Death and the Writer

Death and WriterI’ve been thinking about killing people.

Why kill a character? Is it something as mechanical as “because the plot needed someone to die there?” Why kill a particular character, then? What does it do for the story? For the other characters in the story? Yeah, this is where I get a little woo-woo and fuzzy, because I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, and often I don’t know why I kill someone off until I finish the work. And even when I know the why I’m still conflicted.

Take, for instance, Point of Honour. If you haven’t read it, it’s set in an alternate English Regency and loosely mapped on the plot of The Maltese Falcon. P.I. is asked to find a Macguffin. Twists and turns abound, there are betrayals, bodies pile up, etc. Dripping with noir, right? To get that feeling, I knew I had to populate my heroine Sarah Tolerance’s world with allies and enemies, all in shifting allegiances. And I knew someone close to her had to die early on. Why? Because one of the precipitating events in Falcon is when Sam Spade’s obnoxious partner Miles Archer gets killed. Spade doesn’t like his partner; Spade is sleeping with Miles’s wife. And yet, as he explains later,

When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

Sarah Tolerance, for reasons integral to the book, isn’t sleeping with anyone when the book starts. There’s no one in her life for whom she feels that kind of responsibility. Yet someone had to die. (Yes, I know how that sounds. Heigh-ho, the author’s life.) My eye lit on a character I’d come up with on a whim, Matt Etan, a gay prostitute who works in her aunt’s brothel (no, the book is nothing like Maltese Falcon in the details). And I loved this guy, he was funny and snarky and the closest thing to a friend my very self-contained heroine had. I kept hoping I could find someone else to sacrifice, because I just liked this guy so much. I tried avoid the subject entirely and write the book without that initial death, and that didn’t work.

And while I was distracted, trying not to kill anyone, Matt went and volunteered to do a chore for Sarah, and got himself killed. It was like that character had a death wish and was making me kill him. And Sam Spade was right: because Matt was Sarah’s friend, because he had died doing something for her, and because she felt a responsibility, it meant that later in the book, she had to do something. Even when it was hard to do it, even when she wanted to give up, she had to do something about it. Poor Matt. He never had a chance.

My niece gave me grief like you wouldn’t believe for Matt’s death. Of course she also complained when I killed off characters in an earlier book, The Stone War. Which is a post-apocalyptic fantasy set in New York, with yer basic battle of good vs. evil. And I’m sorry, but at the risk of quoting that old saw about omelets and broken eggs, you can’t have a post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil without some casualties, and the casualties can’t all be extras and bit players. You can’t be kinder to your characters than fate would, and it’s unlikely that fate would spare all the important players. Besides, the death of a character you like carries more emotional wallop than the death of red shirts: both for the reader and for the characters who know him.

Doesn’t make it easy, though.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Death and the Writer — 9 Comments

  1. Killing a character is hard, even when they’re all ‘this really happened, it sucked badly, but it’s ok’.

    Three things that don’t work for me as a reader: ‘everybody the character gets close to dies’ because when you start a multi-book series and the protagonist only ever likes five people, two of which die in the first book, and two in the second, this becomes very grim and very dire in no time at all.
    The other is ‘characters marked for death’ where you *know* which member of the cast is expendable to the author. This used to be the archetypical dog-that-dies, or the native sidekick, where you often get the feeling that the author included them only because they didn’t mind killing them later, and they were only too aware that _someone_ had to die.
    And the last is the complex character whose redemption arc would be so difficult to write that they die heroically at the end, leaving author and protagonist to mourn them without having to deal with them in person. Snape is a good example of this: I loved him being an arsehole and a bully and on the side of the good guys anyway, and I hated his death.

    • Yes, and to these I’ll add the “Joss Whedon supposedly clever hip random death” you know, to prove that life is like that. Except this is fiction. And also, I notice that the random deaths happen instead of developing actual relationships.

  2. How rationally you think about it! I am a pantser as well, and I have no idea when I begin who is wearing a red shirt in a book. I realize that I am not following a plot line, nor a character arc. I am feeling my way through the writing, holding up the lamp of story. If it makes a good story, I’m in. And thus so sorry, Mr. Shirt, you are now red — because it’ll be so damn good when you die.

    • I’m not at all rational about it when I’m in the middle of it. Afterward I can look at the work and say, Yeah, that’s why she had to die. In the middle of it it just happens and I’m upset but have to carry on. Just like Sarah.

  3. Just do not kill the cat, or the dog. Only flack I got from fans for killing someone was taking out a flywacket–a flying cat who was the witch’s familiar. In order for her to grow as a person, and to motivate her to DO something rather crawl back into her hidey hole, the cat had to go. I cried. My fans sent nasty letters.

  4. Somebody has to die to motivate the protagonist.

    These days it’s frowned upon to have it be the protagonist’s wife/girlfriend/ — called fridging the girl, or something like that in contemporary parlance. I.e. the female character particularly who has no importance other than motivation. Rape of wife/girlfriend/daughter too, now frowned upon as lazy writing.

    Does the frowning continue if the protagonist is female, i.e. her gay sidekick is expendable, other than motivating the plot? I mean — I don’t know! One would think that this is the place the seat of the pants writing would really work — the author would know if this is or isn’t why that character dies.

    If any of that made any sense at all — I’m in so much cold-caused pain right now, and can’t take anything except aspirin, due to the average pain med destroys your liver and ups your blood pressure. Who do I kill for this? 🙂


  5. I liked Matt.

    But by the end, the book hung together as a whole, and I knew that not only was his death crucial, but that her remembering him fondly might come up in other Sarah tales.

    I have a character who, should I ever finish that huge book, will die young in war. I can’t get around her dying, because it unleashes other things.

    But I keep trying to find a way out of her death.

  6. What about more transgressive things? Phyl mentioned killing the dog. I am trying to work out how my imprisoned heroine can get a secret message from central Europe to London. I can cook up ways for it to happen (telegraph, diplomatic pouch, secret letter) but I can’t figure out a way for her to get it into those channels. She has no money for bribery or postage. But I know, I just know, that the readers will be infuriated if she bribes somebody with sex.