Death and the Writer

Death and WriterI’ve been thinking about killing people.

In books. Killing characters, great and small.  First, why kill a character? Is it something as mechanical as “because the plot needed someone to die there?” Why kill a particular character, then? What does it do for the story? For the other characters in the story? Yeah, this is where I get a little woo-woo and fuzzy, because I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, and often I don’t know why I kill someone off until I finish the work. And even when I know the why I’m still conflicted.

Take, for instance, Point of Honour. If you haven’t read it, it’s set in an alternate English Regency and loosely mapped on the plot of The Maltese Falcon. P.I. is asked to find a Macguffin. Twists and turns abound, there are betrayals, bodies pile up, etc. Dripping with noir, right? To get that feeling, I knew I had to populate my heroine Sarah Tolerance’s world with allies and enemies, all in shifting allegiances. And I knew someone close to her had to die early on. Why? Because one of the precipitating events in Falcon is when Sam Spade’s obnoxious partner Miles Archer gets killed. Spade doesn’t like his partner; Spade is sleeping with Miles’s wife. And yet, as he explains later,

When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

Sarah Tolerance, for reasons integral to the book, isn’t sleeping with anyone when the book starts. There’s no one in her life for whom she feels that kind of responsibility. Yet someone had to die. (Yes, I know how that sounds. Heigh-ho, the author’s life.) My eye lit on a character I’d come up with on a whim, Matt Etan, a gay prostitute who works in her aunt’s brothel (no, the book is nothing like Maltese Falcon in the details). And I loved this guy, he was funny and snarky and the closest thing to a friend my very self-contained heroine had. I kept hoping I could find someone else to sacrifice, because I just liked this guy so much. I tried avoid the subject entirely and write the book without that initial death, and that didn’t work.

And while I was distracted, trying not to kill anyone, Matt went and volunteered to do a chore for Sarah, and got himself killed. It was like that character had a death wish and was making me kill him. And Sam Spade was right: because Matt was Sarah’s friend, because he had died doing something for her, and because she felt a responsibility, it meant that later in the book, she had to do something. Even when it was hard to do it, even when she wanted to give up, she had to do something about it. Poor Matt. He never had a chance.

My niece gave me grief like you wouldn’t believe for Matt’s death. Of course she also complained when I killed off characters in an earlier book, The Stone War. Which is a post-apocalyptic fantasy set in New York, with yer basic battle of good vs. evil. And I’m sorry, but at the risk of quoting that old saw about omelets and broken eggs, you can’t have a post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil without some casualties, and the casualties can’t all be extras and bit players. You can’t be kinder to your characters than fate would, and it’s unlikely that fate would spare all the important players. Besides, the death of a character you like carries more emotional wallop than the death of red shirts: both for the reader and for the characters who know him.

Doesn’t make it easy, though.



  1. this is a wonderful piece of insight.

    having just recently dealt with the death of someone i loved very much, i have to say that i seldom find fictional deaths carrying anything resembling the awfulness of the real thing. it gets trivialized. it doesn’t ring true. it’s the one event that holds all of humanity in a state of abject terror.

    in detective fiction, i don’t know anybody who could make it ring true as well as Ross MacDonald could in his later books. it was something fairly inconsequential in his earlier stories, but by the time he got to “The Galton Case”, he had figured out how to build the death of even bit players as something toweringly tragic. the death of a third-rate process server in “The Goodbye Look” was maybe his best, all the more impressive for the tiny details MacDonald took note of when Lew Archer discovered the corpse: the dead PI is tagged by the aroma of his cheap shaving lotion.

    the little side-story which opens the book “Goldfinger” involves James Bond killing a cheap Mexican thug. possibly i am outing myself as an intellectual lightweight when i say that i found the author’s description quite touching:

    What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving licence. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for the dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico.

    • Thanks, Clem. I know the first time I saw the body of someone I had known (a colleague’s daughter, at her wake) the difference between the person I had known–a sparkling, vibrant young woman–and the waxwork figure at the viewing was startling and horrifying.

      If I never hear another human say, in response to a viewing, “He/She looks so lifelike!” it would be fine with me.

  2. Ah, yes. When I was writing my first novel, there was one character I loved more than all the others. A support character, not a point of view character, but very important to the story. As I was creating the first draft, I realized this character had to die. It just fit the story; it kicked everything up to a higher level. It broke my heart, because I liked the character so much I was already planning for a book with that character as the POV.

    But, it was imperative that this character die. I wrote the death scene immediately, even though I normally write in sequence. I wept as I wrote it. Then I went back and built the rest of the novel.

    Quite often when I’m writing, an idea will occur to me and my first thought will be, “No, that’s too awful – I can’t do that.” Usually that means it’s what’s supposed to happen in the story.

  3. don’t all of you guys outline everything that will happen before you write a word? i tried writing a crime novel 25 years ago, and thought i could just make it up as i went along. 500 pages later, i realized i’d painted myself into so many corners, there was no way to rescue myself.

    • Different writers do it differently. I generally have an idea, and an idea of where I want to end up (which is emotionally tied to the point of the book). I may even know scenes I want to write. But generally I just sort of…go. Makes it really hard when writing mysteries, which depend on the careful strewing of useful information throughout the plot, since you don’t always know what the useful information is going to be.

    • Heh. I do it differently for every book. Historical fiction, I start with real events and build my story around them. Fantasy fiction, usually seat-of-the-pants. Mystery, I have ideas of where the story is going, but I don’t write them down until/unless I start getting into needing an exact timeline.

  4. i once saw a photograph of the desk blotter upon which Ross MacDonald plotted out “The Galton Case”. it looked like The Human Genome Project. he figured it out to the smallest detail. i’ve always been intrigued by John Irving’s statement that the reader must feel like he is in the hands of an expert.

    anyway, thanks for the insight.

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