Storyville: Death in Fiction
So, when you sit down to write, how often do you kill off some of your characters? Is it every single story? What if I told you that you couldn’t kill anyone in your next bit of fiction? Could you do it? What would that experience feel like, what would be left, if we took away your crutch? Can you risk it all on the page without your characters dying? IF you must kill people—when, how, and why? Let’s talk about death in fiction.
One of the reasons we kill our characters, is to bring conflict full circle. The best way to solve a problem, quite often, is to eliminate the danger, the person, the threat, right? And while that vengeance might feel good, is that really what makes us come to terms with what’s on the page? Maybe, maybe not. Most likely though, killing off the rapist, the thug, the demon, the wife—that’s an extension of something that goes much deeper. Look at your character, your protagonist, and think about what’s really going on.
I think about the way that Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck ends. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to skip this paragraph, but basically what I'm going to talk about isn’t the death of a main character, but how it was much more than an act of violence. <SPOILERS> It’s the story of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers, set in the Great Depression. George is the smart one, who makes all of the plans, and looks after Lennie. Lennie is the big guy, really strong, and the reason they often get hired—but he’s also mentally disabled. Lennie loves soft things, like rabbits, and the dream they have is to have their own little place, to live off the land, and raise the fuzzy little varmints. But unfortunately, Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and crushes a small puppy by accident. Later, when Curley’s wife comes to talk to Lennie, about her own dreams, how she’ll never be an actress—the reason she flirts with the farm hands—she asks Lennie to stroke her hair, but when she feels how strong he is, she panics, which sets him off, and he accidentally breaks her neck. George and Lenny meet up at the designated place, something they worked out in the beginning of the story, in case there was ever trouble. A lynch mob is after Lennie, and the end is coming. They look out over the land, imagining what could be, they talk about the rabbits, and George shoots him in the head, killing him, so that he won’t have to suffer the pain and brutality of the mob—dying, essentially, with a smile on his face.<END SPOILERS>
So, this death was earned, right? It isn’t just about the violence—it’s actually pity and love that forces George to do this. It’s a powerful ending, one that resolves the conflict at hand.
On the other hand, sometimes the only thing that’s possible is to kill the bad guy, in the most painful, and brutal manner possible. If you show a character early in a story or novel, and that character rapes a woman, or perhaps, molests a child, you can feel the anger boiling up, the hatred and need for vengeance. Not to just kill the man, but to make him suffer, to slowly show him what it feels like, to coldly give to him what he so passionately did to another. There is a whole sub-genre based on this, it’s called vigilante fiction. I can think of F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series, where he fixes problems, and rights wrongs. I can think of the television show, Dexter, of course, and the ways that he kills the killers, taking down the serial killers that haunt Miami. If you’re going to kill in your stories, one of the most satisfying ways to do it is out of vengeance. Your audience will cheer you on as your anti-hero hunts down the dregs of society. Nothing I can think of is worse than adults preying on children, so while you won’t catch me putting those dark moments on the page any time soon, at least not in too much detail, you can bet I don’t have a problem getting retribution. What we get to see, as we follow along on this journey (if it’s done right) is the character of your protagonist—what was it that drove them to make this decision, what hell have they been through, how do they struggle with this decision (or embrace it) and how can the audience empathize or sympathize with this situation?
I’m not a big fan of killing just to kill, or maiming just to maim. So, for me, the needless violence isn’t necessary, if a story is just going to be an exercise in blood-porn, brutal acts of violence that don’t add up to something more. I can think of many examples of how extreme violence still works, making the story stronger, without reducing the narrative to slicing, bleeding, and decapitation. Without spoiling all of these shows, just think about some of the most remarkable deaths in Game of Thrones, for example. Go ahead, you know the moments. Was it the act that really got to you, as shocking as it was? Sure, for a moment, but then, it’s what came after the act, or what came before—the betrayal, the aftermath, the tension of revenge, right? Or, look at American Psycho, and how those acts were horrible, but made more so by the surrounding lack of violence, the everyday life, the clubs and sex and power and money—even more disturbing. Or Clive Barker and the Hellraiser films (based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart)—sure, there is some intense violence, but it works because we care for, or are terrified of, the people, the creatures, the tension of the box that was opened, and how it adds up to such a dark, wild ride. And of course, Jack Ketchum, and everything from The Girl Next Door to Offspring to Red, and the torture, the cannibalism—ripping a baby out of pregnant woman’s belly. That is some disturbing stuff, for sure, but those moments leap off the page, because of the way he set those stories up, the context, and the fear of what might happen next. For me, the violence, the death—if that’s all you have, I don’t want it.
THE ABSENCE OF DEATH
Take a moment, as I said earlier, and think about how your fiction, your stories, your novels, might be different if you took out the death. When I got my MFA down at Murray State University, my Pulitzer nominated professor forbade me from killing off anyone in my short stories. He told me there could be little or no gratuitous sex. And, he said, no twist endings. I laughed, and told him, “No problem.” And then I sat down at the computer and promptly started to sweat. It’s easy when you can just kill somebody off, right? I had to really think about the stories I wanted to write, and what those themes might be, the topics at hand, the lighter suburban noir that I thought might be possible. It was tough, that’s for sure. I ended up with some pretty good stories—all but one published in some top-notch places, including “Chasing Ghosts” in Cemetery Dance later this year. I wrote about fathers and sons, and how that disconnect can destroy you, eat you up from the inside out, like a cancer. I wove magic into the narratives, with Tinkertoys that launched rockets towards the moon, tiny wooden turtles that turned into totems, and hallucinatory reflections on a night at the dunes, the truth never really known amongst four different memories. I talked about a daughter coming of age, and how a father might fear her growing up, hoping his lessons haven’t fallen on deaf ears, his princess not as innocent as she once was. I wrote about mothers trying to connect with their little boys, over garage sales, and a Ouija board, searching for love, wanting to belong, willing to do anything, no matter how bizarre, to find it. Challenge yourself and take out the violence, the death, and see what you’re left with. You might be surprised. And you might tap into an entirely different audience, as well.
If you’re going to fill your stories with death, then make sure you earn it. Random violence, without any substance, is not nearly as entertaining, powerful or lasting. Find a way to resolve your story, so that the deaths that appear in your stories provide closure, meaning and fulfillment. And if you really want to stretch yourself, take out the crutch of death, and see what else you can come up with—it could take you in an entirely different direction.
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