Tuesday, 18 June 2013

How to Kill Someone you Love

I love coffee. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it smells. I love the way it gets my mind turning, kick-starting my brain into gear. I just love it. So I make it at home, I get it from restaurants and sometimes I even get it from cafés.
I only ever drink my coffee cold, so when I get it from a café, they put ice in it. Usually, they put too much ice in it, because they're cheap bastards, so they give me a half and half mix of ice and coffee in a clear, disposable, plastic cup. So when I finish my coffee, and see the four or five large unmelted cubes at the bottom of the cup, I feel bad that I'm wasting water.
Ever since the drought in about 2006, when water was scarce, I've always felt bad about wasting water so there's always this moment, before I drop my cup in the bin, when I wonder if I should instead eat the ice. But, since my mouth is already cold (and I'm usually full by this point) I inevitably drop the container in the bin and feel a little bad inside.

The strange thing is, I feel bad when I waste a few millilitres of water, but I usually don't feel that way when I kill people. The Word of the Day is: 'DISPOSABLE'.

Disposable /dəs'pōzəbəl/ adj. 1. Able to be disposed of or thrown away. 2. Designed or intended to be discarded after one use.

I'm not a killer, I'm a writer. So, as much as I think it would be funny if future serial killers came here hoping for advice on casual murder, I'm just here to give writing advice. Because killing characters is weird.
Characters are an important, often necessary part of fiction. Their actions usually make up the plot of the story, and to remove them can make writing very difficult. So it's a good idea to not kill them.

But at the same time, if you're writing a story with a lot of supposedly risky, life-threatening situations, then it's a little weird if nobody dies. You can't really have a big, bad villain or monster or horrible event and call it "deadly" if it never kills anyone.
Well, you can . . . but then your villain would be all talk. He may be a very threatening villain, but unless he acts out some of those threats, then he's not going to be very convincing as a villain. Or, if you're writing some kind of apocalypse scenario, then a LOT of people will have to die, or be harmed and mutilated in some way or it isn't really an apocalypse, is it?

This isn't all stories, mind you, not at all! Killing people is a horrible thing to do, and in stories it can be incredibly inconvenient. So, just as in real life, you should avoid death as much as is humanly possible. But if you're writing a story, and you feel like there's a lack of tension, drama, narrative or character development that could be accomplished with a Character Death, then you're in luck!

Because I just so happened to have compiled a list of ways to kill fictional people. I call it:

The A.W.N. Guide to Character Death

There are a couple of ways to kill people in a story, imolation, mutilation, decapitation, strangulation, detonation . . . these are all fun methods, to be sure. But this isn't about how to write that, this is about the moment before that. Choosing your victim.

Red Shirts & Henchmen
In fiction the main characters are kind of important, since they are the ones that do everything. So, if you don't want to kill them, but still want someone to die, there are some options. Bad Guys have Henchmen, they are often soldiers that wear head to toe body armour or some other dehumanizing garb, and exist solely so the Good Guys have a steady flow of people that they can kill, to prove how awesome and deadly they are. But the Bad Guys need people to kill too, and these are known as Red Shirts, they are characters on the Good side that can die, to prove that the villain is mighty, but still keep the main guys alive.
The advantage of Red Shirts & Henchmen is obvious. They're simple enough to make, you don't even have to give them a name & it keeps the main characters alive, while having people still die. But there's a few disadvantages too. For one, unless your characters are part of an army or large organization, it's going to be hard to explain where they keep getting these disposable soldiers from. Sure, they could just be their friends or people they recruit, but it still begs the question of why these people are joining them in the first place. For another thing, it's very easy to make their deaths cheap. A favourite is to mention their family or loved one back home or say that they're two-days away from retirement just before they die. It may seem like you're trying to make them more human, but it's nothing more than a cheap way of making their death seem even more tragic. Also, it will make your heroes seem heartless, even if they 'feel bad', they still kept sending people to their deaths (good or bad), while they themselves are unharmed.
So it's not all great, but a Classic's a classic. And if you mix this in with some of the other examples, it's less noticeable.

The Sacrifice
When testing a car, since you don't want to risk hurting people that matter, you put a crash test dummy in their place, so they can feel the impact while the important people stay unharmed. In fiction, there are similar dummies. The only difference is we give them a name, backstory and character before we slam them into the wall.
The Sacrifice Character is the character who is created with the knowledge that they're going to get killed. TV Tropes has two versions of this, but they're basically the same thing. There's the Sacrificial Lamb, this is a character made to die, who dies pretty quickly in the story. This character serves a purpose, and their portrayal can make the story more powerful, but I consider the Lamb a bit weaker overall. For me, it's not much different to setting the hero's hometown on firestuffing their partner in the fridge or killing off their black friend. It's just a way of killing characters without having to write about them too much.
But the other version, the Sacrificial Lion, this is a personal favourite of mine. Basically the Sacrificial Lion is the character that, when you first write up their character sheet, there's a note saying "Dies in Chapter 58" or whatever, so that you know they are going to die. This kind of Crash Test Dummy is very clever. You can develop their character, make them friends or enemies & even make them a main character! But the point is that they are designed as a ticking time bomb that will die at some point so the story gets more dramatic, but as tragic as their death is, the rest of the team can function without them afterwards.
The problem with this long-lived Sacrifice is that sometimes the audience will notice. If you're writing a story about a starship that's lost in space, then a keen audience will start to be wary of the navigator onboard. Or if your main character is a boring high school student whose father is a superhero, and your story is called something like How I Became a Superhero, then it won't be as surprising when his father dies, if you get what I mean.
The point is, there are characters that are easy to kill off. Even if you know you've got a lamb for the slaughter, it's easy to downplay their character and pull your punches, so that it doesn't hurt as much when they die. But the point of the Sacrifice Character is to deliver that punch, so don't make them an easy kill. Also, by that same rule, don't make them too likeable, because that too can make people suspicious.

Hot-Blooded Murder
Okay, I'm not gonna lie, this is going to hurt. Simply explained, cold-blooded murder can be another name for 'pre-meditated murder'. Because everything is already planned, so there's nothing to do but commit the act. This is what the other two kinds of character death ask for. A death that is planned in advance, with no emotional investment. I mean, it's cold-blooded. But if you really want to give your audience a punch in the guts, and get them feeling for your story - then you can always kill a main character.
This is the death that is not planned, a death done "in the heat of the moment" within a story. This is most like real life, as many deaths are unplanned for and painful and thus it's the hardest to do as a writer, because so often we like our main characters. You develop them, build their backstory and history like they're your children. You write them and help them grow (or, at least, guide them through their adventure) and you get to know them, as does your audience.
So if you kill a main character, it should really hurt. It should really get you thinking and really cut you deep. Of course, even if you do kill off a character there are ways to make it less permanent. You can easily kill your character then have them come back, have them replaced or otherwise undo the undoable, but that's another matter entirely.
True, Hot-Blooded Murder is permanent.
This kind of thing should be done delicately. Sure, you can stick your hero on a lathe and spill his guts like confetti at a street parade, but no matter how they die, there has to be a reason for why they died. That's not to say every main character death has to be a Heroic Sacrifice, that's not exactly realistic. If you want, you can have your character die because they didn't look both ways before crossing the street. But there has to be a narrative reason for their death, otherwise your audience will think that you're an unnecessarily cruel writer, and will be disinterested in investing passion in your work, since you'll just kill characters for the hell of it.
Actually even if you do have a genuine reason for killing a main character, an audience will hate you anyway, but that's a risk you should be willing to take to make a story great. That's that it takes to Kill Someone you Love.


The reason I made this list in the first place, and the reason I'm thinking about character death and the word "Disposable" is that something has come to my attention which NEEDS TO STOP.
When writing fiction, there's a tendency to include what's known as the Token Minority, which is basically a character that is included to add variety to a team of heroes otherwise made up entirely of heterosexual, middle-aged, caucasian men. I personally think there isn't enough variety in fiction, so a Minority character is a step in the right direction (although it would be better if there were more Main Characters that were at the very least female). But this often leaves writers in the sad situation where these minority characters don't get a lot of characterization because they're 'just women' or 'just gay', so the writer doesn't bother to flesh them out. This means that, inevitably, if they have to fight a deadly monster, gay characters, black characters, female characters and other minority characters are the first to go.
Why? Because they're Disposable. They weren't any more important than the furniture, so they die. There's also a tendency to make them the first to turn evil or go crazy, simply because they are so otherwise useless to the plot.
I am sick of this. It occurs because of ignorance and continues because of laziness. So the guide above exists to show you that there are other ways to kill characters, rather than killing off those that you're too lazy to develop.
The world is a varied and wonderful place, and the fictional world can be too. The first step to achieving that is to stop killing off every character that doesn't fit the Aryan standard.

The second step is to write Minority characters that are well-rounded and exist as something more than Tokens that you can cash in whenever there's a serial killer in town. So do me a favour, next time you create a main character, I want you to pick a word from the following list, any word, maybe even at random:
Aboriginal, African, Asian, Autistic, Bisexual, Blind, Deaf, Female, Gay, ImmigrantIndian, JewishLesbian, Muslim, Mute, ParaplegicRussian, Schizophrenic, Transexual.
Once you've picked your word, I want you to make your character that. It's not that hard, some of these may even come naturally to you. The point is, I see NO reason why any of these kinds of characters can't have their own story, this is by no means a comprehensive list of minorities but so often these characters are ignored, and I think they deserve their chance to shine as a protagonist.
That way, if you have to kill them off, it will mean so much more for your readers.

Until next time, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, off to find my next victim . . .

2 comments:

  1. Not fun when your comment gets deleted. Not going to restart it from scratch.
    It's interesting how nowadays in fiction we don't have tragedies anymore in the Greek and Shakespearean tradition; in those forms of tragedy, everyone would die at the same time, just when the curtain fell. Today we can have heroes die, dead heroes narrating the story, but we can't have everyone dying at the end because we then wonder what was the story's point. Some films like the original Casino Royale used this fact for comedic effect, but others can fall flat.
    Fanfiction taught me how to write death well because you have to make characters likable before you kill them, or interesting at the least. If they're going to go out, they should go out with a bang, or at least for a purpose. I had a sacrificial lamb in one fanfiction, but I ironically wrote more about him after he died than before. You also make an effort to preserve life for that reason, because living is much harder than dying for fictional characters.
    About writing about minorities, Google Meg Cabot's discussion on that, but I agree that we shouldn't label non-humans, women and gays as expendable. If a world is dangerous, with man-eating or sentient being-eating monsters, then we need to provide a narrative purpose, and a fresh purpose.

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  2. My favorite part of this post is that you feel guilty about throwing away ice cubes... It's a great post, that's just my favorite line.

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Feel free to make suggestions, ask questions & comment . . .
I would love to read your words.