Friday, July 4, 2008

Killing Off Characters

By Jean Henry Mead

Ever wonder how novelists decide which of their characters to kill? I was recently forced to kill a character I loved because I had written myself into a corner. I was so upset that I had to stop writing that day. I then remembered something Benjamin Capps once told me during an interview:

“Probably no reader of mine ever felt so strongly [about the storyline] or shed a small tear unless I had already done so in the writing.”

Emotional investment in a writer’s characters is undoubtedly what makes a novel successful. If an author doesn’t really care about his characters, why should the reader? But how involved does a writer have to be to make his readers care? That’s a question someone much smarter than I am will have to answer.

I do know, however, that many of us live with our characters 24/7, until the book comes to a conclusion. Then it’s hard for me to let go, which is why I like writing a series. The characters to whom I’ve given birth can age right along with me, unless, of course, I’m forced to whack them.

After covering a police beat for eight years and writing about the worst aspects of human nature, I decided to write a senior sleuth series. Shirl Lock & Holmes features two 60-year-old widows; one a private investigator’s wife, the other a mystery novel buff. The friends are literally forced to discover the identity of a compulsive murderer, who is alphabetically doing away with their friends . By literally, I mean they realize their own names are on the killer’s list.

In the second novel, I placed them in a motorhome in the midst of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I then killed one my character’s sister, but the reader doesn’t get to know her until her diary is found and read throughout the novel. I didn’t shed a tear until the last entry was read.

I like my main characters because they’re witty and sassy, according to one reviewer, and I could never bring myself to knock one of them off. But anyone who threatens them in any way is in big trouble in my book. I’m also a compulsive killer. (Literary, that is.)


Jaden Terrell said...

Jean, in my last book, I had to kill off a character I had come to love very much. It was necessary, but I still cried like a baby when it happened.

When it became clear that he was going to be killed, I tried everything I could think of to save him, but all my solutions felt forced and false. So I let him go, but oh, it was hard.

Jean Henry (Mead) said...

I know, Beth. I guess that's why outlines are preferable to winging it. But I can only use an outline when I write nonfiction. Ah, well, maybe our readers will have a good cry as well. :-)

Jaden Terrell said...

I outline, but things still take me by surprise. My mind is always working on ways to improve on the outline, and as long as it really is better, I just go with it.