYS at the end of the musketeers mysteries, when I would have torn holes into the inside of my elbows.  But then, that was a matter of knowing the house was going to do something “creative” to the poor book) and I’m sleeping funny.  How funny?

Well, you know when you sleep and you know you’re really asleep, but your brain is still worrying at whatever the work of the day was and won’t let go.  And you wake up just enough to veto this idea or that?

I’ve had nights like that, my brain kicking up images and scenes I promptly wail back “but that doesn’t make any sense” to and bury.  And with the urgency of getting this to the house before they decide I’m too much trouble to work with (honestly, if it weren’t for the flu, this would have been finished months ago) it just kept getting odder and odder.

And then last night I had this image of Tom waking up to a scene of unimaginable horror involving a character I didn’t even realize was a favorite of mine, but who apparently was, because I felt the unimaginable horror and kind of scooted halfway awake and went “No.  Just no.  Calm down, Sarah, it’s not true.  You can go to sleep again.  No one is hurting THAT character.”

I turned over, and I couldn’t go to sleep.  Because by that time my rational brain was awake, and it was going “Yeah.  Yeah.  That piece” (terribly apropos, actually) “fits, and that one, and that’s how Tom figures out how to—  And besides, it sets it all up nicely for the sequels without Deus ex Machina kicking up every time.  And by the way, it forces Tom to go where you want him, in the final battle.”

All of which is well and good, except I didn’t want that character to DIE.

This weekend at the conference I heard a number of readers say that they thought writers killed characters “just to prove the book is serious” and that it annoyed them, and that they hated it when writers killed a continuing character, and besides – ARGH – how can they trust us when we’re stone-cold killers?

I don’t know about other writers.  Perhaps some writers do kill characters for the heck of it, or to prove they’re serious.  If I had to kill a character to show that it’s not all fun and skittles, it would be a peripheral one, perhaps introduced this book.  Or a fan who’d get a kick out of dying in Noah’s Boy.  (You know who you are, the people who’ve EARNED red shirting.)

But no.  None of this will work, unless I kill a character I’m very fond of, and one who is a continuing character.

One the good side, I now know how to close this book – how to make the end drape as I wish.  Which means I can finally make an end, and then typo hunt, and then send it in, before the editors send specialized revision ninjas to my house and stand behind my chair, and take my cats hostage till I deliver.  (Or before they drop me because I can’t be trusted.)

And if I have to choose between my sanity and a character’s life – wait, there’s a difference? – then (relative) sanity will win every time.  I shall kill the figment of my imagination, and live to write another day.

BUT when you’re reading Noah’s Boy, I want you to know it hurt me.  I might be a killer, but I’m not indifferent.

(And now goes off to make the death really traumatic for EVERYONE who reads this.  Eh eh eh eh eh.  Er… I mean, to write it solemnly and reverently.  Eheheheheh.)

132 thoughts on “Killing The Ones You Love

  1. Oh. My. And now we run about in little circles, wondering who will die. No, no, I don’t want to know who. I like being shocked while reading. Knowing beofre hand changes the reading experience.

  2. As a reader, it *is* nice to know that these things are crimes of passion rather than cold and premeditated killings…at least in some cases.

  3. *draps the feathered robe over Sarah’s shoulders and hands her the obsidian blade* As I said, blackest of the black.

    I wonder if there’s a reason that societies that produce novels don’t practice human sacrifice?

    1. It’s entirely possible that you’re onto something there. We do, in a way, practice human sacrifice. Watch an police procedural, read a genre novel, take in a film somewhere.

      Or, even more insidiously, watch the news.

      “See this picture of Innocent Child, ye masses! Behold as we – the Priesthood of the Great (Old?) One – show thee what has happened to Innocent Child! Is’t not gruesome? Is’t not horrible beyond mortal understanding? It is thy fault, for not submitting quickly enough! Thou hast cleaved tight to thy primitive beliefs of “freedom” and “liberty” and not given up thy will to the One we herald! Behold as we bring the Wise, Learnéd Ones to grant veracity to our words! They have studiéd long years, combing through the Dark and Wicked Places of thy hearts! They know whereof they speak! Despair and Sorrow, thou wicked masses, and turn thou to the One who offers Fairness and Redistribution!!”

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of how words are thoughts freed from flesh, and as such, they permeate and penetrate our own thoughts (and thus spirits) so easily. When we empathize with characters we open ourselves to their experiences. We don’t just feel the impact of the sacrifices fictional characters make, they become *our* sacrifices, sacrifices of our self and our illusions.

        So we cannot tolerate the sacrifice of another because we’ve been that other, we know what they are about to lose. And when that sacrifice is unavoidable, we must honor it.

    2. I agree with David, Brian, you’ve touched something. Several years ago I read an article about a certain subset of a religion that, in effect, encourages child sacrifice. This subset (denomination?) has never produced literature or music, except that which glorifies death and pain.

      Perhaps there are some things in humans that must be sublimated and channeled, lest we return to actual rather than vicarious human sacrifice.

  4. Oh, dear – I’m afraid I must plead guilty to being a cold and premitated killer of well-loved characters. That is, I have usually planned their doom from the very beginning. When the plot sprang into my head the very first time, it meant that these characters would die in service to it, as it were. It just had to be that way, although sometimes it was very hard to write the actual scene. Matter of fact, I am usually crying quietly, when writing the final bit.
    On the other hand, I had a character whose eventual demise from chronic tuberculosis had already been signaled … and I just didn’t want to write the final deathbed scene – all that coughing blood, the farewell to family and all. Too depressing to contemplate, all those details.
    And I had a perfectly splendidid inspiration for having it happen off-stage, and a reason for having it that way which added a whole new aspect to the plot and for the main character, as well as setting up at least one future plot and character.

    1. I read it as someone who decided, “Hmm… this story is too bland. I need to kill someone. I’ll kill THIS person, because everyone should love him, and that will shock everyone.”

      1. Kinda like the kid in every WWII movie, who just joins the seasoned veterans, has a nice girl waiting for him back in Oklahoma, and is all earnest and eager to do the right thing. Yeah, he’s gonna be the first to step on a mine.

        1. And the second one will be the one that retires and goes home next week?

          On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 3:45 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

          > ** > Mauser commented: “Kinda like the kid in every WWII movie, who just > joins the seasoned veterans, has a nice girl waiting for him back in > Oklahoma, and is all earnest and eager to do the right thing. Yeah, he’s > gonna be the first to step on a mine.” >

          1. Reminds me of a comic I saw posted on Facebook a while back: The police had set up a secure room for officers to spend their last day before retiring so they wouldn’t die on the last day. Now they were dying on the day before they went to the secure room…

        2. I once read a book where a character was clearly and obviously set to be killed. He was known as “Name the Immortal” and furthermore another POV repeatedly thought about how lost he would be with him.

          Then he survived. And it wasn’t cheating. We had clear and convincing evidence of his death, and then clear and convincing reasons why it was not, after all, evidence.

          Sometimes playing with the foreshadowing is fun.

    2. I whacked a character once because while I needed him for a messenger that was the limit of his role. And then, while he stayed peacefully in his grave, he still managed to haunt the rest of the novel.

  5. Look I understand. I had to kill a character just a couple weeks ago and it hurt and I have been having trouble writing since. But, I know it was the right thing to do. You see he is a young man and he was kidnapped with his sister (downs) and a pregnant lady. So he had to fight back under overwhelming odds. He had a lot of power. But in the end there was no way– I could save him. But it sets the path for the other characters to start smiting– which is what I needed.

    Plus you do mourn a character. I had thought that this particular character would have more stories– It was the first time I have killed someone in my story that I liked. I don’t like to do that–

  6. I agree with Cyn. The first time I killed off a very major character, I felt bad for days. He’d been one of the most decent people in the MC’s life and had pulled her mental chestnuts out of the fire more than once. But he made two critical decisions knowing full well the consequences and, well, yeah. And it did free the MC to do something that should have been done a long time before. Never, ever, corner a female with nothing left to lose. Ever.

  7. I’ve killed characters before, and sometimes it bothered me, other times it made no difference. I would guess the impact depends on how well I can identify with the character. Not so much as ‘are they like me’ but how real they’ve become.

    Patricia Wrede once remarked that after killing a character in one of her novels, she was stricken with remorse and mourning for him. He was on the opposite side of the main characters, but over all he was honorable and considerate. Not the one she would have preferred to kill off at all.

    But, then, when it’s a character I’ve been itching to knock off, I find the mental exercise in plotting their demise quite — invigorating.
    And it’s soooo much more legal than doing so to real people who annoy you!

      1. I am sure that Dan’s warning/threat was based on his recognition that killing off that character was not mandated by the plot and would be destructive of the book, and that what he was actually communicating was that if Sarah had become so debased as to thus mar her own work, simply because she could, she would no longer be the woman he loved; indeed it she could only be someone who had gone over to the dark side and with whom he could no longer live as husband and wife.

        RES’s Excuse Emporium: Post Hoc Explanations a Specialty.

  8. As a reader, I can handle the writer killing off characters I like as long as I have characters I like even more to stay attached to. The danger is killing off a character who is so crucial to my enjoyment that the story isn’t fun anymore. If the hero is really likable, I can handle the death of the best friend. If the hero is boring, and I enjoyed the best friend more, then not so much.

    For example, one of my favorite authors, Lloyd Alexander, killed off a character in his Westmark series who everyone really, really liked, but I was okay with it – while it is an absolutely devastating scene, it was necessary for the story, and had a major impact on the main two characters who I loved. And the main two characters (the guy and the girl) did survive.

    On the other hand, when Whedon killed off Wash in Firefly, I lost all interest in watching anymore Firefly stories because Wash was my favorite character, and I don’t care enough about any of the other characters to want to see more of the show. (I realize that’s a personal thing, and other people might feel differently.)

    1. “On the other hand, when Whedon killed off Wash in Firefly, I lost all interest in watching anymore Firefly stories…”
      Laurie, you’ve hit it exactly. I was reading all this and trying to dig up an example of egregious killing in fiction, and you nailed one perfectly. Not that Wash was my favorite character. I like almost all of them, but the scene killing Wash was one of those, “Life just sucks. Move on stupid!” sort of moments that makes you want to give up on a writer as a nihilistic bastard. It wasn’t, “We have to finish the mission, I’ll mourn later” scenes, it was just, “Yeah my husband, friend, compatriot died. Gotta go now.” That kind of writing is to use the proper word, EVIL. That doesn’t kill all the respect that Whedon earned over the years, but you can point to it as a, “This is where the writer died as a force for good in the world” moment. I tried Dollhouse, but found it repugnant.
      I don’t want to focus so much on Whedon (and Sarah you may have to prevent a flame war here) because I respect his earlier work very much, and because this is a not uncommon moral failing among series (TV and literary) writers. I do not use the word moral flippantly here. A writer builds up a certain moral capital with his writing and can easily spend it all writing one morally repugnant act and pretending it’s not. That last part is important. You can write lots of morally repugnant actions by your characters, but don’t pretend they’re not morally repugnant even if the character refuses to admit it as such. I’ve seen it happen all too often. When that happens I wonder what happened in the writer’s life for her to make that choice. They’re rarely ever the same afterwards.

        1. Should have said, no aspersions on our esteemed web hostess. I totally agree with your post. As my wife says, “Sometimes you have to die to get the happy ending.” Other times somebody else has to die to show the right way.
          I’m just whining about creeping nihilism that ruins serial fiction for me. Again a comment on the themes of your post and not on your fiction. I know writers are a sensitive lot and always worried, “Did he mean me?”

  9. I’ve read books / watched movies where the author killed popular characters “just to prove anyone can die”, or some other variation of “because they could / to prove they’re serious”… and the story, despite the deep and moving emotional elements of a beloved character’s death, is almost always far weaker for that death, and if it’s not the end of the series, weaken the interplay and the stories down the line. (And in case you think it’s just reader’s impressions, it’s hardly that when we’re quoting the author’s own interviewed words! When several proudly state this, it casts a pall of dire suspicion on the rest…)

    I don’t mind a good Character death. Well, okay, it’s traumatic if I’ve grown very attached to the character, but if it’s been properly foreshadowed, fits with the plot and theme, and is essential to the story and world… or if it’s trivial (or the character’s name is Joe Buckley), then I hold no grudges toward the author.

    When Bujold killed a character in Cryoburn, it was a shocking sucker punch that knocks the wind out of the reader – but it was clearly foreshadowed in the last several books (if not, in a way, the whole series), and horribly, utterly, inevitable… and I suddenly saw the entire book as leading up to that moment, and exploring the impact and repercussions.

    On the other hand, when Whedon killed the pilot in Serenity, it was a throw-away death. It accomplished nothing, it served no purpose, and wasn’t even really dealt with. That annoyed the hell out of me, and a lot of fans, because it violated the unwritten compact that exists in the genre.

    Never mind that death in the real world is often senseless, violent, unexpected, and breath-takingly fast. (I’ve seen enough to know, which is far less than some, and far more than I’ve wanted to.) We don’t read fiction because it mimics the real world, we read fiction because it makes sense, has meaning, story, entertainment, and catharsis.

    So, go forth and kill your character, and know that we’ll judge the worth by the story, and accept it on that basis. (And not introduce you like George RR Martin, who got introduced at google as “We’re all fans of his characters, for all 30 seconds that they survive.”)

    1. Hmm. I had a few problems with the death in Cryoburn because it seemed to change the tone of the work rather late in the story.

      1. I’m with Dorothy on this one. In a way, the death had been set up from the very first book she wrote (the character was well into middle age). Since her universe does not yet contain life extension treatments, the character’s death was inevitable. Plus, when I went back and reread it, she makes mention of other characters doing everything they can to come up with a way to stop or slow down this death.

      2. Actually I didn’t have a problem with the death– it did change the MC’s life and actions in one swoop– which I would expect. I hope it doesn’t mean that the MC doesn’t have more books written about him because he is an interesting character.

        1. The death made sense, the character had a much fuller and longer life than expected due to the other character’s. But I was getting turned off on the series by that time by the LACK of deaths, especially deaths caused by the ‘good guys’. Sorry but soldiers using stunners and playing ‘stunner tag’ against people using deadly force just doesn’t ring true, as well as making no sense it, at least to me, has undertones of an anti-gun, leftist utopia. Cordelia’s Honor rang true to life, and was the best of the series in my opinion, I still liked most of the other books, but from there on they seemed to take slow downhill slide.

          1. I don’t know– it could be pressure from editors– and she has been one of the finer traditionally published (no offense Sarah) that I have read during the dark years (not counting Terry Pratchett of course).

            1. Baen’s editors?

              Not argueing with the fact she is one of the finer traditionally published SF authors, I just didn’t like the undertones in some of her later stuff. Of course I read the whole series in like a week, so some of it could have been burnout 😉

                1. Actually I was talking of burnout from a reader standpoint, reading the whole series at a lump, rather than writer burnout 🙂

                  1. The epilogue of Cryoburn was a moving piece of writing. I think part of it was she was willing to take on an aspect of life and death that I’ve almost never seen in fiction, but that all of us will have to deal with one day. After reading it, I gave my Dad a call, because we hadn’t talked in a while.

                    On another note, if the series seems to be winding down, I suspect it is because the main characters have more or less worked themselves out of a job. If you look at the arcs of the characters, Piotr saved Barrayar from invasion. Aral made it an empire. Cordelia ended the civil war. Miles kept the peace. By the time of Vorpatril’s Alliance Barrayar is in the beginnings of a golden age.

              1. However, I just read her latest (with Ivan Vorkosigan as the main character), and I thought it was wonderful, and a great coming-of-age for Ivan (previously foreshadowed). But then I really like Cryoburn too, and felt that the death was sad, inevitable, and probably the way the character would have wanted to go.

          2. That’s funny, because I was left with the impression of this being a series full of deaths, and births, and lives. But then, it’s a very odd series that doesn’t fit neatly into any classification, holding everything from mysteries and thrillers to a regency romance (in spaaace). I would posit that it is hard scifi from a biological standpoint: while the space travel and weapons may be covered with handwavium, it’s a very thorough look at the future of reproductive and cryonics technologies, and how those will reshape the very fabric of the societies in which they live. (As opposed to most military scifi, which has a high body count and loving attention to the future of weapons and tactics, but a very handwavium approach to cultures and economies.)

            I’ll go re-read it and see if my impression or yours holds up to a second examination – that sounds far, far more fun than the mopping of the kitchen floor that otherwise awaits!

              1. Bujold had been announcing for years that eventually said character was going to be offed. In fact, she often said that was why she’d started to be reluctant to write more Miles books, because she knew that the character had to die, and that the character’s death would pretty much make further adventures impossible for some of the characters. (Though clearly not for all.)

                Also, said dread was even announced in previous books BY THE CHARACTERS.

                So yeah, I’ve been dreading it for a good ten years and more. Probably longer, since I thought some of the earlier books were going to be the end.

            1. Possibly it is just that I preferred the old Barrayar (minus the infanticide) and felt that they were moving in the wrong direction, while she portrayed it as a good thing; but then I’m a barbarian. 😉 And I can’t stand Miles wife, he had all these girlfriends I liked, and then she marries him off to some woman I can’t stand. 😦

              1. I’ve always thought it interesting that she began to paint Barrayar more and more favorably and affectionatly as the series went on. Almost as if there was a good thing about seriously military-oriented and agressive people … as time went on in real life over the last decade and a bit …

                1. Yes, it was *logical* that the Barrayarans needed Komarr as a buffer zone against the Cetagandans coming back. I just re-read a Civil Campaign and read Vorpatril’s Alliance. One of these had this bit of exculpatory historical rehabilitation. It made me smile.

              2. I empathized a lot with Ekaterin. My sire was a Tien (whose epitaph will not read “he never hit his wife”). I don’t always agree with Ekaterin (and am probably misspelling her name), but I have seen a very similar side of things, and gone through some similar coming-to-peace with a similar situation, and…

                I really liked her. It takes a lot of backbone to get out of a situation like that.

                (Which isn’t to say that OHS NOES YOU MUST LUVS HER! But to offer the perspective of why I think she does well with Miles. He wants only to bolster her up (emotional support which she needs, too), and she does have the rock-solid (scarred in places, for strength) backbone to stand up to him when he needs standing-up-to.

                And it’d have to be someone who loves Barrayar, warts and all, to settle down there with Count Vorkosigan.)

              3. Hah. Exactly. After Ellie, and Elena, and the clone doctor, and the Cetagandan chick, and Taura, and…he’s going to fall for that damp dishrag? No he’s not. I stopped reading the series at that point and haven’t gone back yet (though I had read Cryoburn by then — the wife is unobjectionable there at least). It’s as if Bujold forgets who Miles is, from time to time. (Or as if she can’t get the fold to lie right, so she just leaves it.)

                And it does seem that Cordelia is doing to Barrayar what the Left has done to America. All in the name of compassionate, evolved progressivism, of course….

                1. “After Ellie, and Elena, and the clone doctor, and the Cetagandan chick, and Taura, and…he’s going to fall for that damp dishrag? No he’s not.”

                  He didn’t fall in love with -her-. He fell in love with her hair. And her height. -Then- he fell in love with her. Hormones first.

          3. I thought the the character death at the end of Cryoburn was in a way marking the end of that story arc that started with Cordelia’s Honor. It was something that was foreshadowed with the death of Miles’ Grandfather: Miles said that his world did not change when his Grandfather died, but he thought his father’s had.
            Barryar series seems to abound with death transforming life, or at least catapulting the survivors forward into it. Partly by cutting seemingly unbreakable ties with the past. The worst part of death in the series is when it comes without possibility of future life for someone.

            I think there is some element of “killing bad”, but there is also the element that the characters do have some lattitude as to how to achieve objectives. And there are deaths, but not specifically laid out. I think Bujold is not so good at weapons specs and messy post-mortem anatomy.

            And in that vein, yeah, Wash’s death was stupid, improbable, and served no purpose – it felt like a personal vendetta by the writer against the actor (or the actor pleading, please kill me I don’t want to ever do this character again, please!) Mostly because there was no reason other than the Gotcha moment, and the form was so improbable: at the very least the front end of that ship should have been stomped flat like a beer can.

            1. As for Miles– do you remember that soldier girl he rescued from Jackson’s hole? She also died and Miles for many years thought of her fondly. She was genetically changed into a monster, but was still a girl inside. It was one of my fav. stories– of the series.

            2. I think this is part of why I didn’t mind the death at the end of Cryoburn, aside from knowing it was coming for at least a couple books. The death was something that was inevitable, it wasn’t thrown in for no reason, and it made room for the characters to have new roles thrust on them (even though we didn’t see it in that book or Vorpatril’s Alliance, you just know there is going to be a period of adjustment and change as everyone deals with this abscence.)

          4. Victims of lethal weapons are just so messy to clean up after. 🙂

            I think Bujold’s take on stunners vs. lethal force is pretty clear: stunners don’t intimidate anyone into doing what you want them to, but on the other hand, you don’t need fire discipline to use stunners — shoot everyone and let someone else sort it out afterwards.

    2. Occasionally it seems like writers kill off characters to prove they have a brave, unflinching view of our bleak and hopeless world. I got that feeling about Serenity. This sort of character death is often defended as “realistic”. Granted, but that’s no fun. The modern Blood God demands meaning. Maybe it’s just a side effect of humanity’s inconsistent pattern matching talent, but I’d rather live in my own head than the brave, unflinching author’s.

      I’m a big fan of the Vorkosigan series. The last one I read was Diplomatic Immunity. I hadn’t looked for more in quite some time. Somebody should tell me about these things. Unless I re-read the series, I see it in a used bookstore, or I actually read one of those Amazon Thinks You Also Like emails, I don’t know new books exist. Maybe someone could set up a service which looks at new releases and sends out emails or texts if they match certain criteria. I wouldn’t want to sign up for a general book release email service which I would just get in the habit of ignoring.

      Of course I couldn’t help but look up the more recent Vorkosigan novels and spoiler whatever you’re talking about… Surely she wouldn’t….

      At the end of A Civil Campaign, I was expecting the series to go something like: Bad Honeymoon, Clever Ivan, Sergyar, Count Miles, Uncle Mark, Team Koudelka. I’d hate to think I was even partly right. I’ve usually been wrong about the series. Brothers in Arms and Komarr in particular were delightfully unexpected, and I always thought Cavilo’s Revenge would pop up.

  10. I’ve got one character who apparently died between books. He refuses to reappear, and a few books down the road his widow has an important post. It’s really irritating, he’d be useful, here and there.

    1. I’ve got someone who isn’t going to die, but will be transformed, so she’ll never again be able to be with the people she loves. I’m not sure that might be worse in some ways, since they’ll still be able meet and talk occasionally (through an interpreter).

      It’s still quite a ways from that point, but she’s starting to question the necessity of the sacrifice.

      On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 12:21 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

      > ** > Pam Uphoff commented: “I’ve got one character who apparently died > between books. He refuses to reappear, and a few books down the road his > widow has an important post. It’s really irritating, he’d be useful, here > and there.” >

  11. There’s definitely a difference between the redshirt and killing a much-loved character. Even one who hasn’t had much time “on-screen” as it were.

    Writing Impaler it about tore my heart out killing Vlad’s wife, but there was no way I could save her. The story demanded that she die, and that was that.

    There is a reason I’d own shares in Kleenex if it was financially feasible. I go through so many of the damn things.

  12. Frank Herbert said that he created Paul Atreides in order to kill him. Of course this was necessary for one of the underlying themes of the Dune story so it was appropriate.
    Death just to “prove the situation is serious” or just to be shocking/dystopic is unimaginative and lazy on the part of the writer as well as off-putting to the reader, at least to this reader.

    1. This one is not one of those. I had a feeling a death was “needed” though it wasn’t in the outline, but I wasn’t sure why and d*mn it, I didn’t want it to be THIS character. (Sigh.)

      1. I find it very interesting how your subconsious brought the solution to you in your semi-lucid dream state. That’s very cool. 😀

          1. Well, apparently Sarah’s subconscious does the walking a lot (given that she’s the style of writer who “sees” and “hears” characters). So what’s different here is that it was a relatively inaccessible level of Sarah’s subconscious, instead of her everyday one.

            1. Um… only in my mind. The seeing and hearing. I mean, no hallucinations.

              Actually this one was weird, and I think could only ambush me in a dream. I ACTUALLY don’t know if anyone else likes this character, but he’s one of my favorites.

              Right now, I just wrote a scene with Conan looking in every window of a drug house — while in dragon form — while Rafiel stands a few feet away, hand over eyes going “Let them think they’re stoned. Let them think they’re stoned.”

  13. Personally I have read several books where I wished the author had killed off ALL the characters, but I wouldn’t describe them as good books.

    1. 😀 When you keep hoping for a giant meteor to strike and end the book, it’s not a good book.

        1. The one fantasy book where that happened, it actually made things worse. And then allowed the author to unleash his gawdawful final sentence, “It was a bad moon rising.”

          I’ll forgive Tolkien for the Atalante wordplay, but I forgive nothing to someone who’s dragged me through a book full of depression and Really Bad Things, just so he can quote a rock song that doesn’t even exist in his fantasy universe!

    2. Only thing that makes a book worse than not caring who wins is actively wishing them all to lose, and knowing you won’t get it.

      1. I don’t like writing over 150k — when the fashion was goat-gaggers (250k plus words) — I never managed to finish one, because I’d get to the point I wanted them ALL dead.

        1. There is a British mystery series that Beloved Spouse and the Daughtorial Unit attempted, Midsommer Murders but found the townsfolk too despicable to care about. While both are fans of BBC mysteries, both agreed that, to paraphrase Comics Buyers Guide editor Don Thompson, they not only did not care who done it, they wished whoever it was had done it more.

          1. “, they not only did not care who done it, they wished whoever it was had done it more.”

            A while back I was looking for a magazine article I wrote several years ago, and came across a story I wrote a long time ago. (my filing system for items that old consists of a folder of various papers over here, a cardboard box with some papers and a cribbage board here, a shoebox with the title to a motorcycle and a truck I haven’t owned since high school, a magazine article, and some german coins here, etc.) It was a hard-boiled 50’s style detective story, that I had that exact reaction to when I read it.

          2. Making the victim a jerk is a good way to keep us from getting too emotionally involved when the matter of interest is the detecting. It can be overdone, though.

          3. I recall a short police-detective story, some years ago – after revealing all the really rotten things the victim had done to the perp, and others, the sergeant says to the detective “Wasn’t it a good thing he deserved to die, Sir?” We’ve used it as a punch-line ever since…

  14. So let’s say you just have a character get locked up for being drunk and disorderly instead of simply killing him off. Is this on the character’s own head or yours?

      1. Look, if he wasn’t a nasty drunk, he wouldn’t be in trouble. It’s all his own fault. Don’t make excuses. “The Author made me do it” is just a cop out.

        1. I was thinking that myself then I realized the author had him introduced to a femme fatale and his life just spiraled out of control even though he was just a minor character. If he hadn’t been in the park that day and she wasn’t wearing that outfit with the hat that blew off….it would have all been different.

  15. I killed off one of my major characters in my sequel to “Cynthia”. It was necessary for the MC to suffer from her death. Facing up to heartbreak and finding the strength to continue to build a dream is very Human Wave.

  16. In the novel I’m currently working on, the villain dies at the end essentially by taking a hike in vacuum rather than being executed publicly. The editor told me he has to “die on camera,” as opposed to the dry memo for record I originally had. So I rewrote that section, making it no more graphic than I thought necessary. No, he definitely wasn’t my favorite character, but his character was such that he would rather commit suicide than be publicly shamed.

  17. This weekend at the conference I heard a number of readers say that they thought writers killed characters “just to prove the book is serious” and that it annoyed them, …

    Some do.

    It is important for readers to distinguish between “necessary” deaths and red shirts. It is also important for authors to make that distinction and eschew unnecessarily killing off a character in whom writer and reader are emotionally invested.

    It also is important to avoid slaying red shirts casually, as miscellaneous extras or cardboard figurines to be disposed of for funsies. Deaths should have consequences, even of minor characters.

    The death of a character can — should — be important to the tale told. It should not be perpetrated simply because the author has written the story into a corner and has to fight his way out of it. [SPOILER ALERT] Mike’s death at the end of MiaHM is necessary. In CotG, old Balsam’s death is necessary. [END SPOILER ALERT] Now that I think on it, I do not recall any Heinlein character death being done off-handedly or for no more purpose than to demonstrate the book is serious. Well, I might have to revisit Sixth Column and Puppet Masters

    “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

    Unless you are just writing comic books without the pictures. I understand those sell pretty well, actually.

    N.B., it is anti-Human Wave to kill a character just to say that “life and death are meaningless.”

    1. “[SPOILER ALERT] Mike’s death at the end of MiaHM is necessary. In CotG, old Balsam’s death is necessary. [END SPOILER ALERT]”

      Did you mean Mike’s death in Stranger in a Strange Land? (note: I haven’t read Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but your comment fits perfectly with Stranger)

          1. I have this thing about Heinlein, only about half of what I’ve read do I like, so when I see them for a reasonable price used I pick them up, but am unwilling to pay a new price for them.

            And yes everybody says The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is his best, but most don’t like Farnham’s Freehold which is my favorite of what I’ve read, so that makes me a little leery of peoples opinions whose recommendations I generally trust.

            1. Well, I don’t GET “Job, a Comedy of Justice” (I think you have to be raised in the US to get it.) The cat who walks through walls left me upset (You don’t kill cats. You just DON’T.) After that, my least favorite is Stranger. My favorites go something like this: TMIAHM, Puppet Masters, The Door Into Summer, Have Spacesuit, Starship Troopers, Glory Road, Podkayne. Farnham’s falls in the middle, as does 6th column — though I HAVE to be in the mood for that one…

              1. Well, I don’t get “Job …”

                And liking “The Door Into Summer” is a key character test IMO.

              2. “Job, a Comedy of Justice” is primarily just a poke in the eye to organized religion. The idea that neither God nor The Devil are precisely what they are presented to be is something that I suspect came out as a reaction to his Bible Belt upbringing.

                1. I haven’t yet gotten around to reading Job, but from the title and various wiki about it and RAH I suspect it is vastly enhanced by familiarity with James Branch Cabell’s books, especially Jurgen, A Comedy Of Justice — a novel which I have read.

                  It has been reported that the satirical Virginian was a favourite author of the young Heinlein, and Jurgen his most infamous novel. The tale proper commences when its MC is overheard speaking in defense of the Devil, after which it follows his rise through the world and beyond, to “the Hell of our fathers”* and “the Heaven of our grandmothers.” Along the way the capacity of humans for vanity and self-delusion are explored in various settings.

                  Although now largely forgotten by the general public, his work was remarkably influential on later authors of fantastic fiction. James Blish was a fan of Cabell’s works, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society. Robert A. Heinlein was greatly inspired by Cabell’s boldness, and originally described his famous book Stranger in a Strange Land as “a Cabellesque satire.” A later work, Job: A Comedy of Justice (with the title derived from Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice), features Jurgen, an appearance of the Slavic god Koschei.

                  Fritz Leiber’s Swords of Lankhmar was also influenced by Jurgen. Charles G. Finney’s famous fantasy The Circus of Dr. Lao was influenced by Cabell’s work. The Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith are, in background, close to those of Cabell’s Poictesme. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books show considerable stylistic resemblances to Cabell; Cugel the Clever in those books bears a strong resemblance, not least in his opinion of himself, to Jurgen. Cabell was also a major influence on Neil Gaiman, acknowledged as such in the rear of Gaiman’s novels Stardust and American Gods. This thematic and stylistic influence is highly evident in the multi-layered pantheons of Gaiman’s most famous work, The Sandman, which have many parallels in Cabell’s work, particularly Jurgen.

                  Jurgen is available in free digital form from Project Gutenberg, among others. Ballantine reprinted a half dozen of Cabell’s books, including Figures of Earth and Jurgen as part of the Del Rey Adult Fantasy series in the Seventies.

                  *Where the sinners are demanding greater punishment for their sins, sins which the poor over-worked devils consider rather trivial.

              3. What, no mention of Double Star? It’s brilliantly done, and I truly love the contrast between its oh-so-Heinlein opening (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman. It’s a logical necessity”) and its oh-so-non-Heinlein-stereotype ending (“There is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.”) Plus, it’s compact (less than 25,000 words) but tells it all. Man Learns Better.

                1. Yes! I love Double Star. And Farnham’s Freehold, and all of the works of Heinlein, even Stranger.

    2. Scalzi’s Redshirts makes the point about the moral vacuity of killing off even minor characters out of authorial laziness. He does it with amazing humor.

  18. Part of me loves to hear about the process but part of me would really rather not have the knowledge that *something bad will happen* even when, of course, something bad is bound to happen.

    But, OTOH, I recall JKRowling talking about killing a character (she was talking about Sirius Black) and how awful it was and everyone was traumatized before the book even came out and people fussed that it was inappropriate for kids before reading it and… I decided that the process of writing was entirely different from reading. Yes, the death was sad (and possibly necessary) but it wasn’t traumatic. But maybe it was for her because she’d had to live inside the characters heads in a way that a reader experiences in a more passive way.

    SO! The moral of this story is… I’m not going to be pre-traumatized by knowing that someone important dies in Noah’s Boy, no matter how much it’s in my nature to over think it, having heard.

    1. Rowling also reportedly considered letting Mr. Weasley die from Nagini’s bite but relented out of consideration of the importance of a positive father figure in Harry’s life.

      She also has said she was so annoyed by various fans shipping their preferred romantic liaisons that she was on the verge of killing Ron Weasley. I have to think that one of the worst possible reasons for charactericide.

      1. *tries to decide if killing Ron would’ve been awesome or terrible*

        *ships Hermione/Viktor or whatever his name was, from the other school*


      2. Well yes but I sympathize with the annoyance with fans who totally come up with romantic ideas (or I guess other ones) that you as the author know are completely wrong because X is in fact bessotted with W and vice versa but they’re both too shy to mention it.

    2. The real problem was that Sirius Black’s death was inadequate. The fanfic writers who said he had been transported to another world had, on the face of it, as good a case on the fact as the claim that he was dead. Come on — falling through a gate that no one ever came back from? There’s many a fantasy novel that begins like that.

      When killing people, establish beyond a doubt that they are dead

      1. This is especially so when writing in a world like Rowlings, where the underlying mechanics are so vague.

        I swear, I cannot understand the absence of a Theory And Application Of Magic course, certainly by Fifth form! Dumbledore may have bee a great wizard but he was a lousy curriculum designer.

  19. A couple of thoughts on this subject.

    one, killing a beloved character when it is important to the story is right, I hate seeing my favorite killed but, if no one important ever dies the story can suck. Two bring hm back to life ala Pike in the Sword of Shanarra is worse than killing him. I still don’t ca for Brooks for that reason

  20. I myself kill off characters with great gusto and panache, and cackle with delight whilst doing so; but I kill them for reasons that make sense inside the story. I don’t kill them off as a cheap way of sending a signal to the readers. I also don’t cheat by bringing characters back from the dead; although I do, in one book, bring one back from ‘mostly dead’, à la Westley — partly as a way of defining the exact boundary of ‘completely dead’, and partly because Death is a major villain in that work, and the hero is giving him a poke in the eye by cheating him of his prey.

    Of all the things I have read on this subject, I find Jimmy Akin’s the best: ‘How to Kill a Major Character’. Some of you might find it helpful; and den again you moutn’t.

    1. P.S. In recent years, I have tempered the gusto and panache by the following rule: I never kill off a character unless I can do it with proper appreciation of the character’s ‘life’, such as it was, and can say: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

      1. I’m often reminded of the rule I heard one author lay down. His current project was an action thriller with a rather high body count. He explained that he never killed a character unless A) they knew what they were doing and had chosen to accept that price or B) they were villains who, as they say, needed killin’. Might not work for everyone or every story, but I liked it.

  21. Oddly enough, Baen’s Bar just had a discussion on whether there was a “good” way to die — something tells me most of the people in that discussion would consider the main post a sign of failure on the author’s part.

    Personally, I believe it would be a far greater failure if The Lady Hoyt turned into f***ing J*** W*****….

        1. Some of my Ravelry friend would say “Today is a good day to dye.”

          On Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 9:17 AM, According To Hoyt wrote:

          > ** > Nathan commented: “And in (Pratchett) Dwarf lore, Toady’s a good day > for someone else to die.” >

          1. Should have been Today. I should have known better than to translate Dwarvish into the Typo dialect…

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