Death by Author :: The Most Creative Way To Go

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(Death by Author :: The Most Creative Way to Go is a guest post courtesy of the talented Korean-Pop music/Doctor Who/Jesus-loving Mirriam Neal. She writes about all of these subjects (and plenty more) on her blog, Thoughts of a Shieldmaiden. Also, she writes about books. Which, as everyone knows, is what all the cool people are doing these days.)

Death is in nearly every story. If you read a book or watch a movie or a TV show, people – even if they aren’t the main characters – die. As an author, killing off a character is a careful decision that takes a lot of thinking through. Sometimes, you create a character specifically so you can kill them off later in the book – and if you’re anything like me, you often grow so attached to that character that you end up killing another one in his/her stead.

I’ve always had a hard time killing characters. My whole life, characters have been so important to me that killing them feels like tearing a little piece of my heart out. I was never able to kill off a character and stuck to fluffy stories, until I came across a piece of wisdom that changed the way I wrote.

An author must be cruel.

At first, I rebelled against this. It sounded wrong – I didn’t want to be cruel; by nature, I’m a pretty nice person! But the more thought I gave it, the more I realized they were right. Unless you are willing to do awful things to your characters – to wrench things away from them, to torture them, to let them cry and get sick and injure themselves – your story will have no emotional value. It might be a nice little happy tale, but you won’t have the griping emotional level of your favorite stories.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I became a cruel author. For the sake of my craft, I gave new characters life, gave them a story, and allowed terrible things to happen to them. I imagine it’s something like how a mother would feel, if their child were kidnapped and hurt and crying and they had to stand by and watch, unable to run forward and help the child, unable to hold them and tell them it was all right and bandage their wounds.

I remember the first time I killed a character. It wasn’t even in an official version of the book, just a draft that never got finished – but I remember tears rolling down my cheeks as I pressed the keys that would end the character’s life. I felt awful.

But I did it, again and again. I knew who had to die, and I killed them. After writing enough drafts of the scene I no longer felt devastated, just sad.

I have learned how to be a cruel author, but it involves more than allowing your characters to die. It means standing by and watching while they experience horrors that you could never truly imagine in your own life. I’m writing a book, Monster, and I have a character, Mir, whom I love dearly. He is not the main character, but the story revolves around his life.

Every day of Mir’s life is a torment, and the only reason he clings to life is because something inside him does not want to give in. Though he doesn’t know it, his life has a purpose beyond everything he knows.

I love Mir. Ask any of my friends, and they will tell you how much I adore him. I could talk about him for hours – I get excited, I use all caps, I squeal and behave like the teenage girl that I am. I must be doing the author-cruelty thing right, because Mir has a fanclub among my friends of girls who adore him – and the reason they adore him is because they feel so bad for him. This is what truly creates a good story. When your readers want the best for your character, when they cry when he hurts, when his enemies are their enemies – then you have a story that will not be forgotten.

You won’t get this from being a ‘kind’ author.

I recently killed a character in my short story In Time. In the story, Justin walks outside the church building after attending his girlfriend’s funeral – and runs into his girlfriend, alive and well and – apparently – with no memory of him.

He realizes reality has somehow shifted and he now has a few hours to save her, to keep her from getting hit by the car a second time. Justin gets to the intersection only a second too late, and does the only thing he can – because he loves her.

He pushes her out of the way.

By the end of the story, I was truly in love with Justin – and yet, I was just an onlooker, watching as he ran down the street until no breath would fill his lungs, as he reached out and shoved the girl who did not know him out of the way, as the car slammed into his body and threw him across the street.

This time, I did not cry. I took a deep, shaky breath and wrote the end of the story.

Because sometimes, you must do what you must do.

And you keep that little piece of your heart somewhere special; because the character may have died on the page – but to the author, they never truly die.

– Mirriam Neal, of Thoughts of a Shieldmaiden

Until the next…

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20 thoughts on “Death by Author :: The Most Creative Way To Go

  1. Pingback: I know you’re gold « Thoughts of a Shieldmaiden

  2. Wow…great post! I…don’t think I’ve killed any characters yet, but I don’t think I’ll cry when I do (which is probably because I’m so bad at developing them enough that they seem real)…but I vow to be a cruel author once I have characters that are deep enough for me to be cruel to them. >:)

    • Jeremiah – I think the point, besides simply being cruel, is to develop the character via cruelty. To merely have them beat out of the blue, per say, has no purpose. But if they are beat in the place of a loved one, it is not mindless brutality, but sacrificial love. And therefore, artful. See what I’m saying?

      • That makes sense, and though I made no distinction in my comment, I knew about it… And despite being pretty well disconnected from my characters there’s no way I would let them go without it being meaningful–if that makes sense.

      • I think I understand what you’re saying, but I am unsure how you would define “meaningful.” Could you clarify?
        Also, (and I honestly mean no offense by this,) do you think that a reader could be connected with the characters you write if you are not?

  3. I KNOW HOW THIS GOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh. my gosh. yeah, I just killed my lovely MC’s brother (who was completely epic) and my eyes were tearing up. Seriously. Oh… being an author is so much harder than most people think. *nodnod*

  4. Beautifully written Mirriam, and so true! It’s hard but necessarily to kill off certain people to make the story work…even if it kills us – and every time we read and edit over and over again a little of that first pain comes back to stab us. Creating cruel lives is horrible – but where is the story in a happy go lucky kid whose life is golden? I actually stopped reading a book once because everything the character did turned to gold, he got in trouble and out of it with NOTHING. I was done. Nothing going on here, sure his life wasn’t a piece of cake but – still it was too perfect.

    Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom!

  5. Oh, I know what you mean, Mirriam! I haven’t killed very many characters, but when I do I always find it very easy to write the grief that follows – because I am feeling it. One time I had to kill a hero and a villain at the same time, and I was almost as reluctant for the villain’s sake as I was for the hero’s.

    But as painful as it is, killing characters, or at least putting them in tough situations, is necessary for a good story – and for the character’s own growth too. Okay, not the dead ones, but maybe those left behind. I wonder if that is how God feels when our lives go haywire. “I know this hurts because I’m hurting too, but you really need it. Trust me, it really is all for the best.”

  6. Yep, I do this. I remember when I first really killed a character. (I don’t mean the clash of war and the somewhat detached killing of people in enemy spacecraft) It was when I first wrote my first book, and I can assure you, even though I really didn’t know what I was doing in writing, I had no qualms about killing this character. I created him to be the guy who’d sacrifically help others. As the plot progressed, he ended up dying. It wasn’t something I really thought about. It just kind of happened. but it worked, and it was beautiful, and I might’ve shed a few tears (I’m definitely sad about it. He was a fav of mine) but I knew that because I was sad, I’d done it right. I don’t kill characters mindlessly, I write plot first so when it’s their time, they die, but I do have a love-hate thing with killing them. I love when it accents their character and you’re like, this is right. then there are the ones that seemingly die in vain so others may grow. but there’s always an attachment.

  7. I kill my characters all the time. Comes from NaNoWriMo, I guess. When one is stuck for words, there’s always a good death scene–with a resurrection tale if you need that charrie again!

  8. @Seth (I couldn’t figure out how to reply to your comment directly) – Yeah…sorry I’m being confusing. :P

    By “meaningful” I mean…um…that it happens for a reason in the story, like someone dieing in the place of a loved one, or something, whatever it would be, I wouldn’t chronicle it in the story simply to include it in the story. That’s to say, I wouldn’t do it unnecessarily, and I’m hoping to be willing to do it when necessary.

    No I don’t really think that.

  9. I definitely agree with the point that an author must be cruel or the story will not have the emotional impact and make the reader feel connected to the story like it could be, and it won’t be anything memorable as a result, and if I ever get around to finishing a story, I plan on having some of my characters suffer and/or die (although I have a feeling I’ll bring some back to life), but I can see how once you breathe enough imagination and feeling into your characters, it can be very sad…

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