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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

GUEST POST: I See Dead People by Peter Clines

The wonderful folks here at Fantasy Book Critic asked if I’d be willing to do a guest post about writing. We bounced a few ideas back and forth, but the one that seemed to fit best was a piece on killing characters. After all, in my superheroes-vs-zombies series, Ex-Heroes, I wiped out over two-thirds of the world’s population (shameless plug—book three, Ex-Communication, just went on sale last week). If I killed off almost six billion people, well, I must have some small idea what I’m doing.

Granted, to some folks, killing characters is no big deal. I’ve seen writers brag about how “no one is safe” in their stories. All too often in the real world, death is a random, unexpected thing, so killing off characters at random must bring my work closer to real life, right? And since art imitates life, well, that’s just further proof I’m doing the right thing. Random death = real life, real life = art. Makes sense, yes?

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not a biographer or a historian. I don’t write real life, I write fiction. Made up stories. And while real life can be messy and have no structure, fiction—no matter how reality-based it may be—needs to have an actual plan behind it. It can look like there’s no structure, but the events in a good story need to be happening for a reason. If I’m just randomly killing off characters left and right, I can’t have much of a plot, can I? Death in fiction—and this is just my own opinion of course, not some law of prose to be revered and taught—needs to serve a purpose. One way or another, it needs to be moving things forward, not slowing them down. It should be helping to establish the tone, advancing the plot, or affecting a character’s story (beyond, of course, the poor character whose story just came to an end).

If a death in my book doesn’t do any of these things, well... what was the point of it? And if it doesn’t have a point, why am I wasting words on it?

Of course, I’m kind of dancing around the obvious, aren’t I? If I’m going to kill a character in a story and really have it mean something, there’s one key element I need, isn’t there? A character.

Browse any news feed and you’ll see at least half a dozen reports of death—natural, accidental, or deliberate. Death is all around us, but we barely ever react to it because we don’t connect to it. It’s happening to people we don’t know, and that lessens the impact of it.

Killing off cardboard cutouts is fine to drive a story’s body count, but it won’t drive a plot or motivate anyone on a personal level. If I want a character’s death to affect the reader in some way, then that character needs to be fleshed out. They need to be believable. They need to be relatable to the reader. They need to be likeable, in one way or another. I’m not saying they need to be a saint or a supermodel or anything, but there needs to be a reason we want to keep following this character or it’s not going to matter that we can’t follow them anymore.

Do any of you remember Braveheart? Some of the posters had a tagline—Every man dies, not every man truly lives. It sounds a little cheesy, but believe it or not, that’s the secret with killing characters. Massacring dozens of them doesn’t mean anything. What strikes a reader, what sticks with them, is when a character comes to life. When a collection of words comes out of the writer’s head and onto the page (or a Kindle screen) and somehow turns into a person that the reader can believe in and identify with, that’s an amazing moment.

That’s when you can kill them. And then it’ll really hurt.

Official Author Website 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ex-Heroes 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ex-Patriots
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Junkie Quatrain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of 14
Read Fantasy Book Critic's interview with Peter Clines 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Peter Clines was born and brought up in Maine, he moved to California when he grew up and worked in Hollywood for a number of years. He has also been a prop master for several movies and TV shows. He has published several pieces of short fiction and countless articles on the film and television industry, as well as the recent novel 14, named best sci-fi novel of 2012 by and voted one of the best horror novels of 2012 on Goodreads and Bloody Disgusting.

He has previously written reviews for the Cinema Blend website and for the Creative Screenwriting magazine as well interviewed many famous film personas such as Frank Darabont, Paul Haggis, Kevin Smith, George Romero, Akiva Goldsman, David Goyer, Mark Herman, Nora Ephron among many others. He currently lives in Southern California. 

NOTE: Red wedding meme courtesy of Quickmeme. Book cover picture and author picture courtesy of the author. Braveheart picture courtesy of Cinemasterpieces.


Marilynn Byerly said...

Stephen King's writing advice: First you create a real person and make the reader care, then you massacre him. Two examples --

STORY A: A man is walking through the darkness, and the monster eats him.


STORY B: Fred is walking to the 7-11 at midnight because his beloved pregnant wife is craving pickles and ice cream, and she ate the last gherkin at supper. A monster jumps out and kills poor Fred.

Story B makes the act and the monster more horrific.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for killing off characters. I think some authors shy away from it and put their characters in dangerous situations and have them miraculously survive, which just isn't believable. I've just finished my first novel. I wrote a character into it who was believable, likeable and then when the time came I had her killed off, because it's what would have happened in that situation. And I intend to lose a lot more of the cast as the series goes on.

What is important is how the rest of the characters react to the death of a character. Have a reason for killing them. Use it to motivate the actions of other people. Give their death a purpose and the reader will not mind.

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