Professional Killing — a blast from the past post

*Guys I hate to skip chapter yet again.  Yes, it’s health again.  No, not mine.  People in my family have the stomach flu, though, which no matter how quiet you try to be does keep other people — me — awake half the night, never mind worrying because we’re under an ice storm and if we have to go to emergency it’s going to get nasty.  Fortunately it looks like it’s one of those brief violent bugs, and seems to be passing.  So, I SHOULD write a chapter of Elf Blood, but instead I’m putting this up on Professional killing, from January 2012, and then I’m going back to bed.  Sorry.  Sometimes, you just CAN’T.*

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.

19 comments

  1. I had Rada Ni Drako kill a dog to keep it quiet. Everyone knows by that point that that Rada’s pretty cold when she needs to be, so it was in character. My copy and style editor came back “Why are you killing the dog? Unless there’s a vital reason, don’t kill the dog.” So the dog got stunned. I should have left the dog dead.

    1. While I love dogs, yes you should have killed it. The idiocy of nobody or nothing ever getting killed in so many books (or at least the good guys never actually killing anybody) even when they really need it, or it is the only common sense thing to do in the situation, really irritates me.

  2. I’ve abandoned some character in limbo, and get regular comments. “But what happened to Oscar and Bran? Did I miss a book?” “You can’t just leave their dads hanging! What happened to Whirlpool and Imp?”

    My last murder victim got “Thank you for finally killing the waste of oxygen.”

    1. The loudest I’ve cheered reading a friend’s book was when the lawyer got it. Not because the slimy sack of animated protoplasm was a lawyer per se, but because the sleezeball really needed killing.

  3. This post neatly explained why I gave up on GoT after the second book. My reaction was, “Why should I care, he obviously doesn’t.” Though Whedon is widely known for killing off characters (and making boneheaded decisions for this sometimes) he at least doesn’t do it in every chapter.

          1. It’s okay. I see it so often I’ve memorized that one. “Huh?” is my usual response to acronyms. The one time I decide it’s safe to use… I confuse somebody. Guess my rule not to use them was sound. 🙂

    1. I stopped reading about halfway through Wool (I know, heresy) as it dawned on me that each section was about the main character’s death. The stories were really good, the world-building breathtaking, and the characterization truly deep, but, honestly, I was having serious trouble with the horrible endings. If I’m wrong, I wouldn’t mind being told and I can go on, but I stopped in the middle of Jules’ story.

  4. When I started writing again I found I had a serious flaw. I couldn’t kill anyone. I couldn’t even bear for someone to already be dead. I’ve gotten over that. Violence, it turns out, solves lots of plot problems.

  5. I actually enjoy killing my characters off quite a bit. I look forward to the angry and angsty letter that will come my way demanding to know why I killed off such an awesome character.

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