Thursday, June 19, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Kill Him Already.

We are still talking about characters. It seems like weeks and weeks because it has been. But it doesn't matter because the characters mean everything. If you're serious about writing a novel, it starts and ends with characters and what they do. Really, what you as a writer, make them do.
One of the things that bothers me as a writer is killing off characters I like. They don't necessarily have to be good guys, just characters that are interesting. I mentioned in the last post how I couldn't bring myself to kill Cole Hodges, the villain from Walking Money and later used him and Escape Clause, slowly bringing him along to not quite a good guy, but at least someone you didn't want to see dead. Once you kill a character, you lose part of yourself. But by not killing any characters, you run the risk of being stale and uninspired.

I can recall as a kid not watching the early episodes of Miami Vice. Obviously I had not yet started my own police career, but I just viewed it as another silly police show on TV. Then one night I was casually watching as the first Lieutenant, played by a character actor named Gregory Sierra, best known for his role on Barney Miller, was shot and killed by a sniper. That shocked me. At the time no one seemed to kill off regular characters on TV shows. It immediately grabbed my attention. It also opened the door for a new Lieutenant o enter the show. The actor who played the new Lieutenant, Edward James Olmos, changed the entire landscape of TV police shows and turned Miami Vice into a major hit.

In every novel I face the problem of which characters to kill. Since I am not writing Victorian romances, but modern crime thrillers, someone is going to have to buy the farm, kick the bucket, take a dirt nap, you get the idea. But it's tough for me to kill people I've heard talking in my head and seen carrying out their daily lives on the pages in front of me. But it's got to be done. And it's best if it shocks people. Get the reader worked up. Raise the stakes.

This is all predicated on the principle of making the reader care about your characters. If no one cares what happens to your characters, why will they read your novel?

I'll never forget reading the Elmore Leonard novel, Bandits, and really liking what I thought was one of the main characters. Then the man casually wanders into a men's room and is shot dead in front of a urinal. Holy cow! (My apologies to Dutch Leonard who hated the use of exclamation marks.) But the move got my attention and I realized how much I cared about the people I was reading about. He was the master of characterization. Often that came out through the dialogue in his books, but the characters all had a number of layers as well as a number of motivations. Many of them evolved through the course of the book. You would find yourself rooting for a thug who understood the errors of his ways. That is the essence of great writing.

Someone's going to have to die. Choose who it is and make the most of it. Let the reader relish the untimely end of a really nasty villain. Let them anguish over the death of a sidekick who's got a really good sense of humor. Let them squirm as the girlfriend of your hero is run down by a four-wheel-drive pickup truck driven by a drug crazed lumberjack. Shock the reader, make the reader care and do what has to be done. 

Don't be a wimp. Kill someone already.

This week's quote:

“Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”―Flannery O'Connor


  1. There was a rather colorful character I killed in my first book. I still miss Milton Polk. He wasn't all bad; he just made bad decisions. As I think about it, most of the bad guys in my books are people who came to a fork in the road and took the wrong path.

    I'm always respectful of writers who kill off major characters in their novel. Risky but interesting.

  2. Shocker of all TV shockers. Early on, we admire police chief Vern (who has a lovely pregnant wife at home) in the Fargo television series. Then, he's shotgunned in the back by Billy Bob Thornton. Nope, never saw that coming. And yes, you've got my attention.