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Planning the perfect murder

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re some sort of law enforcement type, please go away. I’m not really planning an actual murder. Well, ok, it’s an actual murder, but not an actual person – just a fictional character.

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re a fan of murder mysteries, please go away. Well, all right, you can stay, but if you expect this post to be about whodunit-type writing, you’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid. I write fantasy at the moment, but I suppose the topic of this post applies to writing in general.

So gather ’round, the Internet is a big space, I’m sure we can squeeze all three of my followers in here.

For reasons I explained previously, I’ve had a stop-start-stop-start relationship with my writing recently. Partially because of time constraints, but also because… well, I’ve been putting off writing the next bit of glue that needs to hold some other pieces together. Not because of writer’s block or anything like that – thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with that. No, for me, that’s usually a sign that there’s something I don’t completely like about where my story is going, or how it’s going there. Consciously or unsubconsciously, I stop myself from doing what I was about to do.

Don’t tell anyone, but I often have some of my best ideas in the shower. I’m a morning person, but only if I have my hot shower to wake me up. Prior to that shower, I’m a grumpy zombie, hardly able to open my eyes. Once I’m in, I wake up and sometimes have some great thoughts. (I apologise if that’s more than you needed to know. I needed to say that for things to make sense. To me, at least; I have to read my posts too, you know. I’m getting to the point now, don’t you worry.)

Anyway, so as I woke up this morning, it struck me that what I needed to do was to kill off one of my characters. On some level, I’ve known that for a few days, but I like… her. (Going with “her” but not admitting it’s a female character. I just don’t want to be continually ambiguous in the next few sentences.)

People die in books all the time, but when I say “killing off a character”, I don’t mean that a writer’s protagonist walks along and suddenly a tree flattens some guy in the background. I mean that one of the major characters, whom a writer has spent some time and effort endearing to his readers, meets an untimely death, the description of which is bound to bring a tear to the eye (or at least a mental “Awww!”) of the emotionally invested reader.

One writer who is well-known for killing off major characters is George R. R. Martin. Incidentally, one of the reasons I like epic fantasy is because the writer can invest some time in endearing multiple characters to the reader, only to have them kick the bucket when it suits the writer or the plot (or not kick the bucket, and the reader will be interested in how the story continues for that character). Shorter books have a harder time evoking that “Awww!” effect, because the only way to get it when a character dies who hasn’t had much screen time (“page time” for books?) is to make it clear that a protagonist is negatively affected by the death, and to hope that the reader’s connection to the protagonist is sufficient to carry that emotion across from the dead-guy-to-protagonist relationship to the protagonist-to-reader relationship.

How do you go about planning the best way to kill off a character?

First, it’s important to remember that the story is more important than the character. As a writer, you tend to form a relationship with characters you’ve created (at least I do), but sometimes you have to create some emotional distance and sacrifice that character to the Story God for the greater good. Then, find a way that character can die, hopefully in the right spot inside the boring-gory-cheesy triangle. I could draw a picture of that, but it would probably just look silly – I’m hoping you’re with me without a visual aid. You don’t want the scene to be boring, but not so overly exciting that it comes across as cheesy. I guess gory could work in some genres, but mostly you want to a) make it unexpected, yet realistic, memorable, yet not too exotic, and b) emphasise the impact this character’s death has on your protagonist(s). For the death to serve your story, it has to lead to the protagonist doing something he would not otherwise have done.

The death is also a great chance to tell the reader more about your supporting cast by describing how they are affected by it. Villify the bad guy by describing how he just smirks, or humanise him by telling readers that he didn’t really want to go that far, or is filled with regrets. Show how the protagonist’s best friend is trying to put on a brave face because she knows how much the dead character meant to him, but inside she’s struggling not to break apart herself.

Have you committed any good fictional murders lately? Know any good tips for writers about how/when/why to kill off characters? Or do you have any “favourite” (good or bad) character deaths that affected you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!