Killing Characters

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.

A smug Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman, from the Harry Potter series.

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.

Justin Edison's Destruction, second in the Woman at War series, will be out in 2018.

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?

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

1-6-1-6 Thoughts

Today could’ve been like any other Wednesday. Paying the bills at the desk I still haven’t organized to optimum efficiency, trying to triage my to-dos before it was time to pick up my daughter from school, etc. But a strange thought occurred to me as I signed checks to American Express and Comcast, listening to Alice In Chains. I dated my checks, of course, as 1/6/16. Like any other odd date, 1-6-1-6. But I won’t be around to see another 1-6-1-6. Will I?

I suppose I could date something British-style on June 1st and come up with the same number, but that’s cheating when I have no reason to cheat. Truth be told, I was only 24 when 11/19/99 happened. I’m not a numerologist (though I like numbers) and I’m not overly suspicious. As mortality was even further away then, I took no notice of the date except that it was odd. Literally, the last date with all odd numbers that any of us would see (under the current-era system we have).

Calendar showing 1/6/16 with 'Epiphany' inadvertantly marked on the date

So, circling back to my point about today…will this be the last 1-6-1-6 I see? It’s impossible to know, just as it’s impossible to know if I’ll be alive on 1/7/17. But, like most writers, I’m less concerned with what is impossible.

Looking forward

On 1/6/2116, I’ll be 140. And about seven months. Hmm. Even for one of those nifty tortoises, that is friggin’ ancient. ‘Overus hillus supremus,’ Wily Coyote might say. Impossible? Maybe not. Isn’t the oldest person in the world in their 120s? There are still a number of people who can claim they were born when Roosevelt—Teddy, that is—was in the White House. Surely someone’s going to give Yoda a run for his money.

So what the heck will the world look like in a hundred years? I’ll go out on a limb and toss out some loose predictions. Some runner will have cracked the 3-minute mile (in a contest that captivates the globe). It’s going to happen, drawing innumerable comparisons to Roger Bannister’s 4-minute milestone. We’ll have people on Mars (retirement communities?) but won’t have light-speed engines, yet. My interpretation of Sagan and Roddenberry is that our society won’t be ready for the responsibility, anyway. If you can check the box for ‘Mass murder and war’ you can’t check the box for ‘Plays nice with extraterrestrials.’ Mutually exclusive.

Speaking of extra-terrestrials…nah, I don’t want to go down that road.

Star Trek-style transporters? Don’t think so. I wouldn’t take one, anyway. The idea of having one-third of my particles accidentally microwaved to Io (Jupiter’s volcanic moon) doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t call to mind a pretty picture of the other two-thirds of me arriving somewhere else, either.

Besides, if we can deconstruct matter and reconstruct it anywhere else, they’d better be using it to feed hungry people. So, Apple and Google, be warned: The corporate-responsibility eye is fixed on you even now.

The U.S.

Speaking of the United States, will we as a country still be around? I think so. I wouldn’t be shocked (or appalled) if we’d ‘ceded’ the Republic of Texas (and a bizarre quasi-satellite chunk to the north, R of T but not Texas). The possibilities are mostly humorous. Maybe Austin and Houston remain U.S. territories.

Self-driving hover cars? Yup. Damned expensive, too. But it means there will be an entire population “stuck” on the ground, happy to walk, run and bike in peace. Fuel cells will be the norm, which is great for that whole pollution problem. Though I have a feeling some botanists will determine some trees as better atmosphere-cleaners than others, so we’ll have basically four kinds of trees left.

Laser guns? Think we already have them, but DARPA doesn’t want us to know.

Iron Man suits? Think so. (See item above about mass murder and war. Would the real Tony Stark please step up to the podium?)

Circling back

So, back to me. Justin Edison at 140. It’s not going to improve my looks, for sure. Fake body, head in a glass jar? Could this longevity be achieved by less exposure to the sun (supposedly the cause of much aging)? Snickers from around the room since I live in Seattle. Less sun, bwah-ha-ha. (Truth be told, it’s 42 degrees and quite gray out there, so, yeah.) If such solarphobia is put into action, does that mean life aboard an orbital retirement center, a la Sagan? Would I want that–life at 10,560,000 feet? Not sure. I’m fond of the gravity we have now. Meals and bathroom runs are easier.

More importantly, would I want to be alive at 140? Aye, there’s the rub. As my mother-in-law is fond of reminding me, the older you get, the more friends you lose. That’s not just a senior citizen gripe, that’s legitimate. The longer we live, the higher our chances of coming down with (or experiencing) cancer, death by car accident, stroke, and so on. Without trying to sound too cynical, our robust American corporations are far more interested in smartphone advances than they are in squashing leukemia or breast cancer. Appalling but true. Maybe if they could brand it in some way: Ultra-tomoxa-slasher (sponsored by Apple’s iPhone 17L), the leukemia killer. Hmm.

But I digress. What are the chances that my wife and two kids will be alive when I’m 140. Like most any parent, I can’t imagine outliving either of my children (though, sadly, it happens all the time). C will have to be 110 and E 108. So now we’re talking three people (four with Luanne) who have to beat a lot of odds, on (or near) a planet with about 13 billion other souls, with large percentages of them clambering for food, energy, enjoyable space (that super-frozen vacuum area doesn’t count). So, I’m not saying the planet’s going to devolve into Soylent Green conditions, but it won’t all be pretty. Unless Humankind, as we know it, starts to mature faster than we age.

Guess there’s only one way to find out.