Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spilling Literary Blood

I overheard a portion of a conversation last week between two writers. One was admitting her hesitancy of killing off characters. She just couldn't find the heart to do the deed.

My ears perked up at that and I immediately inserted myself into the conversation.

I have no problem killing off characters. Whether they be unnamed disposable characters like soldiers or named characters that are central to the plot.

I kill 'em off, and do I it with relish.

To me when I'm doing my detailed plotline I'm continually asking myself questions about what choices or character fates would be the most dramatic. I want my readers to experience through my story a full range of emotions and includes feeling revulsion at the horrors of war as well as overwhelming sorrow when Life is unfair and a character dies a premature death.

That's what I like in drama: bold dramatic bangs, cliff hangers and cathartic cries.

In the source material that I'm using to write my legends of Charlemagne epic, there are literally thousands of characters. Not all are named characters, but it was a medieval soap opera with a myriad of plot threads being spun by the two poets, (Boiardo and later Ariosto.) Most of the plot threads eventually came together and you began to see the immense tapestry they wove over the multiple decades it took to write. However, some character arcs were not dealt with in what I consider to be a satisfying manner. They simply trailed off without having their thread tied off or cut off. It wasn't something that bothered me whilst I was reading, because the grandeur of both Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso does not really allow you to reflect on things that are omitted.

It is only when you have read the entire magnum opus and go back to analyze the individual parts would you recognize that there were some aspects that were not as dramatically satisfying as they could have been.

Maybe I'm just spoiled as a reader and a lover of drama. I want everything to be neatly tied off whenever possible. I believe in the idea of Chekhov's gun that if you introduce a plot element like a loaded rifle that it must be fired, otherwise don't bring that prop onstage.

My favorite stand alone novel is Aztec by Gary Jennings. I remember being in awe when I saw what had appeared to be an offhanded remark in the narrative come back into play hundreds of pages later. It is over a thousand pages and there was nothing superfluous in that book.

To me that is my standard to which I calibrate my writing against. I of course, do not measure up but it is my goal.

Therefore, in my version of the legends of Charlemagne, whenever a character is going to no longer be necessary to the plot I sit back and decide how best to tie off their story.

A lot of times that means death.

However, I try to think of how to kill them off in a different manner than other character deaths because I do not wish to be repetitive. So they must die a different style of death, and hopefully in a manner that befits them and their ultimately tragic character arc. There are characters who I will be killing off in the future and I'm looking forward to writing those scenes. Because I'll be able to sink my teeth into them.

It's interesting because one of the members in my critique group had commented that she found my descriptions of some of the battle scenes as being too disturbing, too visceral, too graphic. One scene she had particular problem with did not show any deaths, but instead it was a nasty horrible king who spoke about how to introduce disease into a castle under siege. It included a discussion of dismemberment, decay of corpses and of using catapults to hurl the crude biological weapon amongst their enemies.

They did that kind of thing back then. Her revulsion was actually what I was trying to elicit with that passage.

I shook my head and reminded her that my story takes place in the middle of a war and this was during the medieval period. How did one soldier kill another? By sword, by lance, by battle axe. They either were slashed, stabbed, bludgeoned or possibly burned to death. It's not pretty. Modern warfare isn't pretty either, but the concept of biological weapons isn't a recent invention. It goes back for millenia.

On the other hand, I do have heads sailing through the air because killing by decapitation is quick and decisive. Sometimes I just want to kill a character and move on.

I'm a pacifist in real life, but as an author I am cruel and heartless and I will kill off characters without hesitation.

Does anyone have a problem with that? Or do you find killing off a character makes you so queasy you just can't bring yourself to do pull the metaphorical trigger?

Just wondering...

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