On Killing Characters: or, the parabolic functions of SFF

It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.

Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.

All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:

(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)

What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.

If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.

Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.

No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.

I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”

Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.

A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?

I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.

But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.

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