Have you ever killed off a character you loved?
by Paul D. Marks
Well, I've certainly wanted to kill off a lot of 'characters' I've come across in my life, but we're talking fiction here. The answer is yes. Killing off a character that you like is never easy. We all love killing the bad guys, seeing them get their just desserts. But when you kill off a sympathetic character, a character that you and your readers like and, who is a good guy and good friend to your protagonist, well, that's another story. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do for the sake of the plot and the story and a dash of realism.
Gaby, a character in my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set around the time of the Zoot Suit Riots during World War II, is missing. He's a friend of Bobby's, the story's main character. And someone who knows Bobby's deepest secrets. But knowing them, he is sympathetic to Bobby and a friend to him. So when he goes missing, Bobby wants to find out what happened. And it isn't pretty. And though Gaby meets an untimely end, I liked the character. So when I wrote The Blues Don't Care, a novel that "stars" Bobby in the main role, I resurrected Gaby to return in that story, which is set previous to the time of Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne. So, sometimes through the magic of fiction you can bring back a character that you like. (This novel is not yet available.)
My short story Free Fall starts off with the main character, Rick, free falling to his death from a high-rise apartment in L.A. So I'm not really giving anything away here. This was an interesting experiment for me as both the writer and reader know the main character, the narrator of the story, is dead from the beginning. As the ground comes screaming towards him and in those few seconds before hitting, we get his story. Having started this story off knowing my main character was going to die, I didn’t have time to become too attached to him, at least initially. But, as I wrote his backstory, I started to like him and empathize with him and I think that gave the story a little more depth and interest as we realize all the events that led up to him taking this ultimate final step.
Spoiler Alert – Don't read this graph if you're planning to read White Heat: Probably the most heartrending death of a character both for me and my readers was the death of a dog in this novel. It's ironic because just a week or two before I got this question I read something that said you never kill a dog in a cozy. Well, this book is about as far from a cozy as you can get. Still, it was hard on my audience and I got a lot of feedback on that. Some people couldn't even read those parts. And it was hard for me to kill him off. But it did make people hate the bad guy even more – after all, who kills a dog? I don't like the idea of hurting a dog anymore than anyone else. But you do what works for the plot. And in this case I thought it would jolt the reader into connecting with the characters in a more real way. Suddenly the bad guy is really evil and the hero more sympathetic. Is that manipulative – maybe. But isn't all writing? Still, it hurt to write those scenes and you just feel it all well up inside you as you write. It was also hard on me because the real-life dog that the dog-character was based on was a dog I'd had as a kid. Luckily that rascally dog lived to a ripe old age. End of Spoiler.
Killing off the characters in the three cases that I mention above worked for each particular story. And you do what you have to do to make the story work. But that doesn't mean you don't regret it sometimes. In one particular screenplay of mine, that was optioned over and over but never produced, I kill off the main character's sidekick buddy. But I really liked that character and since it hasn't been produced, well, maybe it's not too late to save his ass.
(originally posted on 7 Criminal Minds blog)