Monday, November 23, 2009

The Killer Gene

My good friend and critique partner, author Kelly Irvin, is questioning whether she has what it takes to kill off a character she hadn't planned on killing.

Do you?

Kelly's first published novel, A Deadly Wilderness will be released in January through Five Star Gale. You can find out more about Kelly and her novel by reading a previous post here, or visiting her website.

Kelly is my guest today as she explores her own inner killer.

The killer gene

As a romantic suspense writer, I often contemplate the problem of the soggy middle in my work—and the work of others. The recommendation frequently tossed about for this ailment is to kill someone off. It works quite nicely if you can find a reason for the knife in the back or the bullet to the head that propels your plot forward. In my case, the victims are generally secondary or even tertiary characters in whom I’m not really invested or the reader hasn’t had time to really get to know so it’s not going to break their hearts or mine. A book I read recently made me ponder if I’ve been cheating readers out of a truly mind-blogging emotional, visceral experience by not allowing myself to consider the death of a major character.

I’ve written lots of murder scenes, but I wonder, do I lack the killer gene? I rarely read outside my chosen genre, but anytime Allison Pittman has a new book out, I rush to buy my fellow San Antonio novelist’s work. Her latest novel, Stealing Home, broke my heart—in a good way. I won’t say much because I refuse to be a spoiler, but suffice it to say, a tragedy occurs that I didn’t see coming until it hit me between the eyes. I found myself grieving over it even after I finished the book. As an author and writer, I was astounded by Allison’s fortitude in writing it. She says she agonized over the necessity of the death. She looked for ways to avoid doing it. But she realized it was necessary to allow the other characters to reach their destinies.

I searched my memory banks, but I could recall only a few other novels where the death of a character affected me so deeply. Karen Ball’s novel, Shattered Justice, comes to mind. Dan Justice suffers a tragedy that is unbearable for me to think about even years after having read the book. But it caused me to ask myself what I would do in Dan’s situation. Would I forsake the God I believe in? Would I seek revenge? Would I lay down and die from the sheer agony? In Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series, the death of a major character is from natural causes and not unexpected, but still devastating. Again, it forced me to consider whether I can continue to believe in God even if He doesn’t answer my prayers in the way that I think He should.

I wonder if I could kill off a character I love in order to allow a story to ring true and stands up for what it believes. It may be time to find out.

CR: I'm planning on starting a new Lisa Unger tonight.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Wow. This is a hard one. It makes me think of Holly Lisle's HUNTING THE CORRIGAN'S BLOOD, which she had planned as the first of a series. When the story demanded the death of a main character, she wrote it, after looking for every possible way to avoid it, and she abandoned the series. I think she gives the novel away in e-book form. It's a great book, and I hope she does someday follow up on it.

    And yes, when we start to write stories that have as one of their elements REAL BAD GUYS, we realize that the only way to be a RBG is to do real bad things, and sometimes, those things are painful, painful.

    Interesting post--specially for those of us speeding through NaNo!

  2. Just DO. NOT. KILL. A. PET.

    Well done, writer friends.

  3. Lyn, I totally agree that some times, the death of a main character is what the story demands. I hope Holly Lisle finishes her grieving (because I imagine that's what one must do) and gets back to the rest of the series.

    And Eileen, I couldn't agree with you more. It's the same with movies. Do not kill off the dog. Don't. I will not like the rest of the story, and the author, in the future, had better not include pets in their stories because I will suspect their motivation. I have several friends who feel the same way.

    Unfortunately, one friend doesn't. Kelly killed off a pet once. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the pet wasn't even quite a minor character, and yeah, yeah, yeah, it fed the story. But I read her stuff now with one eye closed.

  4. Actually it was two pets. I'm going to put that manuscript in Kindle on Amazon as a prequel after A Deadly Wilderness comes out. Then I can see how much readers really hate the idea. I think it gave my protagonist depth because he was so devastated over the loss of his dogs--and his fish. Ray has a new dog in A Deadly Wilderness and I wouldn't think of killing Rocky off because the children in the story love him. Of course, a child dies (well, she's dead five years before the story starts). You gotta be tough in the suspense biz . . . .

  5. Oh yeah. I remember those goldfish. Splattered all over the floor. I didn't dwell on that scene, I must say.

    Rocky has a bigger role. Maybe that's the key.

    Kelly, I hereby charge you with making sure the animal elements in your books are more fully developed.

    I don't know what it says about me, but I have no qualms knocking off people. But a dog? Ain't gonna happen.

  6. And Missy . . . wasn't there the loss of beloved dog in my favorite of all that you've written? DEAD PARENTS SOCIETY? That's the one I'm thinking of . . . and you were ruthless.

    Huh, huh, huh?

  7. I can still remember the way I felt when Scarlett and Rhett's daughter turned out to be dead after her fall from a horse. I must've turned the pages back three times making sure I had read correctly. I simply couldn't believe the little girl was dead, not bruised, not injured, not ever. going. to. walk. again.

    Now the sick part comes in: that reading experience remains one of my "highs". To make me feel something so intensely--first disbelief, then pain--what a triumph for an author.

    As for Kelly's question of faith, I am reminded of another reading high, from Madeleine L'Engle's A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. The minister grandfather when talking about railing against the pain and injustice in this world says something like: "And when we do that, are we not saying to God, 'Do it MY way, God, not YOUR way, MY way.'"

    I don't know that this provides a way out for me personally. But there was a wisdom about this character that has comforted me lo these many years since I was a young reader.

  8. How many times have you read that the best stories, the best novels, create emotion in the reader? That's certainly something one could expect to happen with the death of a person or animal the reader cares about.

    More than one teacher of craft tells us to make the worst thing happen. Well, duh.

    One of the things Maass said early in the workshop I attended (with Kelly) was that resistance means this is an area I need to focus on as a writer and an area that may help break the story out.

    Give you any ideas?

  9. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for a, not happy, but just ending. Which doesn't necessarily need to mean that the dog or the kid lives...But I agree, Peg. It's hard to go there (and so perhaps we should).