Professional Killing

Lately I’ve come to see the need for professional killing.

No, put the phone down.  There are no corpses in my back yard (would be difficult since I don’t have a backyard) or in my crawl space (the cats run there periodically and it would be so unhygienic) and I haven’t been dumping them into construction sites.

I’m, however, perfectly willing to admit that this realization might owe a lot to the fact that I’m a woman nearing fifty.  I mean, hormones are destiny.  And it could get dangerous, if I didn’t have this professional sideline.

A professional sideline as a writer, of course.  Because you see, the people I kill mostly live in my head.  (Mostly because some lived, long ago in other lands.  And I bring them to life on the page, for the purpose of killing them.)

Joking aside, when I started writing, I was in mortal fear of hurting my characters.  When I hurt them, it not only hurt me, but it made me wonder if people would think I’m cruel.  Nearing fifty, I wonder why I cared what people thought.  (This is probably a bad sign.)

The needed killing – there was always some needed killing, even if just the villain – was handled behind the curtain and often reported at two removes.  “He killed himself.  His second cousin told my friend who told–”

In my last book I killed hundreds of people, two major characters and a continuing one (who had never been seen, only referred to, but who came on stage to die a horrible death.)

What makes the difference, other than hormones?  (I am mostly joking about that, though I’ll note, not as hormonal changes, but as an effect of aging that I DO seem to be becoming more myself and less afraid of “what will people think?”)

Two things changed: First, I realized reading fiction was not an intellectual exercise but an emotional experience.  What?  How could I not have known?  Don’t ask.  Perhaps it was the fact that my early fiction reading were stories set in other lands.  I was learning, as well as feeling, and I thought the learning was more important.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was taught not to display emotion, so as I writer I tended to emphasize thought over feeling.
Second: I realized death is part of life.  As much as we hate it, as much as we dread the idea, as much as losing others hurts us, life would be very odd if you eliminated life.  Books feel more real if people die.  (Okay, your fluffy romance is excused, and your fluffy mystery and fantasy, other than for the needed murder in mystery.)  If you track consciously, you’ll realize that not a week goes by without your hearing of a death, either close or far, important or not.  And I think that heightens our interest in life.  (Or I could be insane.)

So, once I realized that some people simply needed to die – in my books – how did I go about killing them?
There are many, many ways to kill people, but below is a brief and incomplete list of ways to make their deaths professional.  (And not just leave them to bleed out, unnoticed, on the hearth rug.)

1- Make it count.
We can’t all kill our main character.  In fact, most of us can’t kill our main character.  Given my penchant for writing first person, it would be odd.  I grant you it can be done.  Connie Willis killed the POV character in Passage – well, the main POV character – halfway through, and the book still works.  BUT not all of us want to go that far.  Many of us, who write series, can’t even kill all important secondary characters with abandon.  Oh, sure, the occasional one fine, but if you make it an habit, you’re going to run out.
So, how do you make the death count?
Have the character matter to your main character or your secondary character.  Have it be someone near and dear.  Or have it be someone the character just met but who matters.
Clifford Simak spends half a page describing a doggy, happy with the world, crossing the street to lie in a patch of sun.  Then he kills him horribly.  I cried.  And I don’t think it was just because I’m an animal lover.

2 – Make the death interesting.
By this I don’t mean you should go to my friend Kate Paulk and ask how to kill people interestingly.  (No, trust me, you don’t want to do that.  She writes Dracula, people!)  While that’s appropriate sometimes for historicals, I don’t mean elaborate or outre means of death are needed.  Most of my people die at blade’s end or shot through the heart (sometimes with lasers.) A few linger on only to die (though I just realized I’m reluctant to do that in future societies.  If you survive the initial hit, you’re likely to live.
No, what I mean is that your death shouldn’t take place in a line and never be referred to again.  Sometimes a line is important, for the “death knell” effect, but your character should feel something, as a reaction.

3 – Kill The Best
This is a variation on #1.  And while it’s always good to remember “Only the good die young” or early in the page count, it also helps to remember “good” can just be a way of saying “important to the main character.”  Kill the person, whether the main character loves them or not, who will twist the main character’s emotions into a pretzel, make them feel guilty, make them get in more trouble.  Remember, the name of the game is to make your main character’s life difficult.

4 – Kill the influential.
Make it matter for the plot.  “If only Georgiana had been here, we wouldn’t have lost that battle, but the dang author killed her on page one,” type of mattering.  That allows you to get the most bang for the death.

5 – This one I’m passing on for the price I’ve got it.  I’ve never tried it.  I think my youngest victim was fourteen.  However, I’m told that you should never, ever, ever, kill a baby or an animal, and that for the US market animals are even worse than babies.  I don’t know.  The only time I minded an animal dying was Pixel in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and that’s because Heinlein kills him at the end, and that’s not good.

6 – Numbers count – for a sense of realism, kill more than one character and in differing circumstances.

7 – Don’t overdo it
Like anything you learn to do well, killing can be addictive.  Remember if you kill too much, it dulls the impact of each death.  And if you kill everyone in the end, as many seventies novels did, I shall come to your house and beat you to death with a sock full of butter.  You have been warned.

8- Remember some people just need to die.  It is our job to kill them right.  We’re not murderers, not even virtually.  We’re just easers out of life, or literary mortality facilitators.

Now, happy killing.

8 comments

  1. My first teen novel had some death in it. After all, it was set in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Death was a common foe back then. When it came to writing the sequel, my editor kept telling me there I had not presented a good enough incentive for my character to return to that time. After trying for months to figure out what to do, I asked my writers group in despair, “What would be a compelling enough reason for my character to return to the past?” One of my brilliant group members suggested, “A death.” Perfect! That got the wheels turning and my editor was impressed enough to give the go-ahead for publication.

    Another writer friend of mine writes horror, which seems to be the complete opposite of the character he presents to the world – a soft-spoken lawyer for Aboriginal Rights. I often told his wife that it’s a good thing he writes down all those dark things, like gruesome murders and monsters ripping apart their victims. If he didn’t have that outlet for his ‘dark side’, he might act upon some of those impulses. You know, it’s always the quiet ones the neighbours would never suspect of being a serial killer! lol

    1. INDEED. If my neighbors read my novels, they’d probably go “But she seems like a such a nice lady. Oh, my, are those rescue kittens REALLY safe with her?”

      1. Well, yes. I fit into that category too, at least until people get to know me a bit. Then for some reason they find me scary.

  2. Why do I think of David Weber here? Is it the death of Paul Tankersley maybe? Or maybe the death of Pavel Young?

    Anyway, he does it right.

    I’m just trying to get a handle on this for the novel I’m working on. It’s got a big battle in it, so side characters are going to die in droves, but I’m trying to figure out the death of an important side character and how to do it right. It doesn’t help that it’s my MC’s father and it brings back memories of what I went through either. And it’s holding up my book!! But I’ll get there eventually.

    1. If you look over at accordingtohoyt, you’ll see we cover that. Deaths in the plural don’t matter so much. Deaths in the singular can be heart-wrenching. Read Infamous army, to see how Heyer does it. Truly spectacular.

  3. #5 I’ve got a couple of “Shrodinger’s kids” just to personalize an otherwise impersonal worldwide catastrophy. It was hard to write. I’ll be sending it to Beta readers soon, and find out how much trouble I’m in.

  4. Killing a character can be tricky. Done badly it can annoy the hell out of your readers. There are a few books I didn’t finish reading, and some writers I stopped reading because of the poor way they did the killing. When killing someone you don’t want too many of your readers to think: “Well, that was f*** moronic!” :0)

    Regards,
    Rui Jorge

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