Monday, September 14, 2009

Love 'em, Hate 'em, Gotta Kill 'em!

When you write mysteries, you write about murder. It's tricky to have a murder mystery without one. So kill you do. Sometimes you kill only one, sometimes more. Sometimes the method makes it a 'clean' murder (i.e. poison) sometimes it's grisly, and honestly (in some of mine) it's funny. But the unescapable fact is that as a murder mystery writer you transform into a fictional serial killer.

The problem can be: You created these victims. I've written many victims that were so nasty, so filled with evil that anyone's only question would be "Why weren't they bumped off years ago?" On the other hand, there are the hapless ones who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then there are the characters you love and how on earth could you kill them? But you have to...

"Stranger Than Fiction" is a wonderful movie about a writer

(pause for a moment of tribute to the amazing Emma Thompson)

trying to find a way to kill off her main character only to discover that she's writing about a real person and if she kills off her character the real 'Harold Crick' will die as well. Major dilemma. Major nightmare for a mystery writer. The first time I saw this movie I was horrified by the idea. How many deaths am I responsible for? How many deaths have made me money? Chilling thoughts...

Past victims ran through my head. My eyes widened as I started counting up the numbers and the even more un-nerving thought was 'I knew I wasn't remembering all of them'; so not only was I a serial killer, but one that couldn't even be bothered to remember the names of my prey.

I commend the screenwriter (Zach Helm) for a brilliant premise, but I really don't need these thoughts running through my brain. I have enough issues when I am forced to kill a character I like; so many issues that I put off writing that particular bit until the last possible moment...and then I cry as I write it. (This is sad but true).

How do you handle situations like this? Do you mind putting your characters in terrible situations or can you handle it from a safe and sane distance? Or do you discover, like Harold Crick, that love and warm cookies make any situation seem better?


  1. Hey, the more harrowing situations you can put your protagonist into, the better. And, despite all the nasty spots I've put my characters into, I sleep well at night. I do make sure I've locked the doors, tho.

  2. Without giving anything away, let me say that I actually cried for a character I "killed off" (although I insist it wasn't me). And my protag did some things that I thought made her not likable. She was suffering, of course, so I had tremendous compassion for her, but I didn't like where she was any more than she did because I just love her that much.

    In a similar situation, my co-writer and I battled for awhile about love interests for our protag -- who was she going to hook up with? We were rooting for so many different people, and didn't want any of them to get the short end of the stick. But there has to be tension, and I think if you keep your distance from it, you're likely to lose the depth of it, and lose your reader as well. Empathy starts with the writer, I think.

    Ultimately, we made our decision, although she said that she hates a story in which all the guys go ga-ga for the same woman. "Funny, that's exactly what I pray for," I replied.


  3. I don't write mysteries, but I have characters that die. I don't think of it as killing them off, (my way of dealing?), I think of the process like this: I am a witness to their death, as I witnessed my step-mother's death. She died of breast cancer while I was caring for her. Dad was sitting on one side the bed and I was sitting on the other when it happened.

    It's hard and sad to see a good character go, no matter what though. I can't wait to read Spy My Shadow. What a terrific title!

  4. Alan; I have no problem with harrowing situations. Adding tension and suspense is great. It's knocking them off that I sometimes have the problem with!

    Elisa; The joys of writing in your genre! Which will be the love interest? Fun and can be funny as well. You write in a gentler form - wish that I could!

    Elizabeth; My sympathies on your step-mother's passing and my admiration for caring for her during that trying time. I like your concept of being a witness rather than the instigator. And thank you so, so much for saying you can't wait to read my book. That's just what I needed to hear right now. Bless you.


  5. I have had occasion to kill off only a couple of characters, and these were minor folks. However, I can see killing off bigger players would be a problem. See, funny thing is, I get attached to my characters and think of the good guys as friends. I guess I could do it, but, it would be hard.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  6. I generally kill off the nasties, so I don't have a lot of trouble doing that :) I quite enjoyed one scene in particular, although I did have nightmares about it later. Not quite sure what that says about me as a person...

    I can't bring myself to kill off a character I really like. At least, not yet. Drive them crazy and put them through all kinds of horrible stuff - no problem. But no death scenes for my faves yet.

  7. Galen; You see my problelm! It IS hard when you like them. It's really hard.

    Jemi; It will happen. Trust me, you'll try to re-work the plot, but you can't. It's disheartening.


  8. There are some series characters I'm very attached to. I'm not sure I could kill any of them. It's bad enough that I may not include them in any more novels, because that's a sort of dying as well.

  9. I don't mind killing off the bad guys. I know from the start that they'll have to die. A lot of the time, I know exactly how they will kick the proverbial bucket.

    Straight From Hel

  10. I loved the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I have a hard time putting my characters in bad situations,esp. since my current character is a young boy. My way of handling it - I give him some happy moments too!

  11. I've never killed a character off, but I can only imagine. Your characters become dear to you so it's gotta be tough to orchestrate a character's demise.

  12. I've had to kill characters off. I can only remember once that I actually felt bad about it, because it was a character I liked. But it worked for the story and, being the heartless type, I had him get stabbed by an evil sorceress. Sometimes, you just have to do it. As long as you don't let your conscience get in the way, plotting the demise can be really fun, too.

    But as Alan said, keep your doors locked.


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