Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Kill a Character

How to Kill a Character
By Renea Winchester

I was washing dishes when Miranda, my muse, spoke. Known for their elusive behavior, muses rarely speak in forceful tones; however her message was clear.

One of the characters in my book must die.

We’ve all read books that lure us into a relationship with characters we adore, then from nowhere… BAM! They’re dead. We clutch our chest, dab our eyes and ―let’s be honest ― we get angry with the author for taking our friend. Other times, we devour words while eagerly turning pages, impatient to discover how the end comes for the scoundrel who gets his just reward.

Readers expect death from Steven King and Catherine Coulter, but from me. What do I know about killing?

Miranda stood propped against the wall. Her arms were folded. She grinned the all-knowing, I’m-never-wrong smile that said, “you can do it.” Then I did something a writer should never do, I argued with Miranda.

“I can’t,” I whined. “The story isn’t about him; it’s about Lucy.”

“You must,” she countered.

“But, I don’t want to.”

Miranda vanished, leaving me to mourn the death of a character I loved deeply. I cried. I literally shed tears, while fretting how to humanely kill him.
Writers are known to communicate with their protagonists, at times even verbally. My next step was ask Lucy her opinion. She waited while I explained my thoughts. Then gave me the same all- knowing smile and imparted infinite words of wisdom.
“Death is a part of life.”

Uugh. I can't prove it, but I think Lucy and Miranda had been talking about me behind my back.

Evenutally, I determined the death would be a quick, bloodless affair, perhaps only a sentence. Steven King and Catherine Coulter would have artistically splattered blood across multiple pages without shedding a single tear. I on the other hand, cried while typing. There would be no pain, agony, or dripping plasma for this innocent, precious creation. Quick. Clean. Dead.

Geeze, I’m a wimp.

Afterward, I understood Lucy better. She is going through a painful life-altering process, and I must share each part, not just the warm and fuzzy stories. Miranda and Lucy are right. Well-written prose requires conflict, even death.

Believable characters are strong, yet weak; perfect, and freckled with faults. My job is to pluch an emotion from you. I mean, who likes to read boring prose? If I’ve done my part, you either want the character to live forever, or die a slow tortured death. Perhaps you’ll shed a few tears. You might even send an email asking, “Why did he have to die?” I hope you will.

Readers often believe the writer controls the creative process. Nothing could be further from the truth. Characters speak to writers, more so than the muse. Our job is to listen, observe, and sometimes kill the very thing we worked so hard to create.

Renea Winchester is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book In The Garden with Billy: Lessons on Life, Love and Tomatoes, a book where everyone lives happily ever after. She blogs about her fun with Billy at  She is currently working on her first novel.


Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Oh Renea, I feel your pain! I am going through the same thing. Characters become so real. I know I won't be 'nice' for a while.*sigh*
Giggles and Guns

Anonymous said...

I don't usually feel guilty when I kill a character however sometimes I am a little too reluctant to do it. I got to the end of the first draft of a story and realised that despite building up such great dangers I hadn't managed to kill off any significant characters, which as a reader would annoy me. I then had to coldly determine which characters were expendable and when. That kind of hurt.
Thanks for sharing an interesting post and I hope things go well with your writing.

Melanie and Christy said...

It's good to hear that you're struggling with the process--that must mean that the character wasn't just concocted to force the readers' sympathy. There's nothing worse than a death that doesn't fit the story. I hate being manipulated!