Wednesday, June 3, 2015
When Characters Take Control - Part 1
It’s hard when you put a lot of time, effort and work into building your character, possibly over many books, to suddenly come to the conclusion that they have to die. Not that you want them to, but that the story can’t go anywhere without them dying, or that you really need that emotional heartache at that moment. It’s gut-wrenching and personally, so I try not to do it too often.
I still remember the first time I read the Harry Potter books, and how books 6 and 7 - The Half Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows - both had me sobbing over my Kindle, because of the characters who died. Sometimes, you need that connection, that impossible they-can’t-be-dead moment. It has happened to me time and again when reading other people’s books. Harry Potter is just the most obvious that comes to mind but The Caster Chronicles, the A Song of Fire and Ice series - they all had me shocked at what was coming, who died, who came back, who wasn’t really dead.
So it’s got me thinking - is there a right time to kill off a character, or should you just go with the flow? Personally, since I try not to do it, I’d say there’s a time when your character begs you to put them out of their misery. This happened to me with a story called Without You. It started off as a high school romance, years ago, and then when I came back to it recently, it turned into a high school-college romance with a lot of angst. My original plot centred around a teenage boy taking a bet to date a girl who had once been popular, but who was now the bottom of the social ladder by choice. You could say I was a little inspired by the film, She’s All That, only mine was going to go way different.
I had the story, I started writing. I got to around halfway through writing the book and it suddenly came to me - there was no way to finish the story without a certain character dying! It just seemed right. He was begging me to do it, daring me even, and those writers out there will know what I’m talking about. Non-writers will think I’m off my head, convinced my characters are talking to me. But they are. I’ll go into all the other ways characters take control of a story later. That’s a whole other story.
I tried really hard not to kill him off. I re-wrote a lot of my chapters, saving old and new versions so that when I read them back, I could see what worked. Nothing sounded right until I finally gave in and wrote the story, knowing of and planning his death. It was hard. You won’t believe how much I cried just while writing the notes, of the vague plan of how it would happen. When it came to writing the actual book, properly, I think I must have cried while writing five different chapters. It was hard letting him go.
You put a lot into your characters. You give them names, you decide what age the reader is going to see them, you create a history and background for them, you make them fall in and out of love. You see them go through all these amazing changes and yet, at the end, you have to let them go somehow. Whether it’s just ending the book, or killing them off. I find this part really hard. To be perfectly honest, once I have the overall outline and plot of the book organised, which usually goes through a lot of tweaking while I’m writing the first half of the book until everything is perfect, I don’t actually want to finish the book.
I know, writing is my bread and butter, I should be churning them out. But by the time the entire plot is finished, whether the whole book is written or not, is kind of irrelevant. I know where the story’s going, I’ve written the ups and downs and I know how it’s going to end. It’s the same as a reader getting halfway through the book and then someone else telling them the plot for the rest of the book as a spoiler. It ruins it. You don’t want it to end, as a writer, because then they’re gone. All those characters you love and nurtured disappear. They don’t need you anymore. You put them in danger, they made it out. You make them fall in love, they’re happy. You send them on an adventure, they come back unscathed. Once you reach that certain point, your characters no longer need you. You did that. You gave them the strength and courage and faith to go out into the world alone, with an unwritten future that is bright and happy and full of love and light.
So when it comes to killing off characters, you need to weigh your options carefully. Are your readers going to be in an utter outrage that you’ve killed this character? Yes? Good, then do it but only if it helps the story. If it stops the story moving on, then you either have to re-write it and keep them alive, or find a way of bringing them back to life to continue the story. And if your readers aren’t really going to care that this character gets killed off, it might be wise to just do it anyway. It all depends on how the story will survive without them and how that death will affect the other characters.
But never - and I mean never - just kill a character for the sake of creating controversy. It’s silly, it’s dangerous to the plot and flow of the story, and unless it’s on purpose, with a clear plan in mind, it’s not worth it and your readers might thing it’s a really dumb move.