Killing Characters and Reality in Writing….

These two topics, killing off characters in your work and the amount of reality you need, can each take a half a dozen posts or more, but I was thinking about the intersection of the two.

My writing can be called “speculative fiction”: the majority is science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy and horror.  Yeah, I’m often working with the supernatural, so how real do I need it? Of course I do put some reality in there to make it easier for the reader to connect, but every day things, like sleeping, eating and using the little boys/girls room is only put in if there is a reason.

My WIP, The Old Mill, is more on the horror end of the urban fantasy-horror spectrum. Not really a “real” genre ;)

About the time I finished my rough draft of The Old Mill, I read a blog post about killing characters in horror. Pretty much the idea was, if people aren’t dying, why would the main character, or the reader, be afraid? Of course you can ask how many people died in the scariest book I ever read, The Shining (not including looking into the past), but that book was written in the 1970s, not the twenty-teens! If you finish the book and six of your eight main characters are still alive, go back and kill four or five of them…

Maybe a little extreme, but she had a point.

Suspense and tension still have a place in horror, but modern readers expect high body counts.  If the bog monster only leaves muddy footprints on your clean carpet but doesn’t hurt anybody, how scary is that? And if the bog monster only kills “red shirts”, i.e., totally nobodies that your readers have zero attachment to, is that much scarier than having to clean the carpets every day? The reader needs to feel the main character’s pain.

I’m an Alfred Hitchcock fan, so for me suspense wins out, but perhaps I do need a higher body count, including characters that the readers know and love.

When I rewrote The Old Mill, I thought about opportunities to kill various people. But never mind that, I also thought about opportunities to kill of some of the book’s characters…. ;)

That is when I hit reality.

Let’s say a friend of the main character (MC) falls and breaks his neck. If the friend was alive, the MC would spend a lot of time in the hospital visiting, which would throw off the timeline. If the person died, the MC would go to the funeral, again throwing the established plotline out of whack. OK, I could change the timeline, but everything is dependent on things happening at a certain time. It is clockwork. And if several main characters got hit, the MC would spend all of his time in the hospital or at funerals and the story would come to a screeching halt. 90% of the book would be hospital visits and descriptions of the interior of various funeral parlors. I could write a scary story based on that, but it would be a very different story!

Of course I could skip the visits. The reader then would wonder. The reason the MC is the MC and in the position he is in is because of his deep empathy. It would be totally out of character if he didn’t spend all of his time with the bereaved relatives or whatever.

Yeah.

So, are hospital visits like bathroom visits? We assume they happen but they aren’t written about. Naw.

And, of course, as authors we grow to like our characters. No, no, I can’t kill him or her! It would be like killing my own best friend! Yeah, I know, we need to get over that….

I did solve the issue in this book in a way that I hope works with the readers, but it is still a question.

So I have a couple of questions for you.

What do you think of body count in horror or urban fantasy in the late twenty-teens? Do you think having something like The Shining is still OK today? Or do we need stacks and stacks of dead people to keep a modern readers’ interest? Should we go all out and go by the rule that if the reader becomes too attached to a character, they lived too long and need to be whacked?

And what about reality? If I have a 3000 year-old curse coming back to life and walking the streets of modern NYC killing everyoen, I’ve already told you to suspend reality a bit. How far should I push it? On the other hand, people are always people….

What are your thoughts?

 

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17 thoughts on “Killing Characters and Reality in Writing….

  1. Gary A Wilson

    In real life, life sometimes just takes a person out of action leaving everyone, MCs included to just deal with it. At work for example, both deadlines and funerals are missed despite relationships that would suggest otherwise. It’s just life and writing this adds realism. I think better writers both invest in not having “red shirts” but people, some of who are unfortunate in life.

    You’re doing a horror story and I’m not very interested in these, but where the story is compelling, mostly realistic, has some scary parts with believable body counts, I can jump in and love the ride with the author. I cite the movie and book, Deliverance. Do you recall how well done that was? I was on the edge of my seat glued to each scene or page. The body count was low, but that was one of the most effective stories I ever enjoyed. Life was happening but then evil surgically arrived and left me with creepy memories that I’ve kept for what, 45+ years.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’ve only seen the movie, but I would make an argument that Deliverance is as much a horror film as, say, Steven King’s Misery ;)

      In many ways the story dictates how death of characters is handled, including body count. And the same with relating it to real life. In real life I’ve missed funerals of people I care for, but usually because of a very good reason. So in this story, if the main character missing a funeral, there needs to be a very good reason.

      For The Old Mill, it is in some ways liek how you described Deliverance – life is happening. There is talk about the MC’s work ,his day-to0day life, his new relationship with actually a few different people, including, perhaps a new girlfriend. He talks to old friends, etc. But his eyes are open to things going on around him. And they become deeper and deeper. He gets more involved. But life is still happening. He is going to work, he is working on his relationships, etc. And then something happens that can’t be explained. He’s at the local diner and the village eccentric tells him they are entering a new “time of dying”. etc.

      One thing about a good book is the balance between those little details of reality and the places where those details are completely skipped. Just as you don’t notice that the MC hasn’t used the bathroom, so you might not notice other things that we do in real life. Knowing that there is a balance and finding it are two different things ;)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Yep, I get it. I am not a fan of violence for violence sake, nor high body count just so there is a high body count, but sometimes… I had a very low (almost non-existent) body count in The Halley Branch and in the first draft of The Old Mill. My two fantasy novellas have almost non-existent body counts, one or two bad-guys at the end. I will never write a lot of blood for blood’s sake,but sometimes the story line does demand a little than just suspense. That is part of where I draw the line between horror and urban fantasy, though it isn’t a perfect fit – some horror has very low body counts and some urban fantasy very high. Having people disappear depends on story line. I do have two characters disappear in The Old Mill (you find out about them later), an it can work in some contexts, but I’m not sure if it would be possible to do an entire book that way, unless the evil-that-is-to-overcome does just that – makes people disappear, perhaps taking them prisoner or disposing of them in a way that is hinted at throughout but not discovered until the end.

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      1. Chelsea Owens

        You remind me of the time we tried playing D20 Modern Dungeons and Dragons. In the traditional games, we didn’t mind slashing through Orcs and having party members be revived or reborn by Clerics. In the Modern version, we were left scratching our heads over what to do with human security guards.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          lol, I never played the modern version, but I can imagine. In The Fireborn I do have the main character agonize over killing a human in a heated battle. Even though that book is is about as comic-book action as it gets, it still has that layer of reality were it immoral to kill…

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            1. trentpmcd Post author

              You are right, and movies are even worse. I remember a Barney Miller TV show where a detective kills two bank robbers (doesn’t happen on screen – this is a live taped show with one set). It really rips him apart. Perhaps the most realistic depiction of the aftermath of a death of any TV cop show ever. I wish shows did that today instead of “We got him! High five!” and only happy feelings…

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                1. trentpmcd Post author

                  I know it pops up in psychological circles how desensitized kids get with death with violent video games and movies and such, but I don’t think there is any real agreement. Of course my book is pretty far from a children’s book, so at least I don’t have to worry about that ;)

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  2. mwlange

    I’m a fan of horror, and I’d have to say that some of the best stories in the genre have little to no body count. Death doesn’t have to be the only source of fear and dread. In some cases, I’ve seen it weaken an otherwise strong story.

    I don’t know why body counts have permeated modern horror. Most people I’ve met who are fans at least appreciate Poe, Jackson, King, Lovecraft, and many other artisans of older works. If your story is scary enough, a body count won’t improve it much. The Shining is a great example of that. And people young and old still reference it today as a gold standard of gothic horror.

    With regards to how far you can push reality, I think it depends on story consistency. As long as you’re not breaking your own rules, you can get away with anything.

    I don’t envy the decisions you’ll have to make. I do wish you the best of luck as you finish off this book. It sounds like something I’d like to pick up when it becomes available.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I agree, in the classics high body count is not needed. I think in ways horror as a literary genre followed horror in film. In film, horror used to be thought of as low budget/high body count, though it is much more mainstream now. Perhaps people who grew up watching those movies wanted that in their written fiction as well. Just a guess.

      What I have decided works for me is that it really depends on the story. The Shining is three people trapped in the mountains, so if there is much death, it won’t last long ;) The Stand is post-apocalypse, and includes that apocalypse – if 90% of the world’s population dies, there is of neccesity a high body count…

      I do think a trend of a lot of brutal murders is a bit silly. Maybe some people like it, but if people are killed for shock value or to satisfy (literary)blood-thirsty readers, it’s most likely not for me.

      With reality, no matter how much fantasy/magic/whatever I put into a story, I do try to keep the characters real people. So my main character would take time out to go to the funeral or whatever. And as you said, the story dictates how deep the reality runs. In a slightly cartoonish high fantasy like my novella The Mad Quest, I can gloss over some of the reality (funny – I talk more about meals in that story than in any other that I’ve written…) while a gritty horror story needs a layer of reality to make it scary – it needs to seem normal so the abnormal is in higher contrast.

      Thanks for the discussion.

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  3. robertawrites235681907

    I don’t really like books with a lot of murder in them but that does seem to be the way horror has evolved, even books written by Stephen King. I sure killed a lot of people in Through the Nethergate so at least I got this right [smile]. I seem to remember quite a lot of casualties in Fireborn too.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I did have a pretty high body count in The Fireborn, but I had to since it had both a “zombie apocalypse” side and a military side, though it was firmly in the urban fantasy genre. But there were only a few named characters killed. The Halley Branch had very few casualties (don’t want to give too much away ;) ). The first draft of The Old Mill didn’t either, even though it is closer to horror than the others (3 total, including 2 “bad guys”). I added some, but not a lot. Of course, I am still drafting ;) Truthfully, I think a lot depends on the story. The Fireborn had a lot more than The Halley Branch because of the type of story. I’m assuming the Nethergate has a higher body count because of the story, not just because you wanted it to fit in the modern world.

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