Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Killing Joke: Knowing When a Character Has to Go

I killed a friend this month; I murdered him in cold blood.

There is no evidence, no one will ever catch me. I left behind no murder weapon. The William Petersens of the world will find no forensic evidence to deconstruct.

That is, unless they revert to previous drafts.

Please, put down your phone and stop dialing 911. No one is in mortal danger, I'm not a (total) psychopath, and the person I killed doesn't exist.

While going over one of my books with a beta reader, we stumbled upon an incredible discovery: a character in my book needed to die. It wasn't because we're masochists who enjoy indiscriminately killing people. We realized the character stopped serving the story at a specific point and would greatly improve another character's development arc by sacrificing himself.

I'm a sensitive guy by nature--yes, I realize that's a problem in the Big, Bad World of Writing--but I can't say I've been too affected by killing off a character in any of my stories. In some of my works, I had an inkling a certain character would pass on or meet a tragic end. I've never really just "offed" a character in midstream like I did for this book.

When I first considered my reader's suggestion to kill off the character, I hesitated.

Okay, I'm lying.

I protested. Vehemently.

"There's no way I can kill that guy!" I told him. "I need him for the sequel!"

Then I wondered: is that the best reason I have? Will there even be a sequel? How does keeping him alive serve the story?

Soon, the evidence began mounting: the character needed to go. My reader suggested doing it halfway through the story, but that didn't feel right. I wrote the scene toward the last quarter or so of the book to show how high the stakes had been raised.

Something strange happened when it came to the big moment. This character I'd come to love, this character who'd provided so many moments of levity and humor had to meet his maker. And so he did. I felt a lump in my throat. You see, I had grown attached to this character. He had an understated warmth to him and a dry sense of humor. He was a caretaker who spent much of his life looking after others. He had one last gift to give.

His life.

To teach a lesson.

To show a protege there were battles he could not win.

To help a young man grow up and embrace his destiny.

I can never forget the impact of writing those words, of giving that character a fitting, noble death.

It felt awful.

It felt awesome.

It felt right.

I like to read my writing aloud to get a sense of the rhythm and pacing of the words. Every time I come back to that scene, my throat catches.

And because of that, I know it was the right thing to do.

Just not the easy one.