How do we kill those characters we like?
You can’t write a story about war and not have a death or two, right? For God’s sake, half the characters in ‘Catch-22‘ bite the big one (a few of them memorably, like Snowden). Military conflict and death go hand-in-hand. Some important characters must meet their end.
Other memorable scenes include R.P. McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ of course. It was a tragedy that had to happen. Or scientist Matt Hooper from ‘Jaws.’ (Spared in the film, his gruesome literary end would leave anyone in Brody’s shoes with survivor’s guilt.)
Or Sirius Black from ‘Harry Potter and The Order of Phoenix.’ This one bugged me. Harry needs this living ‘family’ member, a connection to the past that was his parents. And the way Rowling killed him off–his being hit by a spell and falling through the gray-veil doorway–left it open for Harry to bring him back. I wonder if the author herself wasn’t sure what to do about him, thus the mystery. Sadly, he never reappears, and Harry is left without any mentors.
Killing Characters, the How and Why?
Taking the axe to someone we’ve brought to life is a morbid facet of writing. Obviously, many authors really enjoy it (and some are guilty of, er, overkill).
So how do we kill of people correctly? What is appropriate?
I’ve always tried to write with certain parameters in mind. What is likely? What is realistic? Let the answers to these questions inform the all-important ‘How.’
Combat action is very fast. The different accounts I’ve read (such as ‘Black Hawk Down‘) tell how an intense firefight can last a mere 30 seconds, with thousands of rounds traded across an alley. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for a tearful, schmaltzy farewell.
The Harsh Reality
In ‘Destruction,’ a lot of people perish. It is, at its heart, a story about war. And, for the sake of being realistic, that meant killing off a gentle character I enjoyed creating–a man I’d like to see in other tales and settings. (They could all be tainted by the barn-door analogy, however, a la ‘Solo.’)
Like June Vereeth’s mentor/boss Joffe in ‘Endgame,’ it happens in a flash. (In ‘Endgame’ all Vereeth knows is that the cave ceiling is collapsing, and she and her friend are being shoved away, by Joffe. After the dust settles, she finds his hand protruding from a pile of rock.) This time, she has to watch it–from a distance, unable to do anything about it, during action.
It’s what fits. And, in a story where Karma is turned on its head, this likeable man perishes while a sexist asshole lives. Obviously, this echoes real life. Fair? Not a chance. Art imitates life, doesn’t it?
And could any of us picture McMurphy carrying on as a piece of broccoli, anyway?
Yeah. It’s painful to have to off characters you become attached to. I’ll never understand how George RR Martin is so merciless about it.
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