Yesterday I finished the draft of the third book in my Close Enough to Kill trilogy. The books, a mix of psychological thriller, mystery, with a spoonful of eroticism, all explore the dark side of love and passion. As the series title implies, the murders in all three books take place in the context of an intimate relationship. The types of relationships formed between the characters are all different. The consistent thread: there is first closeness, an emotional bond of some kind, love, passion and obsession, which eventually turns deadly.
When I began the series I knew characters would die and sometimes not a peaceful death. I mean…I’m writing psychological thrillers exploring passion gone awry, so clearly there needed to be murders. What I didn’t know then, but I do know now, is killing characters is not easy. It’s murder both literally and figuratively.
So why? Why is it murder? It’s fiction, right? The characters are creations from our imagination and the killing is just part of a fictitious story.
It’s not that simple.
I grew attached to my characters
As all writers know, being a writer involves hours and hours of time alone. And I mean hours and hours. There are days when I don’t talk to another human being for most of the day.
Wait…but we’re not really alone. Are we? No, we’re not. We are lost in a world which we’ve created. This world is both authentic and vivid; our characters are alive on the pages, we see them, feel their feelings, go through the ups and downs they go through, we know their favorite foods, how they gesture when they're anxious, if they’re criers or stoics and we know why too. As the words pour out onto the pages, and the characters go through their stories, we are with them the whole time. An attachment develops, whether we love them or hate them, they are part of us, killing them is killing a part of ourselves. It’s a loss and a very real one.
We know Everything
Unlike relations in our non-writing lives (if that’s even entirely possible for writers) we know intimate details about our characters. We know their innermost thoughts, their hopes, their foibles, their quirks. We are privy to the things they only do when they’re alone. When no one else is watching, we are. We know when a character presents a strong persona to the world while feeling deeply inadequate on the inside. We know everything.
We know things we don’t even know about those closest to us in our non-writing lives. It’s not easy to kill off a character when we know exactly who they are and how much is lost upon their death.
Even the villains are painful to kill
A good villain has redeeming qualities. Human behavior is complex. The heroes and heroines must have flaws or they’re not going to be believable. Everyone has imperfections, personality blemishes. No one’s perfect. Our characters, even the most well-intentioned, loveable characters, aren’t perfect either. We love them for that. It makes them relatable.
It makes them like us.
On the flip-side of this: the bad-guy or gal will have some favorable, appealing qualities. Even more compelling is a villain who has an internal world filled with pain, torment, unresolved issues that have led her down her villainous, malevolent, wicked path.
I developed empathy for all of my characters, even my villains.
This makes for good reading, but it was challenging, as the author, when it came time for the murders. I found myself trying to protect characters, re-writing scenes where there was a murder trying to undo what was done. In the end, I killed the characters when I needed to in order for the story to be both believable as well as suspenseful, but jeez…it was not easy. And I’m still in mourning.
Maybe I will be for a long time.
Killing a character is not as easy as it may seem, or perhaps this was just my experience.
What are your thoughts?