Monday, January 16, 2017

Sometimes They Have To Die

True story. Once upon a time I turned in a manuscript for a novel (FIREWORKS) and when I got the redlines back the editor had scrawled across an entire page of the MS "NOOOOOO! YOU KILLED HIM!!!!" the Him in question was one of the main characters of the book. To say he went out in a blaze of glory would be an understatement of epic scale.

Here's the thing:I liked that character. I genuinely did. he was a nice guy who was doing his very best to keep a fragile peace in the novel. There's the other thing: I needed that peace to end. The best way to do that was to have my peaceful, kind character with the very smallest modicum of power do something very violent and stupid in retaliation to a bad situation. It is a brief moment, a tight and tense moment and given three second to think he wouldn't have done what he did.

But he did. And I knew it was the right thing to do by the reaction from my editor.

From that moment on the body count gets very, very high, I kill off characters like trees lose leaves in autumn. hell. I have knock off scenes where several hundred people die in one stroke. Those scenes are meant to have an impact, of course, but nothing like with the main characters.

Another of my proudest moments was when I introduced a little, old lady in Las Vegas who won a small fortune and rambled on about her plans about how to spend her money, who she was going to help with the cash, gave a backstory that covered her kids, her grandkids and the fragility of their financial existence. and then had one of the characters in the story shove her out of his way as he's running past. The nice, little old lady then got creamed by a bus. Why? Because I had to show EXACTLY how unimportant she was to the bad guy. He didn't even consider her an afterthought.

The editor's response: "JESUS CHRIST, JIM!!" across the page. But i mean it, Thew sole purpose was to make clear how fragile human life can be and how little that particular vampire considered them.

I'm probably into the megadeaths in my novels. I'm okay with that. Watch the news sometime and you'll see how dark the world can be. But my reason for those deaths is because in a lot of my stories the stakes are cosmic, or close enough.

One more example. In one of my novels SMILE NO MORE the man character is a dead, psychopathic clown who quite literally escaped from Hell seeking revenge. After he's had his way with the town of SERENITY FALLS, a trilogy of novels. I sent him off on his own merry adventures. The chapters were broken down thusly: First Scene: A remembrance as told by Cecil Phelps, a moment of his past after he ran away from home and joined the circus. These tales are set roughly fifty years back. That's when Cecil died, you see. Next Scene, a more recent past event as told by Rufo the Clown, the less-than-sane remainder of Cory's soul that comes back and gets revenge. The difference is, now that he'd gotten revenge he's trying to find any shred of his old family. Of course, it's been fifty years..... Finally, a multiple POV third person scene, where all of the rest of the characters have to deal with Rufo the Clown and his desire for knowledge.

In that novel there are several deeply disturbing scenes of violence Most of them happen because someone has annoyed Rufo. In one scene a man rudely hangs up on Rufo. Rufo then violently murders 12 people to make sure that when he sees the man in person, the man understands that Rufo ain't clowning around. Rufo makes the point and gets the information he needs, becasue, as Rufe later tells the cop that is trying to catch him "You're a detective. I'm not. i had to get the information somehow."

The point? Simple: Scene one and scene two are about getting to know Rufo as a person. Getting to understand and sympathize with him. Really, he's a man out of time who is seeking his family in an effort to reconnect with the world. he just happens to be a murderous psychopath and sociopath, too. I needed to make that clear. There are certain people he cares about. The rest of the world is his plaything.

My crowning achievement for the book were the reviews that made it clear I had succeeded. I wanted him to be sympathetic, so that when he committed his atrocities, it was horrifying on an intimate level. It bothered a lot of readers that they actually LIKED him until he committed his crimes. That was what I was after.

Sometimes they have to die. the characters we like the characters we love, the characters we feel for and empathize with. If they don't the story can't go forward properly. Emotional investment. If your readers don't care about the characters, they may as well be watching a you play chess against yourself. If you don't care about the characters, your readers won't either. And sometimes, just sometimes, the reader needs to suffer the deaths with us.


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