Death and Mayhem: How To Kill Off a Character

The Background of a Murder

So. As you know, my dear inklings, I am delightedly immersed in edits on the sequel to Rethana’s Surrender, my first epic fantasy novel.

If you recall, R’s S and its sequel began life as one whole book. But in the interest of maintaining a reasonable publishing process, I elected to split the book in half.

This led to a fairly cramazing cliffhanger ending for R’s S, if I dare say so myself. ; )

Anyway, now that I’m working with great vigor* on the sequel, I’m discovering several discoveries. One of these is that I used to use a lot of words.

Okay, so that’s not really a discovery. I already knew that. I think we all already knew that.

The Because of a Murder

But no, one of the genuine discoveries is that I wrote into the story several large gaps that need filling. At this point, I’m looking at two to four chapters of new material.

On one hand, this is frustrating because it negates my efforts not to let this book grow into a MEFaN**. But ah well, I guess you can’t win ’em all. Mostly, I’m enjoying the generation of new material. So all is well on that particular home front.

The other discovery that initially dismayed but then thrilled me is that I’ve got several subplots that could use tidying and then tying up. And in one of these subplots, I get to kill off an unlikeable character.

Now, when I say “unlikeable,” I mean that he does not have an endearing personality at all. I like him because he’s a clear, well-defined character to me. Even villains are likeable if they’re written well. And from readers’ reactions to him, it seems I’ve done a pretty good job delineating him.

In the sequel to R’s S, I am going to kill him.

Because he’s a “spineless little fraction of a man” (a beloved quote from the beloved movie Far and Away).

And, so as to sort-of avoid spoilers, that’s all I’m going to share concerning his identity. I’m a tease like that.

The Body Anatomy of a Murder

(Strikethroughs are the enemy of alliteration.)

So, how does one go about killing off an unlikeable (subplot) character?

I have a few thoughts.

1. Prior to the murder, establish him as a strong (subplot) character.

One way or another, you’ve gotta write this guy so that your readers have already had emotional reactions to him. If he’s likeable, his death must have a significant, negative impact on your main character. (This presupposes that you’ve done your job in making your readers care deeply about your MC.) If he’s not likeable, his death must have a significant, positive impact on your MC.

If your readers don’t already know that this guy is significant to your MC, then…

A. …there’s no point in killing off the character, and…

B. …there’s no point in that character’s existence in the first place, so you might as well just cut him from the story altogether.

TAKEAWAY:
If you want to kill him off, make sure he’s significant. If he is, murder away. If he isn’t, either erase him from existence or up your ante.

2. Select the right point in your story for this murder.

This one might be tricky, because the “right point” will vary from one story to the next. For me, the “right point” is also a turning point for Rethana, my MC. And hooooo boy, am I taking a risk here in trying to explain this without spoilers!

In the R’s S sequel, the death of Unlikeable Character catapults Rethana into action in a situation in which she feels completely helpless and isolated. She hasn’t exactly been wallowing, but she’s been pretty much frozen with fear. Unlikeable Character’s death provides the catalyst that thaws her out and gets her moving again — not because the death horrifies her, but because the death is proof that her real enemies mean the most serious business.

And if you keep in mind that one of Rethana’s main motivations is protecting her sister Chel, you’ll know that this “serious business” could impact Chel in a particularly dire way.

And that’s all I have to say about that. ; )

TAKEAWAY:
Your murder should so significantly impact your MC that it causes MC to react in a powerful way. If she’s stationary, it should force her into action. If she’s mobile, it should force her into more intensive action. And you, writer, must keep in mind that the action she chooses might not be the smartest one.

(In fact, it probably shouldn’t be the smartest one. There’s nothing more readable than a main character who doesn’t make wise choices until the end. And maybe not even then!)

3. Pick the right murder weapon.

No, I’m not talking about candlestick vs. rope vs. revolver (although the actual weapon might play a role, depending on the story circumstances). By “weapon,” I mean the following question:

Just how is Unlikeable Character going to perish?

Is the death gruesome? Is it peaceful? Is it a murder, a mercy killing, an accident, an execution?

By whose hand does this take place? Another side character’s? The MC’s? Or is it by Unlikeable Character’s own hand?

Will Unlikeable Character die carelessly? Awkwardly? Cowardlyly? Will his dishonorable death confirm everything your MC has always thought about him?

Or will he die gracefully? Honorably? Will he redeem himself in the end, thereby causing MC all sorts of moral discomfort?

TAKEAWAY:
Before you, writer, commit murder against your character (Likeable or Unlikeable), you must decide upon the manner of his death and figure out the emotional impact of his death on your MC.

The Brief of a Murder

Who?

Where/When?

How?

Answer these questions both for yourself and for your readers, and your hands will be well-soaked in the blood of your (subplot) character — and, like Lady Macbeth, you’re not likely to get any of it off. Congratulations!

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* vigor = whatever energy and focus are left me beyond the task of putting together a human inside my abdomen

** MEFaN = Monster Epic Fantasy Novel (i.e. doorstop)

P.S. I wrote most of this blogpost on my cell phone in a waiting room. Living in the future is pretty fracking cool.

P.P.S. On my phone, autocorrect wanted to change “myself” to “musket,” as in: “if I dare say so musket.” In Rethana’s universe, muskets would be quite the anachronism. Unless Kryeis were the one hauling them around…hmmm….

Sneak Peek Blog Tour: Becca J. Campbell

Hello my lovelies,

When I first read the opening chapters of Becca J. Campbell‘s Foreign Identity, they were a series of “waves” in the now-defunct Google Wave. Becca posted those chapters as waves in order to get feedback from several of us writers and creative types.

I don’t remember what the feedback was. I don’t remember at what point, one by one, we all dropped out of Google Wave. I don’t even remember when I last logged on before the whole kaboodle got shut down.

But I do remember — and vividly — how Becca’s story gripped my imagination.

Every time I read her latest scribblings, the mystery of it all ate at me. Why were these characters imprisoned? Why did they have amnesia? Who did this to them? I came up with all sorts of theories, both sci-fi-ish and fantasy-esque. I mentioned a few of them to Becca. Every bit the Mona Lisa, she just smiled and told me to wait for it.

Fast-forward almost two years, and my wait was over. Finally, I was getting to read the story as a whole. Not only that, I was getting to help edit it. But no, forget the editing part. I was finally getting answers to all these questions that’d plagued me for two years!

And as it turned out, none of my theories were accurate.

Foreign Identity is a fascinating read. The mystery is edge-of-seat worthy. The sci-fi is refreshing. The romance is heart-warming.

But have I mentioned how the questions will drive you nuts?!?

See the end of this post for where to read excerpts of Foreign Identity and how to win free copies!

Enough from me, though. Here’s Becca on how Foreign Identity came to be and how she, as a writer, solved its mystery even for herself.

Becca J. Campbell and Foreign Identity

The idea for the book started in a very simple, very ordinary way.

At the time I was participating in a writing blog called The Creative Copy Challenge. The sole purpose of the blog is to provide ten words (twice a week) as a writing prompt, daring writers to come up with a short story or poem using all of the words.

Foreign Identity started with the ten little words in a post on April 20th, 2010. After the initial post, I continued writing the story on the CCC, adding to it twice a week. I followed the prompts the whole time, forcing myself to fit the words in. Sometimes they directed the story and other times I molded them to fit the story already in my head. More than half of the novel was written and published on the blog in serial form, one 1000 word (approximately) scene at a time. I wrote to a pretty big cliffhanger and then wrote the rest of the story in private, saving the final reveal for when I would publish the book.

When I wrote that first post I had no idea of the plot or where the story would lead. For me that made it fun and exciting to work on. I love mysteries and puzzles. So as a creative experiment, instead of starting Foreign Identity with an outline, I started with a problem and worked to find the solution.

Readers have commented on the thrill they felt when caught in the mystery of Foreign Identity and their attempts to try and solve the puzzle. Often writers don’t get to experience that same thrill of discovery with their own books. We usually have the end in mind before the journey even begins. And in a way, that didn’t seem quite fair. The mystery is what makes it fun. This was part of my motivation for starting how I did. (I have to say that it’s not an ideal way to write. I’ve since found that I prefer writing in a more thoughtfully organized method).

Once I’d decided to start with a problem, I needed to figure out what that problem would be. What situation could I throw a couple of characters into that would be complex and seem impossible? My answer was this: chain them up in a nondescript chamber and strip them of all their memories. And to top that off, leave them devoid of interaction with their captor and without any clue if they even had a captor.

Perfect. (Insert evil writer laugh.)

After that, it was just figuring out how to solve my poor characters’ dilemma. How would they escape? Once they did, what would be waiting for them? At that point I came up with a full back story and an elaborate scheme for why they might be in such a situation. But instead of ending the mystery then, I used clues that raised more questions than they answered. The television show Lost was a great example of how to write a properly suspenseful story without completely frustrating the viewers.

When you read Foreign Identity, you might feel the urge to figure out what’s behind it all, to put the puzzle pieces together. In fact, I hope you will. So far I’ve succeeded in mystifying most readers. In my mind that’s a good thing. I love stories that make me think, question, piece things together, and then end up with an unexpected twist. An enjoyable book is one that surprises me.

I’ve done my best to pull all of that together in Foreign Identity. I hope you will enjoy it like a thrill ride that takes you to unexpected heights and then brings you back to reality.

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Read an Excerpt

Courtney here again! For your reading pleasure, Becca has posted a series of story excerpts. You can read the latest excerpt of Foreign Identity here!

For more of the story, get on board Becca’s Sneak Peek Blog Tour:

May 22ndMelody with Words
May 23rd Cover Analysis
May 24thWrite Me Happy
May 25thHave You Heard My Book Review
May 26thCourt Can Write
May 27thYearning for Wonderland
May 28thCatharsis of the Bogue
May 29thAaron Pogue
May 30thPen and Whisk
May 31st Stormy Night Publishing

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