Learning to Love the Reaper

This might surprise some people (particularly given some of the things I’ve written recently) but I find it really hard to do bad things to characters. Doesn’t matter what it is: a disease, a crippling injury, a heartbreak, a betrayal, or, of course, the big D.E.A.T.H. I hate doing it. It fails like a betrayal, even if it’s the biggest villain of the piece on the receiving end. It can take me days to pluck up the audacity, even if it’s vital to the plot. Conflict and confrontation drive most stories, and that’s hard if you’re not even bruising the odd ego here and there.
I’m not sure where my reluctance comes from. Is it because I’m just innately nice? Probably not. I suspect it’s a rebellion against having grown up with the kind of TV where a character dies (often for stupid reasons) once they’ve fulfilled their purpose in the plot. Horror stories are devils for this, especially the ones so steeped in the supernatural that literally anything can happen to anyone at any time. Alternatively, it could just be because I find creating names a bit of a chore, and don’t like throwing them away half-used…

Of course, once I finally manage to get over the hurdle and accept that I need to do a bad thing, reaction sets in, and I get a little bit gleeful about it. The longer the build up to laying a bit of smackdown, karmic or otherwise, the worse the character’s eventual fate (I know the synopsis says he needs to lose one arm, but how about both arms?). If nothing else, this proves why I should never have a career in the judiciary, the military or the demolition trade – if I have to do a bad thing, why not make it a really bad thing? The positive upshot of it all is that the character suffers a death that readers will remember. The downside? I normally feel slightly guilty afterwards.

As problematic as it can be, I’ve come to treat my reluctance as a touchstone. If I don’t feel even a teeny bit bad about killing a character, then it’s normally a sign that I’ve not been doing my job right – if I don’t care that the someone’s for the chop, then why should the reader? When it happens, there are only two courses open to me. I can either go back, and refine the character so I start to feel at least a little bit remorseful at their unfortunate situation, or I can keep ‘em around, and leave them unharmed until it really matters. I’ve done both in Shadow of the Raven and I’m not too proud to admit it.

Both of these courses can be a lot of work, but I’ve never found them anything other than rewarding. Not always at first, mind. There’s normally swearing, and lots of it, when I realise that I have to either change what I’ve already written, or perform open-heart surgery on the synopsis. In fact, I sometimes think that half of being a writer is remembering to (eventually) forgive yourself for your mistakes whilst drafting. But it is worth it. I almost killed off one of Shadow’s characters at the end of the first act, simply because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them. As things turned out, they became pivotal not only in the later stages of that book, but in the sequel, Light of the Radiant, as well.

Nevertheless, I have to get tougher. I want to get tougher. Maybe I should write a horror story. Practically no one survives those unscathed, and maybe I won’t feel guilty if I know that all the characters are doomed from the start…

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