“I have to get to the root of why you take all my favorite characters and kill them faster than an angry George R. R. Martin!” Said Christopher Smith on his Writing Process blog post.
I know why my characters lead mostly brief and sometimes inglorious lives. What I wanted to know was why Mr Martin is also a maniac parent. Like the gods of old who ate their children. As it happens, our penchant for literary murder stems from an event in our childhood.
No, it’s okay. No creepy uncles, who weren’t really uncles, are involved. For Mr Martin, it was Wonder Man. Apparently (and it must be true because I read it on the internet), the death of Wonder Man in his first “Avengers” appearance in 1964 was extremely moving for the young George.
In my case, my formative reading years were filled with The Famous Five, and The Hardy Boys. There wasn’t much killing in either of them, and if a body did turn up, it was a plot point and not a “I’m breathing and talking… oh and now I’m dead.” shocking event.
Then I read William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’. My innocence was blown out with Piggy getting his head smashed in and his brains floating away on the luminescence in the surf. But that wasn’t really it. Ralph didn’t really show any grief at the death of his friend (the symbol of stability, consciousness, and learning) he just basically went “Bloody hell, they’re going to kill me! RUUUUNNNN!” And then the army arrives. Hooray.
No conclusion, nothing. The. Army. Arrives.
For a while, I kept going over the events as if thinking about them would have saved Piggy. I came to the realisation that Golding killed Piggy because otherwise he would have had to have killed Ralph as well. Piggy, as the name would imply, was the fat kid who wasn’t good at athletic type endeavours and, from the point where Piggy goes splat, Ralph gets right into his cardio. Running, climbing, swimming. He does them all, free of the weight of his Piggy friend.
At that point I didn’t feel so bad about Piggy any more. He stopped being a ‘person’, and instead became a plot vehicle. My feelings for him, gone.
Then I started reading James Herbert and Stephen King. James Herbert’s characters seemed to die because it was their time, and that was fine. I’d be reading, and as the scene unfolds I could tell that this person or that was going to expire by the end of the chapter. Stephen King was slightly different in that his main characters didn’t usually die unexpectedly. The main character stayed alive for the whole of the story, and then he kills them at the end – especially in his short stories. I don’t think Stephen King writes ‘The End’ at the conclusion of his stories. He should put ‘And then they all died’ just to be sure that he didn’t miss anyone out.
Now the wheel turns and we come back to George R. R. Martin. Until I started watching ‘Game of Thrones’ I’d never heard of him. Yes, that’s tantamount to blasphemy (but I haven’t heard of a lot of authors). And I didn’t realise that what I was watching was actually a huge book series. What I was seeing influenced my writing hugely though.
It was counter to everything I’d seen or read before: the good guy, the just guy, the person of virtue would be struck down, while the scum and vermin continued to squirm their way to the top. It was just like real life! And it was compelling.
Bad things happen to good people (it would seem more often than bad things happening to bad people), and people die. Unexpectedly. Plans are thwarted by action and inaction, plots and stabbed and back stabbed with alarming regularity. There were no main characters. These were lives. Lives that were being lived out, right there in front of me (and now in the books which I’m currently reading).
That was what I wanted to put in my writing. I wanted my characters to be alive. But to be alive they also had to be shadowed by the spectre of death. And that IS a problem for me. Those characters that you like, that get killed? I like them too. I’m writing them and we’re having a good time and then I get to the point where someone has to die. It’s at that point that the character in question looks down and realises they’re wearing the red Starfleet uniform from the original Star Trek series…… and they know.
Want to read me killing your favourite character? Then check out ‘Lament for the Living‘
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