February 2 – 8: “Do authors sometimes regret killing off a character?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Thrillers, mysteries and crime fiction all have their fair share of murder and mayhem, but do the authors ever regret killing off a character? Join ITW Members Rebecca Cantrell, Ryan Quinn, Lisa Von Biela, Merry Jones, Jamie Mason, Jean Heller and Michael Rose for this thrilling discussion!

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Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

 

Blood Infernal by James Rollins and Rebecca CantrellNew York Times and USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell has published nine novels in over ten different languages. Her novels have won the ITW Thriller, the Macavity, and the Bruce Alexander awards. They have been nominated for the GoodReads Choice award, the Barry, the RT Reviewers Choice, and the APPY award. She and her husband and son live in Berlin. Find Rebecca on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.

 

End of Secrets by Ryan QuinnA native of Alaska, Ryan Quinn was an NCAA champion and an all-American skier while at the University of Utah. He worked for five years in New York’s book-publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles, where he writes and trains for marathons. Quinn’s first novel, The Fall, was a finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards. For more, please visit his website.

 

Monday's Lie by Jamie Mason

 

Jamie Mason was born in Oklahoma City, but grew up in Washington, DC. She’s most often reading and writing, but in the life left over, she enjoys films, Formula 1 racing, football, traveling, and, conversely, staying at home. Jamie lives with her husband and two daughters in the mountains of North Carolina, where she’s written her novels, Monday’s Lie and Three Graves Full.

 

In The Woods by Merry JonesMerry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings thrillers (SUMMER SESSION, BEHIND THE WALLS, WINTER BREAK, OUTSIDE EDEN, IN THE WOODS), the Elle Harrison novels (THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, ELECTIVE PROCEDURES), the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS), as well as several humor books (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction books (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.) She has also written articles for various magazines (including GLAMOUR) and short stories (including Bliss, published in the anthology LIAR LIAR).

hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

 

tsunami_file_2Michael Rose writes spy thrillers that win new readers year after year. He is the former Chief of Communications for Interpol and a former journalist, broadcaster and foreign correspondent. He draws on his years of experience in exotic locations around the world for his gripping stories and characters.

 

 

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
31 Comments
  1. I haven’t yet gone all the way to regret after killing off a character. I’ve been sad about it, for sure, and never sadder than with the death of Annette Vess in my latest book. I knew she’d be dead from the outset of the story – a pivotal character, but only in memory. It was very sad to write her last scene, because I truly love that character.

    But nothing is done that can’t be undone when you’re dealing with things that never happened in the first place. So, by the time a character needs killing, once I’ve become committed to a course for those characters in those fictional circumstances, it’s the closest this story will ever get to being something that happened. The death is just the way it is, the way it has to be. It would be like regretting sunrise.

    Now I can see where series writers may kill off a character that, with their absence later in the stories, could spark regret. I have only ever worked in standalones, so I have had less of a chance of running up against that problem.

  2. When I wrote my first novel, A TRACE OF SMOKE, I didn’t think that it would be part of series. I killed off the main character’s brother, but
    he was such a fascinating character that I often wished I’d kept him alive so that I could see how he would have reacted to living in Hitler’s
    Germany as a gay man. But dead is dead, so I’ll never find that out.

    Beyond that, though, I feel a pang every time I kill a character.
    My characters are real to me, and I do mourn their deaths, even the villains. Yup, I know that’s weird, but there you go.

    A question for readers: Which fictional character’s death has most upset you? Boromir in Lord of the Rings? Ned Stark in Game of Thrones? (poor Sean Bean). Somebody else?

  3. Oh, it depends on the character. Some of my characters are pretty heinous, and it’s a relief when they’re, um, dispatched. But their innocent victims are a different story. I do feel bad for them, but if they don’t go, I don’t have drama, right?

    I haven’t yet looked back on a book and facepalmed because I killed off a potential series character. Not yet anyway. I left a nasty antagonist alive at the end of THE GENESIS CODE–he could make for a good sequel some day.

    I wonder if any author with a “franchise” character would ever dare to kill that character off–or would ever be tempted to just to be able to maybe move in a different direction with future novels…

  4. Yes, I think many authors of thrillers and mysteries would regret that. I certainly have had that regret. When I first started writing thrillers, with The Mazovia Legacy, I knew it would be the first book in a series. I had mapped out where my main character, Frank Delaney, an investigative journalist who gets pulled into the world of spies, would go, roughly, in the next few books of the series. I had story ideas, plotlines, characters, worked out for the next few. But in the first book I merrily killed off several really interesting characters, not thinking that, in addition to the people I would introduce in the subsequent books, these might be useful. Nor did I think that a lot of my readers liked them very much, and were distressed to see them go, and told me so.
    So I wrote myself into a bit of a corner with that first book, and now bitterly regret losing some characters that Frank Delaney could have interacted with and grown closer to in the series as it develops. He refers to them sometimes and he thinks about them, but they are dead and gone. I won’t say which of them is gone, so as not to spoil things for people to buy that first book in the series. But I wish I could have them back. Maybe I should get into writing paranormal thrillers? Make some of those people come back from the dead. Or maybe I need a bit of therapy. Why do I feel the need to kill off so many people in my books?

  5. I never thought I’d hear myself utter the words “Star Trek” and “Sherlock Holmes” in the same sentence. But there, I just did it.

    This is because our topic this week is whether authors ever regret killing off a character. I never have, though I always feel badly when innocent bystanders bite the dust, as I forced them to do in all three of my novels. I think there is something telling about how an author kills off a character. And therein lies the comparison between Trek and Holmes.

    Back when Hollywood was making Star Trek movies with one or more of the original TV casts, one episode saw Spock die muttering the Star Trek mantra, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” The movie got fine reviews. Which begat another movie. Naturally.

    So Spock had to come back to life. It was awkward, to say the least. I mean we saw the man die right there on the big screen right before our eyes with that split-finger thingy he always did. The movie that brought him back was widely panned.

    Now let’s move to Sherlock Holmes – not the incomparable BBC series that has captured world attention, but the original. In a short story called, “The Final Problem,” Dr. Watson tells us that Holmes and his arch-enemy, Moriarty, died together in a plunge over Reichenbach Falls. It was believed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had tired of writing the Holmes stories and wished to stop, and he reasoned that if he killed off Sherlock, that would be the end of it.

    The outcry from his fans convinced him some ten years later to resume writing. And it was much easier to bring back Holmes because he had killed the man off-stage, and neither his body nor Moriarty’s was ever found. That men as clever as these two would find a way to survive did not strain credulity at all.

    It’s even possible that Conan Doyle killed them that way just so he would have the “not dead” option if he changed his mind. Which he did.

    I guess the moral is, if you’re going to kill off a good character, be sure you want that character to stay dead – or kill him/her offstage so you have deniability later.

  6. Like all writers in this genre, I am a mass murderer of characters, both innocent and evil. And, while I can’t speak for other writers, I admit that my conscience bothers me when I slaughter my characters. Mostly, the “innocent victims” are less developed and less interesting than the villains–I therefore care less about them. But the bad evil nasty villains are often more complex.
    I think my remorse is proportional to the character’s complexity. If a character were two-dimensional, a stereotype of “bad,” then I doubt I’d care when I kill them. But if the character is complicated and three-dimensional, she is never completely “bad” or “good.” Like real people, she has contradictions, vulnerabilities. She was once a child, maybe a victim. She has internal conflicts and flaws. Because she isn’t merely a personification of evil, when I kill her, I feel for her.
    Or for him. By the time she dies, I have become quite attached to her. Or to him.
    In fact, there are a few characters I miss. A couple from my latest book, IN THE WOODS. But I can’t name them specifically, as that would spoil the read.

  7. I have no regrets . . . yet. But then again, the body count in my novels is pretty low. I find that there’s no shortage of nonfatal conflict, drama, and terror in the world to coopt as plot twists in a story, so killing people off is not my go-to device for amping up the action in a thriller. That doesn’t mean characters aren’t killed in my books, it just means that—so far—when a character is killed off, it’s usually something I’ve plotted out carefully, for good reason, and with the consequences in mind.

  8. The fact is that we writers live with our characters–often we spend more time with them than with living breathing people. We have relationships with them. So it’s inevitable that, when we kill one or another of them, we’ll feel it. Maybe, as Jamie Mason said, we don’t go “all the way to regret” since killing them is necessary for the sake of the story. But even if regret is too strong a word–in that it implies that we’d undo the killing if we could–there is a definite pang whenever a character bites dust.

  9. Oh, yeah. It definitely hurts. When I killed off the Big Bad in ‘Three Graves Full’ (not a spoiler – you know early on that he dies, just not under what circumstances) it was incredibly emotional. It was almost the last thing I wrote. I knew he died and I knew what his death meant and what chaos it kicked off, but I didn’t actually kill him until the very end of the writing process. I didn’t expect to react so strongly to it, but it was really intense for me. Everything that happened in the book happened because of this one death.

    Crazy.

    Still, I don’t guess that’s regret either.

  10. I do feel some regret about one character’s death in my most recent novel, Allure of Deceit, but that began only after two readers protested, asking why she had to die.

    Readers’ opinions – they matter. Though I cannot imagine an alternative for the plot.

  11. Having said that I regret having killed off some important characters in my first thriller, I am now much more careful about who dies. I still kill a lot of people, but with not as much remorse afterwards. This either says something about the way I construct my novels now, or it says something a little disturbing about my psychological state when I write. Lack of remorse…. Hmm. Do we all as thriller and crime writers tread a bit too close the edge of acceptable things to imagine?

    1. Maybe you were working through your own personal issues at the time……ie ALL characters’ names( in first series), locations; HIV + ( in another book) etc etc
      Why are these 10 year old books even resurfacing with different covers? It is often deceiving for book buyers; self serving for authors who no longer write, but continue to ” promote” their own books or go as far as having their journalist wife do so for them
      ( ie good CHRISTMAS gift idea?….really?

  12. Michael: I think it DOES say something about us thriller writers as people. We sit around making up imaginary people and then killing them off because “the story needs it.” And, of course, the story does!

    Makes me wonder if I would have been burned at the stake a few hundred years ago.

    Yeah, I love my job!

      1. Maybe you were working through your own personal issues at the time……ie ALL characters’ names( in first series), locations; HIV + ( in another book) etc etc
        Why are these 10 year old books even resurfacing with different covers? It is often deceiving for book buyers; self serving for authors who no longer write, but continue to ” promote” their own books or go as far as having their journalist wife do so for them
        ( ie good CHRISTMAS gift idea?….really?
        Sorry : clarification required….HIV+ character …..?????? Maybe referring to R, who resided in LA, visited in Calgary, and died in Montréal…a horrible time in Denyse’s life! Tragic, actually.
        But great times at Huberdeau’s home.

  13. As far as regret prevention goes, it also helps that novel writing requires a long and careful revision process, undertaken by both author and editor. That saves lives! Or at least it saves the lives of those characters whom we might have wound up needing again. It would be less fun to play God if the first draft was the final word.

    1. Editing saves lives. I love it. I saved a character in a friend’s book. There’s a character who sees the end of NORMAL, by Graeme Cameron, just because of me.

      1. Alas, editing can be deadly too. In my final major round of edits for END OF SECRETS, my editor made a strong case that one of my prominent secondary characters ought to go. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him. So…yeah, the book’s published now and that character didn’t live to see the sequel. But I have no regrets! For as difficult as it was for me to do, there were good reasons.

  14. I once tried writing a novel in which one of the key characters died even before the story began. It was so distressing for me that I just sat in front of the computer and cried, quite literally, and eventually I put the book away.

    Perhaps, like Harper Lee, I shall discover it again when I’m 88.
    j

  15. We can kill with the oxymoron of calculated abandon, kill with you-had-it-coming-you-lousy-bastard or sincere sadness, because if we really can’t live without them, the time-traveling magic of writing can always work up a prequel.

  16. Oh. The. Power. We. Writers. Have.

    I’m in the early outlining phase of my next work, and this discussion caused me to likely change course. I’m starting to think of reprising the villain from my first novel, THE GENESIS CODE, in a loose sequel. Dr. Josh Tyler could create just the menace I need. Left him alive. The other key characters either died or were permanently incapacitated in some way (don’t want to give away the plot).

  17. Public outcry offers the most delicate of the situations.

    To illustrate, let’s remember crazy fan Annie Wilkes who went as far as kidnapping and torturing author Paul Sheldon to bring back Misery in the eponymous novel by Stephen King. Tell me that didn’t give you the shivers!

    Sherlock Holmes and Spock have been mentioned above, as plausible resurrections.

    Most recently, J.K. Rowling killed Dumbledore in book six, and faced hell from readers. A hell only rivaling George Lucas’ for the opposite mistake of keeping Jar Jar Binks alive.

    How do you deal with the aftermath of killing off beloved characters?

    1. I tend to apologize a lot. Sure, the character had to go because the story dictated it, but that’s not what a grieving reader wants to hear. So, I apologize and try, gently, to explain.

      I can’t imagine the hell I’d catch if I killed a dog though. 🙂

  18. Sometimes people ask why I write in this genre with all its violence and darkness.
    I write what feels real, and darkness is part of real. What’s not so real is that,as a writer, I get to choose who dies, and how and when. Control is a beautiful thing.

  19. Is this why we like to kill people in our books?

    “The hard-boiled detective sets out to investigate a crime but invariably finds that he must go beyond the solution to some kind of personal choice or action. While the classical writer typically treats the actual apprehension of the criminal as a less significant matter than the explanation of the crime, the hard-boiled story usually ends with a confrontation between detective and criminal. Sometimes this is a violent encounter similar to the climactic shootdown of many westerns. This difference in endings results from a greater personal involvement on the part of the hard-boiled detective. Since he becomes emotionally and morally committed to some of the persons involved, or because the crime poses some basic crisis in his image of himself, the hard-boiled detective remains unfulfilled until he has taken a personal moral stance toward the criminal.”
    John G. Cawelti. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.

  20. Just to clarify, Jose, I didn’t think the resurrection of Spock was believable at all. It was very awkward
    since we had seen him die on the big screen in such a prolonged, agonizing way. The resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, worked just fine (and I’m talking about the original books).

    Rebecca, I once killed off a character right at the start of a book, a character readers never got a chance to know very well. I killed her in a very graphic fashion for two very specific reasons, neither of which I’ll go into here. But a few readers, almost exclusively men, were horrified. One man asked me when I’d turned into a psychopath. I had no idea how to answer that question so I told him, “it was just a phase I was going through.”

    I had no regrets about killing the character. It was the key to the story. I did regret somewhat that I let the scene go on too long. I had asked my editor at St. Martin’s if I should cut it, and she said no. I listened to her. I think we were both wrong. So as I edit the book now to become part of my backlist to “The Someday File,” I am looking for ways to shorten the scene without damaging its psychological impact.

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