My literary tastes run towards action and adventure, with a dose of mystery thrown in. When I see prompts for my own writing, my first thoughts tend to be a bit dark.Murder and mayhem seem to pop into my mind easily. So that brings me to the question: how do you kill off a character? Do you produce a body for the mystery, as Agatha Christie often did, or do you bring a fully fleshed character to life, and then kill them?
Are the books we remember and love the most the ones with true tragedy? I think so. From the reader’s point of view, we are mad at the author. How dare they kill off that character?
But how must that author feel? To have that character evolve and then die. Heartbreak.
So why do we murder our characters? What does it add to the writing?
Let’s start with the original king of tragedy: William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was prolific, and his characters were fully clothed, with souls, both good and evil. Romeo and Juliet is one of his best known tragedies.
But before the poison and the knife, Shakespeare grasped the drive of both teenagers, the family ties, and the times in which they lived. His understanding of human nature made his characters real and breathing to his audiences. How did he write so many characters, giving them life and taking it away? I pick Romeo and Juliet in particular as he killed off such young characters, without the taint of horrible actions behind them as some of his more mature characters had. I do have a theory on how he, as a writer, dealt with killing off his characters. Although it has been a question of many scholars on the exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, there is a pattern to the chronology that has been (mostly) settled upon. For every tragedy–or two– along comes a comedy. I think he used the comedies to recharge before mustering up the will to kill off more of his “children”.
A more modern, and much less known, writer that I love to read is Guy Gavriel Kay. His chosen genre is sci-fi fantasy, and his writing is what I call lyrically tragic. My first experience of him was in high school, and I wasn’t prepared for the richness of his worlds, the depth of his characters, or the tragedy that would befall them. Many of his books are set in times of historical turmoil based on real times in our history. The Lions of Al-Rassan is beautiful, every word. And the end, so well written.
It was the series called the Fionaver Tapestry that caught my attention and made me a GGK reader for life. Mr. Kay is particularly adept at having fully fleshed, breathing, loved characters die. The character to watch is “Diarmuid, although a fearless and elegant fighter is also (apparently) frivolous, impulsive, and shallow.”* His character develops, until he steals his brothers ‘glory’ by fighting a hideous monster during war, thus saving his brother because he feels the brother is the one the country needs. His character stays true to the end, as he ‘laughs gaily’** as he charges the monster. I kept waiting for the punchline, to see how he survived. I don’t think I have ever gotten over Diarmuid dying.
And that is a reason we murder our characters. When it is done properly, not to facilitate a plot line but because that is how the story unfolds, it holds our attention and our emotions. We look for a way the character could have survived. We deny the reality of the words before us. We are sad. We think about the book. What more could an author want?
** The Darkest Road, book 3