October 29 – November 4: “Do authors sometimes regret killing off a character?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The great William Faulkner is often attributed as the source of the quote, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” although many authors have repeated this bit of advice throughout the years. This week ITW Members Colin Campbell, Lee Murray, Carole Lawrence, Sandra Ruttan, DiAnn Mills, Tristan Drue Rogers and Tracy Clark are discussing whether or not authors sometimes regret killing off a character. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!

 

Tristan Drue Rogers continues to misspell his middle name in spite of it appearing that way on his birth certificate. He is a husband and an author. A self-described “ever-student,” Tristan prefers to learn as opposed to master, disbelieving in absolutes. His stories, especially his characters, represent this ideology well; with a keen commentary on the lives of people today, he attempts to bridge the old with the new, the fantasy with reality, the anxiety with heroism, and the horror with beauty. Deepening wounds and reevaluating their power is the name of the game. His recently released novel Brothers of Blood is available anywhere books are sold.

 

Tracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines mystery series, lives in Chicago. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Chicagoland Chapter, PI Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America-Midwest. Her debut novel “Broken Places” released in May 2018. Book two in the series, “Borrowed Time,” releases next May.

 

Carole Lawrence (C. E. Lawrence, Carole Bugge) is the author of eleven published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction. Her most recent novel is the historical thriller Edinburgh Dusk, the second book in the Ian Hamilton Mysteries series. Her “Silent” series (Silent Screams and its sequels) follows NYPD profiler Lee Campbell in his pursuit of serial killers. Her plays and musicals have been performed internationally – including an original Sherlock Holmes musical. Her most recent musical is Murder on Bond Street, based on a true story. A self-described science geek, she likes to hunt wild mushrooms.

 

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference and Mountainside Marketing Conference

 

Ex-army, retired cop and former scenes of crime officer Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain, Montecito Heights, Adobe Flats and Snake Pass. His Jim Grant thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue.

 

 

Sandra Ruttan has had her foot partially severed, survived a car crash in the Sahara Desert and almost drowned. Between disasters she stays busy with her writing, family and dogs. Her sixth novel, The Spying Moon, was published September 2018 by Down & Out Books.

 

 

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her latest thrillers include New Zealand military thriller INTO THE SOUNDS (Severed Press), and supernatural crime-noir, TEETH OF THE WOLF (Raw Dog Screaming Press) co-authored with Dan Rabarts. HELLHOLE, a volume of subterranean thriller stories, including novelettes from Jonathan Maberry, Michael McBride, and Sean Ellis, is forthcoming from Gryphonwood Press in December.

 

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.
21 Comments
  1. When any writer, perhaps especially authors as they can no longer change the circumstances, kill off their characters, a sense of remorse is incredibly likely to hold onto them for months to come, if not years or more. This is actually a testament to the writer’s ability to build up the soon-to-be deceased character’s presentation to the reader and themselves. If a character died on the first page, we wouldn’t really feel much, understanding that this means to an end is for propping up a tragedy or event in the book, rather than any one character. However, many pages into the story when we end a supporting character’s life, we have already learned what their motivations to live were, what they found humorous, how they perceived the world, and what they were planning to do in order to change it. Furthermore, no matter what writers would like to admit about their villains sharing little with who they actually are, there is a shred of doubt when the prose is written in such a way as to endear the villain — all of our characters are in someway an extension of ourselves.

    This is especially true when putting into account the difference between long form storytelling as opposed to short stories or a limited series, where big ideas, such as ending the story with a main character’s death really flourish and we haven’t spent so much time building up these characters so that we may miss having conversations with them.

    I’ve yet to write a story that is continued outside of its first home (my novel, Brothers of Blood is my single release outside of two nonfiction essays), so I can only imagine the terror of killing a character written under multiple books or stories. The authors that intend to go through with this experience have my deepest sympathies mixed with a heavy dose of malicious glee.

    The thing is, I don’t believe I’ve ever regretted killing any of my darlings. In fact, if I did, it was because they deserved a different death and my mind was too “in it” to have taken a step back from my writing in order to reevaluate that truth. As long as every death is meaningful or has great intention in it’s meaningless design, I hope we can get over our regrets and simply put it into the writing, developing our characters, their situations, and especially their deaths beyond our wildest original fancies as we continue our good work.

  2. My first thought is absolutely not. If a character has been killed, then the story required it. But is any question relating to the story, characters, emotions (characters and writers), and the writing adventure ever black or white?

    I thought about killing off characters until I formed why I might regret eliminating an antagonist or protagonist.

    An innocent victim who fell prey to a killer.
    A protagonist who gave his/her life for another: a sacrifice for a worthy cause.
    An antagonist who gave his/her life for another: a sacrifice for a worthy cause making the character redeemable.
    An evil person who might have been rehabilitated while spending life in prison. But that means my protagonists will be paying taxes to support him/her.
    An evil person who preferred death to life in prison.

  3. I have regretted killing off characters, especially if they were fully-formed, engaging, and a lot of fun to write, but in the end, the story has to come first. If one, or two, regretful deaths, move other characters forward, create a complication, open a wound, or create an emotional scar that will resonate through one book, or a series of them, then the unlucky souls have to go. I killed off a pretty appealing character in BROKEN PLACES. I liked him. I would have enjoyed spending more time with him, but I knew he had to go, or else I’d have no story. That still didn’t stop me from trying to write my way around the death. Maybe if I wrote it this way, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have to kill him. Maybe if I killed that guy instead? Nope. No matter how I reworked the pages, sweated over them, and tried to convince myself the alternate plot line worked just as well, it just didn’t work. I finally had to just get brutal with it and kill the guy I should have killed to begin with. Still miss him, though. So, regrets? I’ve had a few. But story rules.

  4. Not so far, but I have come close. In Jamaica Plain I had a secondary character die in the climax, leaving it open until the end which character it was. I had originally intended it to be one character then changed my mind at the last minute, giving him a reprieve because I thought there was scope for using him in future books. And I liked him more than the other guy.
    Of course that doesn’t always work out. You can elicit a stronger emotion if you kill someone the reader likes and it can drive your protagonist forward. Just look at the Rocky movies; they were always killing someone off to motivate The Italian Stallion. Mickey, Apollo Creed, Adrian. The other thing is the gut punch ending when the hero doesn’t make it. Again with the movies, I’m thinking of Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express. Powerful ending. I thought David Morrell’s book, First Blood had a much stronger ending than the movie. Risking giving it away, there would have been no Rambo sequels.
    Ian Fleming left James Bond dying on a hotel room floor in From Russia With Love because he’d grown tired of the character, only to revive him in Dr No. For whatever reason, I guess he did regret killing off the character. As for me, the only thing I regret is painting myself into a corner. So far, killing a character hasn’t done that.

    1. This reminded me of reading about Arthur Conan Doyle’s fair-well to Sherlock Holmes, where he finally killed the character off only to revive him years later. Yet in-between this, fans began writing stories featuring Holmes and Watson as if nothing had happened, kick-starting fanfiction to the ire, I’m sure, of Doyle.

      I wonder if readership always trumps story or is that only dependant on the reaction of those with heavy parasocial relationships to the characters?

      1. I guess some of it comes from simply missing the character you thought you’d finished writing. Unlike the movies, where success breeds sequels even after the main character has been killed off. I’d forgotten about Holmes though. Good call.

  5. Absolutely. Sometimes you realize that a character would have been a perfect fit for a specific subplot or storyline, but they’re dead. Any creative decision that we make when telling a story can end up being one we regret.

    This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right decision. However, as others have said, some characters are fun to write and we miss them.

  6. Has anyone ever regretted NOT killing off a character? This goes back to the painting yourself into a corner point made earlier. Conan Doyle tried getting rid of Holmes, Fleming tried dispatching Bond. Is anyone currently the keeper of a character who is figuratively a millstone around their neck?

  7. Oh,yes. I HATE killing off some characters – I’ve sometimes had to steal myself for a week to do the dirty deed. Ultimately, I think I’ve made the right choice dramatically (the poor thing just had to die), but . . . it hurts.

  8. Hi everyone! Great responses.

    I agree with Tracy that the story is paramount. That said, there is no place for gratuitous deaths. If you are going to kill characters, it needs to be more than for the shock value. In the first book in my Taine McKenna adventure series, INTO THE MIST, I killed off several beloved characters. None of them were ‘red shirts’ since each of their deaths served the story in different ways. Early deaths revealed the presence of something sinister and unexplained, later ones increased the stakes, ramping up the danger and contributing to the emotional toll on the characters, and certain deaths provided important clues about how my hero might resolve the problem.

    Although…there was this one character…I wouldn’t go so far as to say I regret his death, but he played a vital role as confidant to my protagonist, so his loss was hard to fill. The answer was to develop new characters to fill aspects of that task and also to incorporate the loss into the internal drivers of my hero. So, while I might not regret the loss of the character, my protagonist needed to. One of my beta readers was heartbroken, complaining, “How could you kill him off like that? He deserved a better death!” And naturally, his response told me I had done exactly the right thing.

    Sometimes killing off a character can be a commercial decision. This is where tuckerising your characters (naming them after someone real) comes into play. For KAIJU RISING II: Reign of Monsters, a fundraiser was initiated to cover the book’s production. Asked to tuckerise a character in my thriller short story MAUI’S HOOK as a backer reward, I set about killing off the ‘named’ character in the most gleefully gruesome means possible. This death had to serve the story (revealing the kaiju in the opening scenes), but it also had to satisfy the subscriber. Happily, it did both. “I loved my death in Kaiju Rising!” he wrote.

    I don’t think I’ve regretted NOT killing off a character either. There are characters in my stories who I don’t particularly like, who I wouldn’t invite over for a weekend BBQ, but providing they serve their role in the story, I’m happy to let them be. And of course, there is always the chance to examine those characters more closely and perhaps tease out their story arcs in spin-off stories somewhere down the track.

  9. Good point about Conan Doyle, Tristan – he desperately wanted to be free of Holmes, but the public (and his publisher) wouldn’t let him. He must have felt he created a monster. I wonder if he ever made peace with the fact that it was the Holmes stories – and not what he regarded as his “serious” work – assured his literary immortality.

    There’s a great parallel to Sir Arthur Sullivan, who thought his operettas were getting in the way of more “important” work, yet a hundred years later, his “serious” work rarely gets played, yet there’s a Gilbert & Sullivan opera being produced probably every three minutes.

  10. I never regret killing a character but sometimes I miss them. I wonder would they have worked as a part if a new project if I hadn’t killed them off. I find myself considering what happened to their family and friends after they were killed. This kind of thought process pertains to my villains as well as my heroes. Although in my work even my protagonists are partly vilillanous.

  11. The idea that a dispatched character might have worked for another project is an interesting one, S.A. I think that’s the main reason I think long and hard before I get the knives out. I think a writer can always find interesting angles and storylines to plug characters into, but dead’s dead. Unless you’re writing about the supernatural. Can you kill a ghost? I mean, technically, they’re already dead, impossible to kill again … or… Working it through.

  12. One of my series ensemble characters will die in an upcoming installment. I really love this character, as she provides an ongoing emotional touch point for my main protagonist. She is the protagonist’s mother, suffering with Alzheimer’s. It is already difficult for me to show the deterioration of this vibrant, intellectual character. However, the trajectory is authentic and inevitable, and I’d be doing a disservice to my readers not to take them along this sad journey that affects millions of people. There is another member of the ensemble that my editor asked me to consider killing in the second book. A male, Hispanic…Nope. He’ll move before I kill him.

  13. Hi everyone! These answers are all so interesting. I actually find it very difficult to kill off characters–even the ones who need to die–and after I’ve done it, I regret it for eons. These feelings strike me even with my murder victims–all except for my very first one, whom I didn’t regret at all. I write a series so I keep thinking of ways those dead characters might have reappeared and the different ways I could have worked with them. Their voices continue to echo, maybe because I spend so much time figuring out who they are and why they matter. In my fantasy series, I killed off a character I loved, and I hate myself for it. But if I hadn’t, the story would have had nowhere to go, and it would be like one of those Indian movies where the hero is besieged by a hundred villains all at once, but they never land a punch.

    What I’m trying to do now is think the story through far enough in advance that if I like a character and hope they’ll pop up again somewhere, then nothing in my plot development will require me to cut their journey short. I wish we could bring more people back from the dead in mysteries, if only because I enjoy their company.

  14. Character death as a teachable moment for both reader and protagonist. Great depth there, Cheryl. And I can see how it would propel both protagonist and story, adding fuel. Protagonists have to run up against obstacles, encounter conflict, fight off the bad guy, or else there’s no story, but what if the thing they’re battling,can’t be beaten? That can give a writer a lot to work with, I think. And, in the case of your Charlie Mack Motown series, as readers,we know her Mom at some point will succumb to Alzheimer’s, but I don’t think we want to face it anymore than Charlie does.

  15. Larry Block and Agatha Christie both “killed off” characters only to bring them back to life at a key moment in the story. And of course Doyle did that with Holmes.

    Have any of you ever done something like that?

  16. Ah. I remember that dead/not dead plot twist in Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Worked like a charm. I haven’t use this twist yet, but it’s in the memory bank. 🙂

  17. In the first book in my detective series, I killed off an extremely old man whose heroic life and career was based on the Civil Rights lion Bayard Rustin. I think about that death a lot. But since the old man welcomed his death — and taught the main character, a newbie private eye, much about life and love — I feel good about killing him off.

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