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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Murder, She Writes—Kill Those Characters by Suzanne Johnson

Every author, early in his or her career, hears the old adage to “murder your darlings.” Generally, it means being willing to kill off favorite scenes when they don’t serve to advance the plot of one’s story.

It also should mean to be willing to take risks in plot and character. Burn it down. Kill them off. It’s like reader crack, addictive and water-cooler discussion-worthy. You think people are nuts over George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and its TV spinoff “Game of Thrones” because characters look good in medieval wear?

No, it’s to see which character gets slaughtered next.

(Well, okay, it’s awesome storytelling, but GMMR is NOT afraid to murder his darlings—or ours.)

I always like to say that the only person in your novel you can’t kill is your point-of-view character, because then there’s no one to tell the story. In a romance, it’s your hero and heroine, even if you have other POV characters. And technically, since we write fantasy, futuristic and paranormal fiction, we can even kill off our hero or heroine as long as we still figure out a way to get the happily-for-now in there. (Vishous and Doc Jane, anyone? Although I still say he was robbed.)

Here are some places to consider killing off someone you love:

The climactic, epic turning point. This is the most common POD (point of death) in novels. Your main character has had that inevitable black moment—an epic battle when it looks as if all is lost, an ultimate betrayal, a final ramping up of emotion that will be turned around by the final, climactic turning point. It’s a really good time for someone to bite the big one—usually the villain or the person standing in the way of your happily-for-now. But if someone else gets taken down in the process, the stakes get ramped up even more.

The great swampy middle. You know…that eighty thousand words between your opening scene and your ending, what novelist Jim Butcher calls “the great swampy middle.” It needs a few turning points to get your plot from beginning to end; killing off a character is a great way to make story turns. And it shouldn’t be just any random character (that is true for all these examples—you’re killing darlings, remember, not nameless bit players). It needs to be someone the reader is invested in to some degree. I went on a corpse-count through my published novels, and in seven books, I killed nineteen characters. Two of them were strangers we got to know posthumously. Several were major characters. Two of them kinda got resurrected. There were about eight unnamed dead folks I didn’t count.

The red herring. If there’s a mystery involved in your story, as there are in many novels of all genres, you want to set up some false leads along the way. One way to turn your plot around (as well as your reader’s brain) is to kill off one of your chief suspects, preferably the one you’ve set up as the biggest red herring. The reader gasps, certain that Mr. Zippo was the murderer—but Mr. Zippo has suddenly gotten whacked in chapter fifteen. It’s why murder mysteries are so addictive. Readers love to try and solve whodunit, so kill off someone to keep them on their mental toes.

The inciting incident. I mentioned those two dead people in one of my books that the readers got to know posthumously. Their deaths set up the action for the rest of the book as the heroine tries to figure out why they were killed and what killed them (because she could tell it wasn’t human). And the part of the Mississippi River where they were found had been poisoned. And they were both wizards. And the mermen were involved. Lots of problems to solve, beginning with those two deaths.

Character growth. We do horrible things to our characters. I’ve burned mine with acid, impaled one through the shoulder with a sword, injected one in the stomach with poison, had another shot with poisoned-coated buckshot, burned down a town and forced all the characters to move underground, and branded a heroine—you know, like with a branding iron. (Now that I read this list, I’m thinking therapy might be called for.) Torture makes for good character growth. So does death. Losing someone a hero or heroine loves or feels responsible for is a great way to have a character make an emotional turn, whether it’s a sudden, unexpected loss, a slow, painful loss the character has to work through, or a guilt-inducing death caused by your protagonist.

As you write or revise your next book, think about death: how can it be used to help your characters grow? How can it advance your plot? Whose loss would really shake things up? Remember, no one but the hero and/or heroine are un-killable.

Everyone else is fair game to be a game-changer.

Suzanne Johnson writes the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series for Tor Books; as Susannah Sandlin, she writes the award-winning Penton Vampire Legacy paranormal romance series for Montlake Romance. A longtime New Orleanian with a passion for gators and Garden District architecture, Suzanne currently lives in Auburn, Alabama, surrounded by cows (which are not nearly as interesting as gators). For imformation, please visit www.suzanne-johnson.com, find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AuthorSuzanneJohnson, or on Twitter @Suzanne_Johnson. You can read the first chapter of her upcoming release Elysian Fields free at tor.com.



Rebe said...

This reminds me of why I always disliked Hitchcock's Psycho so much. I always felt that he was playing games with the viewer by having us sympathize with Janet Leigh's character, only to kill her off mid film. In fact, I've heard theories that the entire film is structured around the important shower scene - Hitchcock wanted to do that scene and created the rest of the story around it.

Roger said...

As I read your "Kill Those Characters" it reminded me of another favorite author, Kim Harrison. How can we ever forget her now famous killing off of a fan favorite character. WOW, that created lots of controversy among the troops, for a long time.

miki said...

... still Adam... why... we even didn't know him well yet ç_ç ( too emotional right now)
and yes vishnou was robbed and quite a lot-_- for me that not an happy end at all for him

i understand why some characters have to die ( arf if i look at teh october day series, there are several each time, even with kate daniels or mercy thompson series) but i really prefer when it's a secondary one it does have an impact but we can still survive if the book has an happy ending ( the book not some scrapped heroes version)because in a sense in life too we have loss, and suffering but at the end we hope for a HEA

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments!

@Rebe. Yes, I realize it seems...Machiavellian...to be so intentional in laying out red herrings. Of course, killing a heroine is not going to happen in any genre book unless (as is the case with Hitchcock) the genre is horror. Then, all bets are off!

@Roger. OMG. I still haven't forgiven her for killing Kist. That was almost like having a hero and heroine and killing the hero. I was scarred!

@Miki...Oh, Vishous Vishous. He was so cheated. I think it's important that characters die for a legitimate reason within the story and not just to kill them off for the heck of it. (Adam's loss was to trigger a backstory for Archer.) Killings can't be random or deliberately manipulative.

Anonymous said...

Like most readers, I live in fear, serious fear, of my characters (I can't even say favorite characters because they're all my favorite) dying. It's so traumatic. Please, please, please don't get any ideas about your Sentinels. I'll make you yummy cookies...

Jolene and Family said...

I've read books where a fav. secondary character has been killed off. While it shocks me and I shed tears, I love reading how it also changes the main character and changes some of their decisions and choices. I've dealt with death a few times early on in my life and I understand well how much a part of life it is. It is something I also sometimes expect my favorite characters to go through as well

Liz S. said...

This is a great post. As a reader I have been distraught over deaths of certain characters. How about Wellsie? But you're right about character development. But killing off a favorite character can be tricky. I actually stopped reading a series once, because I didn't think the death helped move the story forward. It felt like the author didn't know what to do with character any more and so terminated him.

erin said...

Thanks for the fun post! I love twisty, twisty plots especially when it's more a mental game than anything. I love Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series for just this reason! Congrats to Susanne on the series!

Janhvi said...

The demise of any character who was relevant in a series can be a great turning point but it does sadden me. But if handled well, I could be convinced :)

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Katy...LOL. I've killed off quite a few in that series, but so far have been content to just torture the main characters :-)

@Jolene...Exactly. I think if the characters are in dangerous situations and nobody pays a price (unless it's a superhero story or a comedy), it's selling the story short.

@Liz...I admit I almost gave up on the Hollows series after the "Kisten incident." (Hope I'm not giving a spoiler.) I heard Kim Harrison say she did it because she'd written herself into a corner with Rachel and Kist and she wasn't ready to give Rachel an HEA; she hadn't realized how good they were going to be together. So I guess it served the series in the long run but man, that one hurt!

@Erin--thanks! I also love twisty plots (as people who read Elysian Fields will discover...talk about twisted!)

@Janhvi...It has to serve the story, and I think that's the key. I did kill a character in one book that I went back and forth about because I knew the character was popular. But I needed to show how high and brutal the stakes in my story were getting, so I did it. Thanks for stopping by!

Eli Yanti said...

Pls don't make any protagonist character die, I hate it, but it's okay for enemy lol

Kirsten Lamberton said...

I'm with Roger and you, Suzanne, on the killing off of Kisten. It broke my heart. But it did serve a greater purpose. I have read many books where a lovable charcter got killed off, and after reading your article I understand the many reasons why. Sometimes, I just wish it weren't THAT person, but someone else in the series that irritates me. lol

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Eli....I won't, or at least not without a really good reason!

@Kirsten...Ah, Kisten. I do understand why Kim had to kill him off, but it totally freaked me out. I wasn't expecting it. I think I spent the next two books waiting for him to come back and we'd find it had all been some evil experiment of Trent Kalamack's. LOL.