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...



Rob Brooks said...

I enjoy killing off my characters. Especially the good guys. I've often said that for a story to stick with you and have an impact, it has to be sad, and someone has to die. Now, I know that's not always true. But my characters usually have tragic tales, and they will suffer, at least emotionally, and they will most likely die. I like to leave a minor character or two alive. I like to think that, although the story is done, that minor character will be pondering the protagonist who died.

L.C.McCabe said...

I'm glad to hear someone else enjoys spilling literary blood.

I agree that having a story stick with you and make you respond emotionally that there will sometimes need to be tragic events, such as death.

I just rechecked my numbers and I think I kill off fifteen named characters, although there are many more who die on the page that are not named. Generally they're soldiers and some are killed with a broad brush stroke of "scores of corpses littered the field" or some such description. Others are killed directly, but they still don't warrant being named.

You know, in order to feel good that my main characters survive, the reader has to know how difficult that process was especially in a time of war.

Thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

I have just found your website today. I got the link from John Granger's website. I am responding to your 'spilling literary blood' post because I also think death and destruction make good drama (if written well, of course). I am not a writer, but I love reading and so far, I have been disappointed with JK Rowling's writing about the war in the Harry Potter world. She keeps saying they are at war, and yet, it just seem like some kind of a crime wave to me. Reading list of names of dead people in the newspaper (what Harry, Hermione and Ron did) just does not have the same impact. In Portkey, I suggested that the Weasleys be killed. I gave several reasons: they are annoying, they are many of them, they are prominent in the HP story, they are pureblood [and many pureblood families have ended], I don't think Harry should end with Ginny or Hermione with Ron, but most importantly, it would create dramatic description for war in the story. I was accused by some posters in Portkey of having a racist view because I want the Weasleys dead because they are pureblood (the other reasons I gave was ignored). I have left Portkey and haven't gone back since. The real world is mean enough as it is; I don't need to exist among such people in the virtual world, too. I have been looking for other HP sites to read just to satisfy my HP craving (I don't like Mugglenet because of its Ron/Hermione bias and I ship Harry/Hermione). Now I have found yours and I look forward to visiting your site again.

And I agree with you on Sirius. I was gobsmacked when JKR made Harry practically ignored Sirius' death at the beginning of HBP. {But then I was also gobsmacked that Hermione seemed to have forgotten SPEW or about being kind to Hagrid - not even visiting him when Aragog died).

I am looking forward to reading what you say about Hermione's characterisation in HBP (hope you will write something on this).


L.C.McCabe said...

Yes, I have been meaning to write a post regarding Hermione's personality transplant in HBP. You nailed one of my biggest problems with the mention of her forgetting about the plight of house-elves.

As if you can simply forget about having a social conscience and the oppression of enslaved beings because you'd like to have a date.

:rolls eyes:

It bugged me a lot.

And, if you haven't read my fanfic stories, I think you might like them. They are all housed on Portkey, so you'll know it does have your preferred ship pairings.

I use the pen name L.C. McCabe there as well.

The novel length story, I think you'll find particularly interesting if you haven't read it already because I do kill off a beloved character. I won't spoil it by saying who it is, but it was something that I haven't seen done very often.

And it shocked a lot of people.

Of course, it was done because it served a dramatic purpose and not because I simply wanted to kill a character for killings sake. Which I think the lists of dead seem to amount to in HBP. I mean, did anyone have any reaction when they read Amelia Bones had died?

More later...