As much as I know this phrase comes to mind when talking about something like cutting sentences that aren’t necessary no matter how much you love them and think they’re clever, I want to talk more about character death. I read an article lately that commented on how often writers think that killing off a character is the only way of bringing about change in a plot, or heightening the stakes.
As someone who’s killed off several characters–most of whom I adored (and have found ways of bringing back to life, in some cases)–I’d like to tackle this issue. Also because I’ve suffered a loss in my family recently, and it’s a good way for me to parse things.
I agree with whomever wrote the article I read the other day. but I would change it slightly. It’s not that we need to kill off our characters. It’s an easy cop-out way of heightening drama, and it’s too easy to toss in a death just to emphasize a point your readers got ages ago. (Here’s looking at you, Rowling. I haven’t forgiven you yet.) But other times, a death can be exactly the kick in the pants that a character needs. For instance, using an example from above: In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling kills off one of the major support beams of Harry’s life when Sirius Black falls through the curtain into nothingness. It is an impetus into the final books, and could not have been accomplished by anything else (in my opinion). That is a loss–that is a death–that Harry needed to witness and parse in order to be the wizard that faces down Voldemort at the end.
In my own novel, the stakes are plenty high for Alistair throughout the entire novel. He is chasing down a clock which has a countdown he can’t see–he just hears it ticking. He could die, and all of his friends could die, at the drop of a hat. But there’s always some piece of him that’s just tagging along because the fight means something to them. He’s fighting for other people. But in the climax of the novel, one of his close comrades and friends is killed in the fight–and then the fight becomes one of vengeance. The rest of the population be damned, but he will avenge his friend. Now it’s personal; now it’s his fight. Without that death, Alistair would have been hard-pressed to reach that point.
But what I think some writers forget–and I’m no exception–is what exactly the human mind goes through in a time of grief. True, I’ve never witnessed the murder of a person I am close to, and I’ve never held a dying body in my arms. But I find it difficult to believe that the aftermath in any circumstance is any different–just perhaps compressed.
In the situation I find myself in today, I spend a lot of time running over every interaction I can remember having with the person, and then remembering all the things I wish I hadn’t done. All the things I said–everything I should have said and didn’t. Situations I wish I’d avoided–conversations I wish I’d had. Feeling like everything I left unsaid makes me a bad person, because why didn’t I do that? Why did I let something trivial stand in my way? Why–why–why. It’s an unending series of questions we can never answer.
My father went through this to some extent as well, when his parents passed away. My grandfather was an intimidating man, particularly in the years when my father was growing up. I remember him as a stern, solid figure who I was never sure actually liked me. I’ve been told that I knew him at a softer age, as well. He was a Captain in the Navy Reserve, and as my father puts it, “took the job of parenthood very seriously.” It was difficult to feel close to him. In his later years, he worked to establish a better relationship with his three sons–though it was difficult, given the childhood they’d had. He died in 2000, and it struck all of us hard. We had all just started to make our relationships stronger with him; I was just coming into an age where I could have interacted with him more, and we’d lost him. My grandmother died 5 years (and one day, oddly enough) after that–and even then, I struggled. I was a senior in high school; I was in what I then considered my first relationship. I was coming into my prime, and she wasn’t going to be there to see it. What was the last thing I’d said to her? Had I been gracious? I couldn’t remember. What if I hadn’t? What were her thoughts of me at the end? I never went to see either of them in their final illnesses. My parents wanted me to remember them whole–and though I felt bad then, I am glad for it now.
With my friend Lee a few years later, it was almost worse. Here was a man I’d only had the chance to meet in person once, and someone who I knew was struggling for years with issue after issue. We all knew he was depressive, and had at least considered suicide in the past. When he actually went through with it–in a painful account on his blog as his overdose failed to work time and time again–it was still a blow, no matter how much we saw it coming. I sobbed and lit incense, something I knew he’d loved in life. And I wondered. Could I have done something? Was there a moment I’d missed in my meeting with him that might have helped? What if I’d been around more? There were too many questions and not enough answers–not the least of which being “How could this have happened?”
I’ve undergone the same thing recently. What was the last thing I said to them? Did I say goodbye when I left after Thanksgiving? Why did I always treat it like such a chore? Why did I let such trivial issues cover the way I saw this person? And why, why, why would any loving deity steal a child from their parents? We see it happen all too commonly, but the question gets no easier, no matter how often we ask or how old the person was who died.
Part of the grieving process is learning to deal with the series of questions. We have to know, somewhere in our minds, that we will always have these questions–and that it is exceptionally unlikely that we will ever get answers. I have lost that member of my family. I will never again get a chance to say goodbye to them, or give them a hug, or tell them I love them. I have to hope that the way in which I lived my life around them showed that to them–even through the hardships and troubles I placed in the middle of it all.
And as a writer, I will do well to remember all of this–the good and the bad–for when I take that scene with Alistair into edits. Because if I can harness even a fraction of the emotion he’s meant to be feeling and transfer that into the scene…I will consider it a success. And I will have one more little moment to thank that member of my family for–another gift of her life.
Ave atque vale. Give Baron a hug for me, will ya?