If you’ve been writing for awhile, you’ve probably reached a point in a story where you’ve had to kill off a character. I don’t mean a minor character or a world character who pretty much exists just to die on a main character’s sword – I mean a point where the plot and the characterization and the whole story demand that a character you have worked with and developed and followed through thousands of words must die. Maybe you knew this was something that would have to happen from the time you started writing the story, or maybe it was something you weren’t expecting before you reached the scene and realized there was no other good choice. Regardless, it’s never an easy thing.
Of course, maybe you write books that are nice and don’t involve people dying, and have no idea about what I’m talking. If that’s the case, don’t stop reading – this could still be a useful post. Although the impetus for the present topic came from my experiences having to “kill off” major characters in my writing, I think most of the thoughts herein apply equally to any significant, irreversible changes, choices, or decisions within the world of a story. Nobody likes change, and so as authors our natural tendencies, if not consciously acknowledged and addressed, tend to be to preserve the story status quo.
You can see this clearly in what I tend to refer to as “comfort food” television shows, like Star Trek or Stargate. Although immense events, even catastrophes can occur during the episodes, by the end of each episode (or something after a two-parter), the setting tends to revert to the status quo. Really, that’s the defining feature of episodic storytelling, and it’s something that I have actively embraced in writing Blood Magic. There’s something comforting, to me, in being able to write all kinds of adventures and difficulties into the monthly stories, but knowing that at the end the characters will all get to the end and be ready for the next adventure. (Now, it is worth noting that Blood Magic is not completely episodic, and as the series progresses there will be minor serialization, but by and large it will retain its episodic structure).
To be honest, though, I’m writing this because of my work on a Fo’Fonas novella, about Verdon. I knew going into writing this novella that Verdon would have to die at the end, and probably violently. He’s mentioned briefly in the first Fo’Fonas novel, at which point he’s dead, and his being dead is important to that plot line. My goal when I started out writing a novella about Verdon was to write a kind of heist/thriller piece, and to make Verdon a rather unsympathetic character. Although he does some terrible things, and remains morally questionable throughout the story, as I got further and further into the writing, I realized that I didn’t want Verdon to die. Despite his major flaws, I found that I wanted him to have some manner of a redemption arc. Which he does, after a fashion, but it’s rather abortive. Every time things start to improve for him, they quickly reverse course.
This is not the first time that I’ve been writing and known or realized that I would ultimately have to arrange for the demise of a character, and as fair warning, it doesn’t really become easier. In order to convincingly write a character, you really have to become intimately familiar with that character, to know them better than you can probably ever know another person – after all, you created this character from scratch, and know everything there is to know about them. In a way, when I write from a certain character’s point of view, I am almost vicariously experiencing the events and emotions of the story.
However, sometimes it simply has to happen. Change may not be easy or pleasant, but it is necessary. Making permanent changes helps move the story along, and ensures that the world you’ve created is not a static place. Sometimes, murder (in the literary sense) is the right thing to do.