Madeleine Robins

Death and the Writer

I’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.