Killing Off Characters
(Tune in to Writing Wednesdays on the next few Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the continuation of the series “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” — and for more of The Knowledge‘s backstory.)
We were talking in the previous post about making the stakes of our real-life story life and death.
Sometimes that’s hard to do.
As writers working with our real lives as material, we can be naturally reluctant, say, to kill off a character we actually know.
I’m sure you’re ahead of me on this. I’m about to say, “Kill ’em dead.”
Knock ’em off.
Don’t hesitate for a second.
Death is always energizing for a story. If you don’t believe me, watch Game of Thrones.
But let me expand this axiom.
Don’t be afraid to put the quietus to elements other than human beings.
A marriage can die.
A dream can expire.
A way of life can end.
Death is drama, and drama is what you and I are paid for. (Okay, maybe we’re not being paid. But you know what I mean.)
We want drama. Drama keeps our readers emotionally involved. Drama pulls them through the story. Drama delivers the meat-and-potatoes ending they’re hoping for.
Drama is change.
And no change is greater than death.
“But Steve,” you’re saying, “isn’t death a bummer? Aren’t you being dark and morbid? I want my story to be uplifting! I want a happy ending!”
I agree, I agree.
But death (the demise of a character or a dramatic component) can be an upper. Why?
Because before our hero can be reborn, she has to die.
Before Luke can become a Jedi knight, the child-Luke must expire.
Before Harry and Sally can truly share a marriage, the single-Harry and the single-Sally must be left behind.
Before France can be saved, Joan must be consumed at the stake.
Here are the deaths that happen in final third of The Knowledge:
Stretch’s marriage dies
His wife takes up with his best friend
His agent Marty expires of a heart attack
His newest friend Marvin Bablik is murdered
His book crashes and burns
Yehuda Bablik kicks him out of New York
His dream of being a novelist bites the dust
In real-life only three of these demises occurred. The other four are invented.
Because these deaths either echo, parallel, or are components of the Big Death that happens to Stretch.
He dies as an amateur.
He dies as a wannabe.
He dies as an aspirant.
These deaths are good deaths.
They are doors that close so that a brighter, better door can open.
Reading the ending of The Knowledge, we don’t know for sure what will happen with Stretch. But all signs point to him getting his act together and becoming (or at least starting to become) the professional, realized writer he has always wanted to be.
At the risk of plagiarizing from Oliver Stone’s character of Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko from the movie Wall Street, let me suggest that, handled properly by the storyteller …
Death is good.
Don’t be afraid to use it.
Are we also permitted to enjoy the gratification of getting away with murder? Thanks for a great post!
For me, “Death is good” when the dying of the “old person” [not chronological age]in My Real Life [not a fictional story; book, movie or otherwise] is”the dying” of the person I once thought I was.
Hey, Gwen! What a profound reply to Steve’s post! You’re taking on one of the greatest deaths of life. And know what? I bet you might already know that we can be reborn more than once, and I an NOT referring to anything religious. Spiritual? That’s another matter.
Jerry, Thank You. I completely understand and get what you are saying…
Hope your writing is going well!
Actually, Jerry I don’t think or feel myself as a writer/author type person OR that a “book” is even in the wings somewhere or anywhere. For me “what I do” is I personalize; then write and share what has resonated and hit a chord that in reality someone else has written. IOW’s I have stolen like crazy.
WOW, Steve, today’s post was a hole in one! Your insights, put so beautifully to the points, are golden. So very many ways to die. In my new and 10th book, Last Living Love Letter, Death–in its many forms–is paramount to the narrative and the emotional payoffs. Here are the opening few lines to that novel:
My Dearest Darling,
If I am reading this to you, yet another miracle has happened. The first one was when I met you. If you are reading it, assuming the letter might find its long and challenging way to you, I have perished. The only good thing about dying is knowing I do so with you in my spiritual arms. I pray that as I write this you are thinking of me, feeling me deep inside your bold, loving, and gentle heart.
This is why I dig LitRPG so much.
You can kill off a character and they come back.
Of course, this creates the problem of death not really being a big deal, but there are ways to deal with it.
It can be an epic like Game of Thrones except after a major battle all the characters respawn.
I keep thinking, especially with this post, about that portion of The War of Art where you talk about Resistance trying to talk you into writing a novel about overcoming Resistance instead of The War of Art. I guess we are now seeing what that novel might have looked like. The key lesson being you did them in order.
Steve and group,
Enjoy your series as always, and as always, take them to heart and use the lens to analyze the stories I see.
I was watching the movie “The Judge” last night with my wife. Starring Robert Downey Jr. (a lawyer) and Robert Duvall (a judge) as prodigal son and estranged father respectively.
The movie does a great job of using two of the principles you’ve been hammering with this new series: “Let the bodies hit the floor” and “make the internal external.”
[not really spoiler alert]
The story uses three deaths as catalysts. It kicks off (there’s a pun there I think) with Downey’s Mother dying which brings him back home to medium-town Indiana where he hasn’t been for 20 years. While he is home Duvall is accused of murder and a trial ensues (more external internal but that I won’t spoil).
The scene where he and his father come to grips with their deep-buried feelings, happens in the kitchen while a tornado rages outside.
Finally, the redemption scene takes place the only way it can: Duvall on the stand and Downey in re-direction trying to save the man he “hates.”
For those visual learners, like me, out there I recommend a look at the film, a good supplement to the series.
This is Mr. Logic responding. Reality matters. A is A. I have been called Mr. Data [Star Trek: The Next Generation] by my wife as, let us say, less than a compliment.
That said, for me death in this context relates to Tarot, the 13 or XIII card from the Major Arcana. The “Death” card is more about change, the ending of one part of life and the beginning of another. Sometimes it is a real death, but most times not. Regardless, it is a significant change, something we all encounter. (Tarot is not logical. I do Tarot anyway. It is the Yin to my logical Yang.)
Accordingly, killing off characters or parts of their lives makes so much sense. If our characters are growing, they’re changing, and death in some form is inevitable.
Of course, once in awhile it’s just nice to blast the sh*t out of someone who represents our real life nemesis. 😉
I need my family to read this post. My comic is loosely (LOOSELY) based on myself and my two sisters were we ever to move in together. To begin the narrative, I had to have ’cause’ as to why the three would need/want to move in together… so I made them all widows. Two years into the series, I still get flack about that. No matter how many times I explain it was just for narrative convenience, … more flack.
Thanks for this.