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.

Oversimplifying

On FaceBook the other day, there appeared an ad which a younger, less-mature me would’ve gotten really pissed-off about. It was for a weekend writing retreat (hundreds of starry-eyed writers crammed into a conference room) where someone could ostensibly learn to write a novel in 40 hours. Four-zero hours.

When I thought about it (and this feels like a gimmick sale) this would only make sense if someone gets the bones and structure and a few character details in place. Then, their story is done. (Well, not really.)

To get the bones and structure worked out is to simplify the overall narrative and arc into elemental terms. “Man falls in love with woman” becomes “boy meets girl” and so on. Naturally, life is that simple, isn’t it?

For fun, I decided I’d try it with “Endgame,” a war/sci-fi novel told from the perspective of my heroine, sniper Captain June Vereeth. (Probably 2,000 hours of work, all told.)

(The story starts in the middle of a battle, when Vereeth and company are defending a fuel dump on a Hoth-like world.)

snowy mountain peak with treetops in foreground

Girl (Captain June Vereeth, in the midst of battle) shoots bag-guy enemy commander.

Girl meet boy (Dhani, equipment tech) in cave during battle.

Girl re-joins best friend (Prubius) and boss (Joffe) in battle.

Girl is nearly killed by falling, exploding enemy craft.

Girl and best friend are nearly killed by cave-in. Boss dies (crushed).

Girl, best friend, boy and two others are trapped, cut off from battle. Boy’s arm is pinned.

Girl, as ranking officer, orders removal of boy’s trapped arm (lest boy dies).

Girl tries not to panic, orders party to find a different route back to Base (main route is compromised).

Girl and party are saved from cataclysmic blast (fuel cache detonation) when bad guys penetrate the Base.

Girl wonders what to do (party is without maps or radio and is stranded 70 million miles from friendly territory).

Girl orders party to push on, mulling options and the war itself and the opposing side.

Girl and party emerge from cave tunnels, look back to see volcanic-blast aftermath of Base explosion behind them.

Girl and party are surprised to see planetary defense rockets (which were delayed by cyber attack) suddenly launch skyward, aimed at bad-guy cruisers in orbit.

Girl and party are nearly crushed by many tons of falling debris (those bad-guy cruisers).

Girl and party move on, knowing bad guys will be back (and will be as surly as ever)…

 

Okay, so this story doesn’t break down into really simple statements, after all. But it sure was fun to write!

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.

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Endgame Agent Chat

“Endgame” is now available. The snipers, the quest to be human, the fun animals, the stuff exploding–all of it.

My guesstimate is that the book has taken 1,500 hours so far (including the note-taking and writing fits over the first two years). Because this wannabe bestseller is entirely a product of my imagination, my imagination has often wandered off to the willow trees and thrown some colorful stuff over his shoulder. The following chunk is how I imagine my 15-minute sit-down in a literary agent’s office would go (provided they actually read the whole novel).

~~~

Agent: “You fool, you can’t write a story with a cataclysmic battle at the beginning. It has to build to the big battle. Hollywood won’t like it. And if Hollywood doesn’t like it, people won’t buy it. You’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, you can’t write as an intelligent, level-headed woman. You’re not one! That’s a stupid idea. You’re wasting your time.”

(Creative license?)

Agent: “You fool, you can’t craft a story where the heroine’s mentor dies in the beginning. It has to be schmaltzy, and he has to say something really sage before he’s cut down by a blade in self-sacrifice (he can’t be crushed by falling rock, for God’s sake). Who taught you? You’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, nobody wants any more of this world-building stuff. We’ve got all the planets and parallel universes and fantasy realms we can handle. This one doesn’t even involve earth people. You’re an idiot. You’re wasting your time.”

(We can’t be everywhere.)

Agent: “You fool, you put the story on an ice planet where humans–and all these other colorful folk–can’t really live. Who wants to read about that? We’ve already had our fill of Shackleton. Next. And you’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, whales that walk on land? Are you kidding me?”

Me: Well, I didn’t say they’re reffing soccer games or playing the church organ. Whales on earth used to walk on land–scientists have proven it.”

Agent: “Yeah, imagine trying to make them the star of the picture. Now these, uh, ghost bird thingies. That might be something. Re-write it to make them important. Until then, you’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “What’s with all the damned stories? The heroes find a cave, spend the night, and move on. Bam. No need to talk about war or how bad the Mitochon…Master…Micronesians are.”

Me: “Mitasterites.”

Agent: “Whatever. Bad gray guys. Although now I rather like that name. Like cancer, Mitasti…mitast…ah, however the hell you say it. I bet you didn’t know that.”

(Nope. No idea.)

Agent: “You were foolish to write it in first-person, you know. Then you can’t see it when the big gas station blows up. And then those big cruisers in orbit–now that would be something! Instead you’ve got Jennifer imagining it, and then the crap comes down from orbit. Cha-ching.”

(Her name’s June. She’s my hero.)

Agent: “The shark dream, that’s interesting. Re-write it so she, your hero, get’s swallowed and then has to blast her way out. Costner did it in that flick.”

(Oh God, now you’re bringing up “Waterworld.” Sound of toilet flushing.)

Agent: “Now all this other junk–the guy losing his arm, the hermit, the dumb stories about Jennifer’s past, jury-rigging a ship to fly, the flaming debris–”

Me: “You liked the debris a minute ago.”

Agent: “I did? Whatever. Just get rid of it. Good guys, bad guys. Lots of lasers and crap blowing up. Bad guys come to club the baby seals for fur, Jennifer screams ‘No’, big firefight, take off in the bad guy ship. That’s how you write a story, Jason. Bam. The end.”

Me: “Thank you for taking time out of your schedule, sir.” (Sarcasm–a universal language, for some.)

 

Endgame novel cover mock-up

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