Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Killing Off a Character (Writing)

It's been a while since I've written about, well, writing itself, and this is a subject I've planned to write (I have a "to write" list). This one, more than anything else I probably say about writing, should tell you a bit of how crazy writers really are (except for maybe the character's voices in our head.)

Early on I did quite a bit of reading about how to write stories, absorbing all of it like a sponge. I treated each piece of advice like it was holy, until I came across contradictory information, then picked whichever made more sense. After a while I began to form my own rules and ideas, and studied what worked well in published novels.

However, the only information I came across about killing off characters was somewhat wrong to begin with, and I've never come across anything since. I can't remember where it came from, or from who, but it said something along the lines of "If your story starts to get boring, kill someone off!"

At the time I was writing a (rather terrible) story and there was one character in particular that was getting on my nerves. She was supposed to be the main character's best friend, but she didn't have much of a personality, nor did I have an easy time making one for her. Basically I had forced her to exist simply because my story's fellowship was all guys with the exception of the main character.

Picture the guy in red with long, flowing blonde hair and that would be it.

So, when my story started to slow down, I thought of killing off the main character's girl friend numerous times. Squash her like an insect. Something was bothering me about it though. It felt too cheap, too easy, and my characters would have to emo about it for a long time. The death would mean nothing to me and, as a result, it would mean nothing to the reader.

The plot needed spicing up, so, yeah sorry...
I've participated in a collaborative writing forum for about 8 years now and one of the hardest things is killing off a character. I couldn't do it, even if it was planned from the very beginning. It would always be a faked death, or they would be reincarnated in some form, or a ghost. I've come up with some pretty inventive ideas in my stubborn "refuse to let a character die." Things that actually manage to create more plot than if the character had stayed dead in the first place.

It would be years later that I would be working on a story and trying to come up with an end. It's still in the process of being written, and will likely be published soon(ish), so I won't spoil you about the details of how it goes down exactly nor in what story, so I'm going to keep it vague.

I had reached a point where I began to think about how it would end. I can't stand "Happily Ever After" where everything is wrapped up nice and neat, especially in love. Love is weird, love is complicated, and love never comes out the way a person expects.

So, how to go about the end of this story? This story where these two people want to live happily ever after, but because of certain events, it is taken away from them?

I ran through several scenarios. Heck, I wrote out several scenarios. I primarily had one idea planned out: He rides out into the sunset. The question was, what happened then? Ideas: He left and came back a couple of years later, and she was waiting dutifully for him. He left and came back a couple of years later, and she had fallen in love with someone else in his absence. He left and never came back, and she waited dutifully for him for the rest of her life. I wrote all of those out, and about a week later it hit me:

He dies.

The thought hit me so hard, and so powerfully, that I just thought to myself "That's it. That's how it ends." The problem was, I didn't want it to end that way, but because it had hit me like that, in a way that it made me actually feel, I knew that would be the way it ended.

It was hard, writing that end. I wanted to cry. The only thing that kept me going was the potential embarrassment that my brother would see me typing away and crying my eyes out at the same time. Still, for the very first time, I actually cared about killing someone.

Between the keys is a combination of Doritos and tears.
So there it is, my advice about killing off a character: It has to be strong. You have to care about this character enough that you probably don't actually want them to die so that, when he does, you're going to feel it. Chances are, if you feel it, the readers will, too.

Killing someone off is tricky business. You have to both make the reader think they won't be killed off, while at the same time make it believable that their life is in enough danger so that they risk being killed off.

That's where killing minor characters, or even faceless extras, come into play.
Killing someone off has to be a shock, something that makes the reader go "Whoa," because they didn't see it coming. People like to be surprised, and when they are, it makes the story memorable.

However, there will be times that the character will be in danger, an action scene, and you need people to believe that they can be killed. Or, at least, in danger of being in harm's way. You have to really get a reader so into a story that they're going to be too distracted by the danger to notice that there's still half a book left that the character has to survive through.

That's when you kill other characters. If there's death around then it makes it believable that Something Bad could happen. They don't all have to be super significant deaths, because then readers aren't going to get attached in the event that the character they like inevitably dies (I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin.) Instead, have some other characters die. Show that the robed spectre of Death actually exists in your story.

Maybe not literally.
Of course, there is also another layer of complexity: How do you make a possible main character death threat convincing? Especially when there's half a book left or, even harder, it's a first-person perspective. First person practically guarantees that the main character is immortal. How do you get around that?

I'll tell you when I figure it out, myself.

This actually reminds me of a good writing book I have called How Not to Write a Novel and it has the single, most useful section in it called Why Your Job is Harder than God's. Basically it talks about how, in writing, everything has to make sense, everything happens for a reason, all that stuff. In real life, there are characters and plot lines that sometimes never wrap up.

Picture someone writing in a diary, every single day, in real life. They're the first person perspective narrator of their own plot. Thirty years in? Bam. Fatal car accident. The End.

In fiction? They're a ghost, or the real main character finds and reads their diary, or you've got some kind of Nicholas Sparks love story going on, or something.

I seriously have no idea if this is applicable.
I have neither seen nor read anything by Nicholas Sparks,
and I am a manlier person for it.
Basically, when it comes to killing off characters, it's a very fine-point complicated thing. You know. Just like everything else in writing.

Are you crazy yet?

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