Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Committing Murder

My books have often been labeled as an alternative to the “dark and gritty” trend in fantasy. I accepted this label for two reasons, I’m not an expert on the recent trends in fantasy (but I’m getting better), and I’d prefer to think my works are generally pleasant and uplifting. However, not too long ago, a fan pointed out that for my books being all sunshine and fairy-tales, I kill a lot of my characters. At first I scoffed. Then I counted. He was right. Roughly half my cast of good characters don’t reach the end of the series. That’s a lot of death.

In a comment here, Christina recently asked,  ‘I 'd like to know how you handle cutting characters- particularly ones you might really like, but just don't fit with the story or bulk it up unnecessarily. What's the line? Is there something you can point to that tells you 'this one needs to go?'

There’s no line, and I’m pleased to say I’ve never killed any character because I thought there were too many in the story, or because they didn’t have a place anymore. On the other hand I keep my cast of characters small. I don’t like to randomly add new players if an old one can play the part. Such a practice saves me the effort of inventing someone new, the reader from having to learn and keep track of someone new, and—if it reaches the silver screen—will be appreciated by the actors playing those roles. (That last one is meant to be funny.)

I can also say that every character I’ve killed had to die, usually for more than one reason. There is the effect of the death itself. Often this is needed merely to ground the reader into believing that the world they are reading about isn’t all roses and good-hair-days.  Credibility dictates that bad guys can’t be the only ones to ever really die. While I’m not trying to write realistic fiction, there is a plausibility factor that has to be recognized. Who makes this scale? Who decides what is acceptable and what isn’t? As far as the writing of the book is concerned that person is me. As far as reading it, that person is you. I tend to use my own instincts. If I like it, I do it and just hope I’m not too far outside of the mainstream.

The same thing applies to language. My characters speak modern American English with British slang because I feel that makes reading the books so much easier and thereby immersive, emotional and more fun (at least for those accustomed to American English.) Still there are limits. Royce and Hadrian don’t use the words “cool” or “dude,” or any words that are clearly Earth related such as eating off fine China. But where is the line? For example I’ve used the word “mesmerized,” and I’m hoping the majority of you don’t know why that might be a problem. The word comes from Franz Mesmer a turn of the nineteenth century physician who pioneered hypnosis. Given that I don’t feel this is too commonly known, and that the word has become so ingrained in common use, I made the decision to use it. The litmus test being, “would I find it jarring to encounter such a word in another fantasy book?” The same is true for “sun” and “moon.” Going to the effort of inventing new words just seemed pretentious, anal, and silly, and would be an added level of education forced on my readers. (Oh I get it that word means moon.)

So when there is a battle and the good guys are outnumbered two to one, it just strikes me as implausible if, unless there is a some extenuating circumstance, at least one of the good guys doesn’t die. A few should be wounded too. In some ways I see this as offsetting, perhaps even paying the karma price for a heroic victory. Imagine how more believable the Lord of the Rings might have been if Sam had been the only member of the fellowship to survive the ordeal. This Pyrrhic victory would have truly driven home the idea of how desperate that challenge was. I’m not saying it would have been better…just more believable given the odds.

Killing characters can then be a means of establishing the seriousness of the problem. Slaying dragons, melting witches, and banishing demons is all fun and games until someone loses a sidekick—then it’s personal. The bad guy isn’t just the “bad guy” anymore, he’s the BAD GUY!

Killing a good character can also punch a hole in your readers chest and strangle their heart. Two things I always aspire to do in my books is to make my readers laugh and cry, and hopefully within just a few pages of each other. That’s really the whole reason I write books. Coming up with a really interesting, or fascinating story that makes your readers go, “humm,” is nice. Making a thirty-five year old, construction-working, Budweiser-drinking, never-used-a-band-aid-in-their-life, man cry like a baby while reading your book in public to the point that they write you to admit this…that’s priceless.

Mostly, however, the deaths are plot related. This person has to die so that person can advance. Mentors usually buy it in every fantasy story. Merlin, Obi Wan, someone in the Potter books (has anyone not read all of them or seen the movies that I could be spoiling the story for?) Even Gandalf took one for the team so Frodo could branch off on his own and up the suspense by finding himself. And I suspect that if you look at any of the deaths in my series you’ll discover the reasons behind them, be they political, emotional, karmic, or just the jettisoning of a booster rocket allowing another character to soar higher.

Bottom line: I never kill for effect, or indiscriminately—I use every part of the death. Each demise is carefully thought out, and it’s rippled effects explored, and most characters—those whose deaths are pivotal to the plot—were created for the specific purpose of dying at just the right moment to send the plot spinning in a new direction.

I hope that answers your question Christina. If anyone else has questions out there…I’m always looking for topic ideas.

Thanks for posting 


  1. Dear Michael,

    Some author's have commented about agonising for days or weeks over their book titles, others about the names of individual characters in the plot in terms of wanting them to sound authentic. Your views on these may be enlightening for a future comment, do you subscribe to any a set formula.

  2. That is indeed a very good answer, Michael. You've given me a lot to work with. And now I have to go ask my partner if one of your characters I'm starting to really like dies. >_>....*coughhack*

    OHGOD THE ANSWER. I'll bravely keep reading anyway.

  3. One of the things I like about your book is that it avoids the "dark and gritty" trend in fantasy. There seems to be this idea running rampant throughout popular media these days that dark = good. You see it in video games, movies, comics and novels. But there really isn't any correlation other than it seems to appeal to teenage boys gloomy sense of the world. Something can be dark and awful or light-hearted and wonderful. Just look at The Princess Bride or The Last Unicorn. In fact, books like Theft of Swords are like a breath of fresh air for me. Of course, even fairy tales can be gruesome. The original Hans Christian Andersen version of The Little Mermaid has the title character dying in the end, and don't get me started on The Matchstick Girl, which is one extremely heart wrenching fairy tale. For me, death is just another tool in the writers' literary toolbox. Sometimes the story calls for a good death scene, whether to motivate other characters, add drama, or to raise the stakes. Knowing people "can" die ups the suspense in any story---especially if it's more than just the "blue shirt guys" from Star Trek, but a character the reader may have an emotional connection to. In my original version of my self-published, "The Dark Age of Enya" I killed off a minor character, but in the rewrite, as I started to flesh him out more, I realized how much I liked him, so I saved him for a spin-off series. Sometimes fictional people feel like your real friends and you can't bring yourself to murder them.

  4. I'm halfway through the series, and I've already been mad at you over a certain character dying. Yes, I know he had to die, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I'm almost scared to find out who is next. I'm rationing the books to one every six weeks or so. Please tell me you have something publishing soon.

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