Literary Murder

Guest blog by Keith B. Darrell

So I was having a writer’s conversation – that’s an arcane term to describe two writers discussing esoteric aspects of their craft, usually in a Denny’s parking lot at 3 a.m., continuing a conversation that began with dinner – and the topic turned to murder.
Literary murder, that is. Killing off one’s characters.

This is often a hard choice for writers. We don’t create our characters; we give birth to them. They become our  children. We rear them and guide them through their fictional lives. The decision to commit filicide – the murder of one’s children – can be as  emotional and conflicting as it is final.

Writers and readers can both develop emotional attachments to fictional characters. We go through the stages of loss, but to different degrees. While the writer may grieve for the deceased character – a voice in his head now forever silenced – the reader may stall at the anger stage.

But as much as readers may hate to see their favorite characters killed off, sometimes they must depart this mortal coil because … that’s life. In reality, people die. Even the ones you really, really like. Good fiction has to reflect the human condition, and mortality is the most human condition of all.

If the reader wells up with rage at the writer for killing a character, she should thank the writer having had the talent to bring that character to life, to make him real enough to relate to and care about, and real enough to die.

As I add up the characters I have killed in my novels and short stories, I begin to realize I am a serial killer. I can no longer stop myself. But I do abide by my own set of rules. My victims are either minor characters (Google “red-shirted ensigns” and “Star Trek”) or major characters whose death advances the plot, often leaving an indelible impression on the surviving characters or the reader.

Depending on how the character dies, his death may actually make him and his time spent within the pages, and the story itself, even more meaningful than had he survived.Another factor is the calculus of how a character’s death changes the dynamic among the surviving characters. The story often turns in a direction it would never have taken had a central character remained in the picture.Of course, killing off a character can be a disastrous mistake (can you say “Bobby Ewing”?). Soap opera writers have crafted many ways for deceased characters to return from the grave. Science fiction and fantasy writers also have a few escape hatches. Writers of more realistic genres may be unable to disinter the dead, but they can always bring them back through flashbacks.The alternative was presented by the satirical Web site, the Onion: The fictionalized author too wimpy to kill off any of his characters and whose book is denounced as “life-affirming schlock.”

But I digress. I must return to my manuscript and commit filicide.

Read more posts by Keith B. Darrell on his blog.

14 thoughts on “Literary Murder

  1. Great article, Keith. As you say, it’s all about the story. The tale and the message it conveys must be served. The end justifies the means in the world of fiction.

  2. I’m a complete wimp when it comes to character. I find myself only able to kill off those that I created to be killed off. I’ve yet to create a character I’ve liked and then thought, “hmm, it would be a much better story at this point if he/she were dead.”

    I need to become more hardcore.

  3. I once had to rewrite several chapters of a book in which I had a beloved character survive attempted murder and then linger, slowly recovering. Finally, I decided that, whether I liked it or not, the man needed to die, so I rewrote all those chapters. But I’m still very sorry about killing that wonderful man.

  4. I fear I am guilty as well. So, without typing spoilers to my own stories, that is as much as I can say about that. I have not been writing long enough to have re-occurring characters and to have to deal with the fall-out from ending their careers. I imagine it must be difficult. Think of Rowling and the choices she had to make at the end of HP.

    Great article and a wonderful view inside the psychotic minds of writers. 🙂

    • Thanks, C.C. My main concern about killing off characters, for example, in my Halos & Horns fantasy series, is how it might affect the marketability of the franchise to other media. If the rights purchaser wants to hire writers to draft TV episodes or comic book stories, they might prefer a static concept and unchanging cast they can write stories around. Superman and Lois Lane dated for 50 years before the status quo was altered and they married. The castaways always ended up back on Gilligan’s Isle at the end of each episode. Writers adapting another author’s work often have trouble adjusting to a change in the dynamic. When the Sonnetts were reunited in The Guns of Will Sonnett, the new direction (and the series) lasted only one episode. An open-ended concept is easy for other writers to adapt, but an evolving story presents a choice of either adapting it as a finite work, from start to finish, or setting the adapted universe in one segment of the overall story. The former limits your overall revenue stream (since it’s finite) while the latter presents its own challenges: adaptors must adhere to canon regarding future events in the saga that they themselves will never explore.

  5. Brilliant. This is, in my opinion, the hardest thing to do as a writer in any genre, but especially fiction. I think you’re so right that any death, especially of a main character, must be justified by the effects on the plot and other characters. That is, after all, how real life works, right? Loss happens, and it’s not as much about what happens to you, so much as what you do next.

    • It does have to move the plot forward, imho. I think far too many writers try to go for the kill as a sensationalist tactic.

    • Thanks, Jelly-side Up. As I mentioned in the article, a character’s death (especially a major character) should advance the plot, which might also change the dynamic among the surviving characters, in effect making it a turning point. It doesn’t have to be a death; you might have one character cripple another and have guilt and recriminations reshape the paradigm among your cast.

      • Good point, Keith! I agree both are turning points, although, I do think they have different effects on the dynamics of the character and direction of the story.

  6. I killed off a secondary character in my soft-boiled detective series. I had good reason to do it for the sake of the story. A reviewer blasted me for doing that because he’d come to like the character. He was so upset he put a spoiler in his review telling who the victim was. I don’t know whether to be grateful for the implied compliment (my character was likeable) or upset about the spoiler.

    Oh, well.

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