Dealing with (character) Death

October 18, 2010 at 9:21 am (character, writing)

I try not to give too much thought to the way I kill my characters. The process is different every time. However, I learned this morning that there is one way I should never, ever attempt again.

I started the morning off in a bit of a panic. I was running late—again—and when I caught the bus a few minutes before it left, I wasn’t in the mood to sit down and wait out the ride. I tried to read Aurora Leigh to pass the time, but the blank verse made me even more jittery. I considered taking a nap, but again, I wasn’t tired enough for it. The only thing left to do was write.

But after retrieving my laptop, opening my story, and even turning on my iPod for emotional backup, nothing was coming. I couldn’t get the scene to come.

That’s when a character from my climax approached me and announced it was time for her to die.

At first, I was incredulous. No, missie, you still have the whole book ahead of you. You don’t get to die yet. And yet, the timing felt right—I was in the right frame of mind, the song matched, and I needed to work out the climax to make sure I had my worldbuilding right.

I gave in. The scene came surprisingly easily. This is probably the first death scene I’ve ever written in which the character didn’t fight me. In fact, she actually helped me through it. I guess she knew it was her time.

Quite frankly, the experience was awesome, and it taught me a ton about writing and character. I’ve heard good writers talk about foreshadowing character death, about having characters “ready to die” when their time comes, but I had never experienced it. Skipping to the climax let me know how I need to develop this character in the story. She and I grew impossibly close through the process of writing her death.

Normally, I take time to grieve after killing off a character. Unfortunately, all this happened while I was on the bus. When my iPod died right at the critical moment, I couldn’t rush to my room and recharge it; I had to continue in agonizing silence. When I needed most to stand up and pace and reason with my character, I was surrounded by strangers.

And when I ended the scene and she whispered, “Revise it. You didn’t make it long enough to do me justice,” I couldn’t throw up my hands at her. I couldn’t yell at her for prolonging her own death. I had to sit, staring at my tiny screen, as the rest grew silent.

I know that she isn’t a real character, that it may seem strange that I’m so worked up about this. Still, the experience speaks to me because it shows an important piece of the writing process. Writers need to be able to feel. Without feeling, we can’t bring these moments to life, can’t do justice to the death of someone we love. And sometimes, a writer’s setting infringes on that capability.

I’m not saying writers should be hermits. I’m saying we should realize that there are moments in our lives when we need to be alone with our characters. Sit with them, talk with them, and be there to hold their hands when they pass on. That’s the only way we’ll be able to face them in revisions, when they see in our eyes what we plan to do to them and tell us it’s okay.

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