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.

Editing Destruction

Things are looking up for Captain June Vereeth. With friends, she escaped the madness of icy P-75. She brought a couple trophies (prisoners of war) back from the outlaw world of Shen-Zinkh. Now she’s even having fun climbing the picturesque mountains of Zycarsus with a new male friend, smiling in the sunshine…

Well, not exactly. She and this new friend (nicknamed Hulk) and 30 other soldiers are hauling themselves up 3000 feet into a maddening fogged-in world. They’re looking for a downed freighter. They’re lost, because they can’t use anything electronic and nobody has a map. And those pesky Mitasterites will have some competition for deadliest foe in this abandoned world.

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

First draft done, coffee chugged, I’m now editing Destruction (love my cheery title). And it’s going…well, it’s going. To once-again begin the process of editing a book is to wrestle with a bunch of questions.

Is this what I wanted to write?

Is this story good enough?

Do the right people die (it’s about war) or lose their way?

Am I accurately rendering Vereeth and her flaws and strengths?

Can this heroine reconcile the terrible cost of armed conflict, when she’s often stuck with the most difficult choices?

After two years of notes (the opening chunk came to mind before I was done with ‘Endgame‘) do I have the product I need to have?

Am I a good-enough writer for this?

Justin Edison's three available books on a shelf

Justin Edison’s three available books on a shelf

Time will tell.

Maybe.

Blackout: a Pioneering Term from Destruction

Writing my first sequel (ever) for Endgame has given me a few challenges.

One of those–natural for a sci-fi series about war–is penning my first space battle since I was, well, a teenager. What would it really be like? Since everything in the book is seen from heroine June Vereeth’s perspective, the moments were a combination of what she hears (communications) and the too-fast objects moving across various display screens. (She’s on a space station, not in the battle. Bonus: The worries and concern from watching something you have no control over.)

Since I grew up watching Star Trek: TNG, one of the questions that bugged me was how did the Enterprise crew see what was happening at some far-off outpost or near a cosmic rift. Bridge stalwart Lt. Warf says “On screen,” and, bam, there it is! Piece of Cardassian cake: You’re watching something from a two million kilometers away. No mention of satellites or camera-bearing probes. (The tech in that show was always frustratingly fool-proof, too.) If only.

So, how would we see such events in space? Especially when we’re nowhere close to them?

Introducing the term blackout, playing a minor role in Destruction. A blackout is an SUV-sized pod which would detach from a larger ship, like a battle cruiser, ahead of an event. The craft would move to a spot two miles away (things move pretty fast in combat) and sit stationary, offering tactical and radar assistance. If there are multiple vessels engaged in battle, the third-party view would give the good guys something of an advantage. For one, ships couldn’t hide behind others (a concept which sounds far-fetched but actually makes perfect sense in scenarios, such as in Ender’s Game).

Justin Edison's Destruction teaser featuring red lights on a black background with 'blackout' lettering in yellow.

I’m not pioneering the term ‘blackout’ of course. But, of the dozen or so definitions that appear (the term first being used in 1913) none refers as slang for a ship. That’s exactly what it would be. With space, of course, being quite dark, it would make sense for techs to use dark metal, or just paint the thing black. Then, while the pod was in use, it would make even more sense for all the lights to be turned off. Otherwise, a Mitasterite fighter makes a quick loop out and eliminates this tactical nuisance.

It might be fun to write a comedy piece, too: A mismatched couple (Felix and Oscar, or Elliott and Todd from Scrubs) arguing in the ‘dashboard’ light while all hell is breaking loose twenty seconds’ flight away.

I honestly try not to take myself too seriously, so there’s potential.

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.

Endgame is available now!