Killin’ Characters

I read a news story the other day about funerals. Specifically, it was about how the wealthy — especially the super-wealthy — were turning their own personal funerals into final statements about power and excess.

Now, there is a lot that could be unpacked from that story, and from its subject. Things like privilege and power … things like the growing disconnect between the wealthy and, well, everyone else … things, even, like morality and responsibility and common decency, and how folks will truly be remembered … but I’m not going to get into all of that. Frankly, I don’t have the energy or desire at the moment to dip my mind into the slime and sleaze that would lead someone to want to brag and show-off even after they’re dead. They have their own demons to deal with, and I’ll leave them to it…

No, what that article got me to thinking about is death in our stories. It especially got me to thinking about how we use those deaths: did we kill a character for a reason? Or just because we were “done with them”? What were the effects on our other characters? Did that death cause them to change and grow? Did it spur some action or event? Or was it simply another item on your “things that had to happen” list?

One of the things that bugs me as a reader is when a writer “wastes” my emotional investment in a character. Even a minor character — especially one that has been around a series a long time — can get such an investment, and their death needs to reflect that. It should have weight and meaning, and it certainly should affect the main characters of the story. Too often, unfortunately, such deaths are treated simply as necessary events.*

*One example that comes immediately to (my) mind is the almost trivial death of Barrett Bonden in one of the later books from Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series…

A death may be necessary, of course, even the death of an important and beloved character. There is no event so “efficient” at driving our plots or protagonists as a(n) (un)timely death. Hell, I kill characters all the time — characters I like, and would prefer to keep around — because that death has to happen. It has to happen, mainly, to move the character development and story forward. But it also has to happen, sometimes, when a character has “run his course,” when he or she has no more role to play. Indeed, stories & characters can sometimes reach a point where the very presence/existence of a supporting character takes away from the main characters…*

*Think Obi Wan in the original “Star Wars”…he HAD to die for Luke to move forward.

But that character’s death still has to have meaning. And the reaction of, and effect upon, your protagonist has to have even more meaning.

Try this exercise on for size: for every significant character in one of your stories, envision their funeral. Who is there? What is it like? What is said about them? Hell, if you’re like me, you’ll even write the damned thing. It doesn’t have to be long, it just has to have weight. Most likely, you’ll never use what you create for this exercise, but the act of envisioning and understanding that character’s legacy will change how you think & feel about them…just as it will change how you write them.

Oh, and when the time comes to actually kill them in a story? Yeah, you’ve already thought about their mourners and their eulogy, and your going to — hopefully! — give that death scene the weight and attention it deserves.

Addendum:

I’ve mentioned more than once that the very first thing I write for any story is the final scene.  That includes death scenes.  Until you’ve actually done it, you have no idea just how tough it can be to come to love a character you’ve created when you KNOW the death that waits for them (thanks, Oz!).

As an example, I’ve put below one of the background prep pieces I wrote for Somewhere Peaceful to Die…an “after death” note from a character (my protagonist’s father) whose death and legacy is a major catalyst for both plot and character. I’m re-posting it here not because it is good (you have no idea how badly I want to editor and revise!), but because the few minutes I spent creating it fundamentally changed my main character. It also changed how I handled the story in a many, many ways.

Riot Memories

The biggest crime of it all is that I’m not there to tell you this myself. I’ll never forgive myself for that. You and I have had our problems, but in spite of disagreements and arguments, in spite of my failures and the ruin I have made of your life, you are still the only good thing I have managed in this miserable universe.

I went to the Market that day just looking for a few drinks. I was off work, and our visit the day before was eating at me — my last words to you were pissed off Through all eternity, I can never make up for that.

I should have known something was wrong. The atmosphere was too tense, the voices too quiet and the tempers too short, for it to be a normal day. A couple of beers over lunch was enough time to see that atmosphere grow worse and worse.

Finally, I could hear a commotion at the hatch to the transit dock. Not really shouting, but voices raised in question and answer. Anger and stress everywhere.

I should have left.

Instead I went to see what was happening. That decision changed everything. That decision ruined your life more than everything else I fucked up, and that’s saying something.

You know the Market — that area around the door is pretty tight. It might be just the stairs coming down from the entrance, and a bunch of stalls and tables, but it is packed. Nothing really substantial, but more then solid-enough for a semi-converted cargo hold.

Johnny had told me the takies were coming; he said he’d heard about about some kind of raid. I guess the Council assholes decided it was time for another crackdown. Can’t leave dockside alone…no, we can’t have the poor bastards just getting on with life and business. Not when there’s money to be made from taxes and fines.

No one knew what the fuck to expect. Everyone I asked figured it would be a few stationside cops and a Council agent or two. Roust the stalls a bit. Confiscate some shit. Harass people for not having implants. The same shit they pull every few years.

An assault? Nope, not a fucking soul saw that coming.

Guy next to me had a buddy workin’ the slime farm. Got a flash over his ‘screen that the universe was goin’ ape-shit. Then the message just stopped. The last words were something about cops and guns. Dude musta been in a hurry, ’cause his message made no fucking sense at all.

Everyone knows the Council would never put a gun anywhere near Dockside, there’s just too much chance of shit spiraling out of control. No one wants blood on their hands, not when us poor-ass scumbags are nice and isolated a thousand clicks from their perfect little Station.

I guess shit changes.

They musta hit the Ops center first, because they definitely had control of all the major systems. The hatch just popped. No warning, none of the usual shenanigans, just popped open to let in a flood of assholes in black.

They weren’t storming in with guns pointed, which I guess is a miracle, but they were still ready for trouble. They were pretty fucking free with their clubs, and they used their riot shields like battering rams. I was in the back of the crowd, so I didn’t get hit, but fuck-me if I didn’t get half-trampled by people trying to turn and run.

I was thinking about getting the hell back to our pod when the shit really started. I know the hold is forty feet high, and sound echoes like mad, but fuck if that wasn’t the loudest fucking few minutes of my life. Insults and threats were everywhere. Mostly I remember the screaming…the fucking screaming was the worst. I almost pissed myself. It was definitely time to leave.

Trouble was, more and more people kept pushing in. Everyone wanted a piece of the fucking mappo goons who were trying to beat us down. All those cops musta had the same bullshit fantasy about being bad-ass special-forces types, because they came in wearing all-black fatigues and tried to look like some fantasy version of a bad-ass assassin. Fucking idiots. Everyone wanted a piece of them. I’m not small, but fuck if I could push back against all the bozos who wanted a go at those cops.

Then I heard shots.

Well, I didn’t so much hear the shots as what came after: dead silence.

I haven’t heard silence since I left Mars. You haven’t been on a planet since you were like six months old, so you have no idea what it’s like. To hear the Market go absolutely still and silent, even just for a second, was the oddest, worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Then all hell broke loose.

I thought it was bad before, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.

I’ve been in riots before, and what we had going was a normal, garden-variety riot. Some broken bones, a shit-ton of damage, and nothing more than funny stories and bad feelings. That shot changed everything. It went from riot to full-fucking battle real fast.

“Push back the mappo” became “kill the mappo” almost instantly. It’s Dockside….I think the Stationside assholes sometimes forget what that means. They’re used to being the only ones with guns in their safe, quiet Station. Well, half the Market was armed…and all of it was panicked. Shots came from everywhere, but you could barely hear them over all the screaming.

People were pushing and shoving, trampling each other to move around. No one was going the same direction, no one knew what the fuck was happening. All we knew was that it was time to get out.

The place was a nightmare. All the stalls had been turned over and everyone was panicked as fuck. Everything as far back as Snug Harbor was just a mass of chaos. I don’t know if most folks were rioting or running, but no one was gettin’ anywhere in all that shit.

I’m not much for brains, you know that better than anyone, and I’m even less for bravery. When I smelled the smoke, I gotta admit I joined the panic. A fire. A fucking fire. In the Market. That place is a death trap at the best of times. In the middle of a fucking gunfight? Anyone who didn’t get out was screwed.

I didn’t get out.

I looked back and saw the last of the cops backing out through the hatch, then the fucking thing slid shut. Even over the noise and chaos you could hear the locks seal. That left only the one way out, the hatch back into the res-holds. The Market is only three hundred feet long, but it might as well been three hundred miles. With everyone screaming and panicking, there was just no fucking way out.

A minute later the lights snapped off. I can barely make my way through that place at the best of times, but in pitch dark? We were all fucked…then fucked times two when the air-system shut down.

You don’t think about that very much, that hum of blowers and filters. It’s just part of life, literally. When it shuts down, however, you can’t hear anything else. Shots; screaming; shit crashing; none of it was loud enough to drown out the silence.

There was no air, and the only light came from a fire that was growing fast.

Yeah, we all know fire’s a possibility. We all know the only safe way to deal with a fire is to completely cut off the affected hold. But who the fuck expects that to happen to them?

The smoke was the worst. There was no circulation, so the air just sat there and let the smoke build. I musta been near the heart of the thing because it was only a few seconds before I couldn’t breathe.

Then some big bastard knocked me down as he ran for the door. I tried to pick myself up, I really did, but I just couldn’t. I was already half in the bag, and all kinds of random assholes kept stepping on me.

I looked over and some girl was in the same boat. She had a baby with her. I don’t how or why I noticed, but that kid looked exactly like you did the day your mother bugged out on us.

The last thing I saw was that kid’s blue eyes, and his hand reaching out to me for help.

Fuck, I can’t even die right.

 

Bitter & Cynical For The Win!

I’m home.

Yay…?

Getting into a real city again was weird. For all that Yellowstone’s surrounding towns have to offer, not even the most charitable could call Cody or Bozeman “cities”. That is, of course, a big part of why I like them.

Hell, half the reason I went to Yellowstone in the first place was to run away from the crowding and craziness that are starting to take over the area I currently call home. The area to which I just returned.

I almost didn’t, by the way.  Didn’t return, that is. A winter in the vast, sprawling metropolis of West Yellowstone wasn’t sounding too bad to me at the end, there. But…

But family comes first, and right now family has to take priority over self-indulgence and my introverted desire to continue running away.

The trip home*, however, did have one very big saving grace: time and quiet to take stock of the writing I did in Yellowstone.

*Thanks, airport shuttle, for having ZERO heat in twenty-degree weather!

Umm…

Ahh…

That stock-taking kinda sucked.

The plan was to write something on the order of 80,000 words while I was living in the park.

“Hey,” I thought, “there’s nothing around…I can write my ass off.”

Yes, I was that big of an idiot.  80,000 my ass – I wrote 20,000. That’s it. Shit, I should be writing 20,000 in a couple of weeks, not over the course of five months!

And you know why I got even that much done? Nagging guilt and shame had their roles, of course, but also the faith and support of my friends.  Especially of those that read my rough draft stuff and tried to keep me focused.

Hell, I don’t think I can ever really describe just how much I appreciated one friend’s…well, there’s no other way to describe it: her outright bullying.

“How much did you write, today? Nothing? Go…shoo! Go write! Now!”

Now, I’m a pretty big guy, and Billy small enough to stuff into my pocket, but I just hung my head and went to write. And valued the friendship as I went.

The time up there did, however, change the tenor of the story a little bit. That’s fine for the last third of Silence – it was intended to return a sense of hope, and of meaning, to Connor’s life – but for the first bit?

Err…

It sounds weird, but I have to recover that bitter cynicism that so colored everything – both for me, and for him – before I left. One glance at the traffic as we drove home, and I decided that rediscovery probably wouldn’t be as hard as I’d first thought.

Ruts, And The Strangers You Meet

I’ve talked a bit before about characters, and about the thought and effort we put into them. But just as important are the assumptions we make about them…assumptions both as readers and as writers.

Jumping with both feet into a an entirely new group of folks, very few of whom know each other, is one hell of a way to start testing your assumptions and judgements about people. It is, honestly, like going to summer camp…just one with plenty of booze to smooth over the awkward bits (and create other awkward bits).

For someone like me, it is also a topic of some interest to expand that thought and wonder how my assumptions about strangers affect those I make about my own characters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also weigh all these strangers and new folks for personalities and life experiences to use for my characters…

People surprise me…all the time. In many ways that’s a good thing, since it means I’m not as jaded and cynical as I like to pretend. In other ways, it’s not so good since it means I probably made an ass of myself about them in the first place.

I think we can all agree on the need to be fair and honest in those snap judgments we make, and in the value of that fairness. But to those who read or write, or just plain dream, I will reiterate the broader question I posed above:

How often do you treat the characters that matter to you as strangers? How often do you step back to examine and reevaluate the snap judgments you made about them in the first place? Remember: good characters – characters that are complete and whole – should talk to you, should have depth and demands of their own.  Just like real people. Just like the strangers you meet.

I made assumptions and a snap judgment about one of my characters in Wrath & Tears that I regret to this day. The flaw is not so fundamental that I can’t go back and fix it, but it does mark a failure on my part to let her stand and tell her own story.

I knew, after all the revisions and edits, that I had not done her justice, but it wasn’t until I started trying to think about the assumptions I’ve made about the folks I’ve met up here in the park that I forced myself to really go back and look at her.

You never realize just how much of a rut you can fall into: a rut of people, places and things as much as of thought and experience. I had fallen into seeing and talking to the same people in the same places over and over. A couple of workers put together a “movie night” last night, and I was sitting and having drinks and a good time with several folks that never would have entered my orbit back home in my usual “rut”.

I love it. As a writer I love it, and as I person I need it. I joked about this in Monday’s post, but it really is like summer camp. Or better yet, your freshman year in college. You are, pretty literally, forced into close confines and friendships with folks from far outside your usual norm.

That is an experience and a skill that far too many of us who’ve made it through those early-twenties years tend to forget. Especially when you’re of the more…ahem…introspective type.

Living With The Ghosts

Now that the writing is in full swing, I’m thinking about characters.  Every day – hell, every hour – I’m thinking about characters.  The ghosts are, to me, very real at this point…and will be until I finally exorcise them by putting words on the page.

In more detail, I’m currently thinking about how to communicate all the little details and realities of my characters without resorting to the dreaded “info dump” of exposition and backstory.

One of the things I love about writing – and reading! – is when a well-crafted and well-used phrase, laden with emotion and meaning, communicates far more than 500 words of info-dump.

Now, there is a lot I’m proud of in my writing…and an even greater amount that I know needs work.  It’s not better editing, it’s not better vision, it’s simply becoming a better writer.  But…that does not mean there aren’t things I write that I don’t look at and think, “Fuck, yeah.  That worked…”*

*Goddamned triple-negative sentences!  Maybe it IS better editing I need…and, yes, I’m way too lazy to just go and fix the sentence.  Besides, it’s more fun to write this little aside and mock myself.

Heading that list of things that worked?  Oz.

Of course it was Oz…  He is still my favorite character, and is far and away the character most personal to me.  Shit, he’s still the only character that can bring me to tears…

There is a lot to Oz: a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion.  More than I ever describe, honestly, even in the text.  He is, after all, my stand-in for those friends of mine who committed suicide…and for my own issues with that same impulse.  One of the keys to Oz as a character, and who he is as a person, is his history…

Connor describes a bit of that history to Nat in one particular scene, but that description is matter of fact and simple.  He explains Oz’s life of rape and degradation in the bluntest, coldest way.  That’s all he really can say: he has no way to express to her the truth and honesty of Oz’s past, nor to soften his life of horror and pain…the life that Connor himself barely avoided.

His statement to Nat tugs at you, yes.  It communicates something about Oz, yes.  But it isn’t real.

No, for me the real success came with what I mentioned above: that one key phrase/sentence that captures everything in just a handful of words.

“…Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner—his normal sleeping position, a hunt for the safety he’d never known.”

I know I wrote the fucking thing, so I’m pretty damned biased, but to me that phrase still captures Oz’s history, and his reality, far better than all the exposition in the world.

As I get better at writing, I’m realizing more and more that you really have to be careful with your words.  You have to minimize.  A good writer can communicate in ten-fifteen words what a bad writer needs a hundred to do.

Now, I’m nowhere near that “good writer” point…and I know – being as competitive and self-critical as I am – that I will never consider myself to be there.  But that just drives me to work and practice and strive for constant (if slow) improvement.

The best personal sign of that development?  When I go back and re-read older stuff, I cringe at my wordiness…and at the lack of focus in my vision and in my words.  That I see and understand those problems is an official Good Thing, by the way.  Well, good nowadays…not so good back then.

There was, to tie everything together, no key phrase to identify the emotion and honesty of those older characters in just a handful of words.

Shit, maybe Steven King was right: the first million words really are just practice.