Saturday, April 11, 2009

Murder Most Fictional

It's deep in the twentieth chapter. The bad guys are ascendant but the good guys are getting complacent. Too many characters have stepped out of their background roles and are threatening to take over the narrative.

You're just gonna have to kill someone.

I'm not a writer of murder mysteries per se, but in any bit of fiction featuring as much peril as the modern historical thriller demands, someone's going to die at some point. That said, I firmly believe that the only way to do this without making it trite or feel like you're manipulating your readers is to walk into it without knowing which characters will still be alive in the epilogue.

Look at it this way: If I don't know who will die when the time comes, I can't take those extra annoying steps to ingratiate him to the reader. My writing can only prosper thereby.

In my books, no one gets script immunity.

That being said I hate a lot about the presentation of death in modern fiction. Only in some few cases does it read as real. Not in terms of the death throes of the fallen or the medical steps undertaken to save them and God knows reality isn't spared on the autopsy table, but in terms of the reactions of the people who should be impacted by the passing of the fallen. Only when the death of the character and the effects upon the family and friends are the plot (Lovely Bones springs to mind) does the death of a character really seem to have the full force and effect of a real death upon real people.

Awhile back when Newsweek said that writers didn't kill enough people anymore, I was affronted on some level. This was partially because the genre shelves of your neighborhood bookstore have a bodycount that surpasses imagining for even the most motivated serial killer. I went back and reread that article and got something different from it. Not that writers don't kill enough people, but that we sell it short as a literary device and as a moment of common humanity. And on that point I tend to agree.

From the standpoint of a reader, one of the worst offenses any writer can commit is to undersell the real-life psychic impact of a death upon those who witnessed it and those impacted by it. There are so many books that screw that up that it almost qualifies as its own subgenre. Heroes drag a burly forearm across their misty eyes and then carry on as if nothing happened. At best the impact seems to last a couple of chapters before the next love scene or comic relief character "snaps them out of it" and all is well. Sometimes (in a series) it's implied that the characters do their grieving between books, which is at least acknowledging the humanity of the characters.

Killing a character is more than taking a trip to the library to read Guns & Ammo or a medical journal, or making a call to your friend the ER nurse. Death goes beyond the straight razor or handgun that does the deed, and makes deep changes in everyone it touches. Changes that go beyond snapping out of it because someone makes a smartass comment or two people fall into bed.

Not every book with a death in it would benefit from a widening circle of grief and pain, far from it. But to not pay attention to this aspect, to the experience of it is to pay no heed to the value of the fallen character or the humanity of those he left behind. . . but I guess that's why they call it fiction.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).