I Like to Kill People…

June 1, 2012 at 10:33 pm (fantasy, horror, writing) (, , , , , , , , )

…in my stories, that is. What did you think I meant?

There was an interesting conversation thread amongst some writer friends today about killing off characters, and whether any of us regretted killing one off in a particular story, or if we ever rewrote a story to restore a character to life. Truth is that while I do sometimes find it difficult to kill off a favourite character, I won’t hesitate to do so for the sake of a plot. In fact, I have killed off entire villages and races out of necessity to further a storyline.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one for gratuitous violence (funny coming from a horror writer, eh?) and I don’t make a practice of killing characters I dislike out of spite, but if you are writing a story where people are at risk of grievous bodily harm on a regular basis, or are in the midst of a war, and nobody ever dies, how realistic is that? I can think of several books I wanted to throw across the room because the only characters who die are bad guys or people who show up just in time to be slaughtered. I refuse to limit the deaths in my own stories to villains and to “red-shirts.” A death has a much greater impact if the character is one the reader actually cares about.

I’m also not saying that there aren’t meaningless deaths that will occur in a tale, especially one that involves war, disease or other hardships, but if you are going to bump off a preferred primary character, it helps if there is a reason for it. Perhaps that character’s death will serve as a catalyst for uniting people who are at odds with one another, or as a sacrifice to launch into motion a significant event that will help others. Perhaps they are willing to martyr themselves for a just cause or to exact revenge. Suicides, accidents, murder, or death by old age – it doesn’t matter the method since it is going to happen to everyone eventually. The death of a main character can add plenty of flavour and meaning to a story, even if their loss might make the reader cringe or cry. After all, isn’t part of the reason we write to move people in some way?

I’ve had my beta reader call me “murderer” for weeks at a time, but I would never go back and change one of those unhappy occurrences merely to appease her. That being said, on one occasion, and only one, I changed my mind about killing a character because of something she told me while reading the earlier chapters prior to a planned death. I don’t know if she even realized that she had spared that character’s life, but I don’t regret letting him live either.

And death is not necessarily the end of a character, especially not in a horror or fantasy setting. They can reappear in your tale, be it via dreams, time travel, rising as one of the undead, magical resurrection or even just the reminiscing of other characters. It’s up to the writer whether or not the character will die completely or be revisited in some other way, shape or form.

Just to let you know, if a death of a character in one of my stories makes you cry, there’s a good chance it made me cry too. When I know I’m about to have someone important breathe their last breath, I find a dark corner with my netbook and my box of tissues, and warn everyone else to leave me alone.

After all, just because I like to kill people, it doesn’t mean I’m heartless.


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