I am not very good at writing likeable characters.
Okay, so this isn’t entirely true. I pride myself on having the ability to make my beta readers sympathise with* these characters, getting more and more invested into their stories. And then I kill them off. No, I’m joking. This is not about the characters I kill, ripping out Charley’s heart in the process. It is, actually, usually about the killers, or the survivors at least.
See, I’ve noticed it particularly with my last two NaNo novels, because while they have very little in common, I wrote them approximately one year apart, and am now looking at them both from a similar perspective. It happens in my other books to. In my Death and Fairies series, I found myself referring to one of the characters as “innocent”. A reader pointed out to me that she had watched her family members die, and I said: “Ah, but she didn’t kill them.”
When the only thing defining your most innocent character is the fact that they alone haven’t killed anybody, there’s something wrong with the series. I mean, it’s not always a failing; one of my favourite shows of the past year was Hannibal and pretty much everybody in that has killed at least one person. Often, how we view these murderous characters is very much a matter of perspective, and it’s about the writers skill in making them sympathetic enough that we forgive them for it.
But I’m beginning to notice a theme. I create these characters, usually fairly young, and give them a story. I become emotionally invested in them, and they are a hero or heroine to me, with traits I admire who make decisions that I would make. And then, towards the end of the book, they do one of three things:
- Commit genocide
- Commit fratricide
- Commit mass homicide
I mean, these things just happen. Don’t you hate it when you accidentally wipe out an entire civilisation and the narrator? It’s not without reasons, of course: I only kill characters if it’s necessary, or to take revenge on Charley for killing one of hers. Quite often, by eradicating their race they are saving the world, or by killing one of their siblings they are able to counteract a serious threat. (For the record, I think I’ve used this last plot point in three novels I’ve written so far, even if only one of them is good enough to be a serious contender for publication.)
And, okay, some of them are terrorists. Well, they’d probably call themselves freedom fighters, and in most cases that actually more accurate. I seem to have a problem with authority figures, because in my novels they are frequently what has to be taken down — although that might just be my love of revolution.
Last year, I was even working on a novel where one of the main characters was a contract killer. She chose to go out and murder people for money, not because she was trapped and had no other choice, and this was one of the first things we knew about her, but I was still trying to make the reader sympathise with this character. Of course, she had her share of tragic backstory and hard decisions, but in the end, the fact remained that she was an assassin. And she had chosen to take that path.
I’m not really sure what this says about me. In most young adult novels that I’ve read, the murderers are generally the bad guys. Even if the heroes have to make hard decisions and occasionally sacrifice somebody, they usually managed to get by just by knocking the person out, and running away quickly before they wake up. This is true of so many novels that I am almost beginning to wonder if everybody is immortal. I mean, did anybody actually die in The Mortal Instruments series? At all? So often, we were led to believe that somebody was dead and they turned up a couple of chapters later, perhaps of a different species, but still technically alive.
I like killing characters. It raises the stakes, and convinces you that there is no going back from this. If everybody is immortal, then there’s nothing to fight for.
But sometimes I wonder if having my formerly sympathetic characters do the deed is a mistake. After all, I do want people to like them, and I want them to be a role model. I’m definitely not advocating killing your brother, however much you may occasionally want to.
(If your brother is the evil embodiment of the Lord of the Dance’s opponent, sometimes you don’t have a choice. But hey, maybe you could just whack him around the head with one of your jig shoes and then tie him up in a cupboard where he couldn’t cause any harm, right?)
I’m not sure whether I’m trying to say that everybody can be a hero, no matter what they’ve done, or that everybody can be a villain no matter how good they might appear at the start. Is it positive affirmation, saying that everybody has a chance to do something good although the rest of the world perceives them as evil, or is it the ultimate lack of faith in humanity, considering us all capable of becoming cold-blooded killers? Even I’m not sure, and I kind of think it might be both.
It’s also weird, I noticed, that I tend to have so many characters dying as a result of another’s wish for revenge or justice, given that I am utterly opposed to the death penalty in real life. I’ve spoken in the past about my villainous characters, and how I believe that they can all be redeemed, so I rarely have them defeated without it resulting in their redemption. And yet the heroes are so often martyred, perhaps because I unconsciously know that if I let them live, they will only disappoint me.
As far as I can remember, I’ve hardly read any books where the hero, or one of them, kills another prominent “good” character, and this is not supposed to be perceived as a negative thing. Looking at my bookshelves now, I can’t identify a single one, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t one I’ve missed. Am I making a mistake? Shouldn’t I stick to more self-evident morality, where bad guys kill and good guys are merciful?
I don’t know. For me, the most interesting books have always been the ones where I have finished reading them and been unable to clearly identify who was supposed to be ‘good’ and who was supposed to be ‘bad’. It’s so much more interesting to write about a bunch of characters who just want different things, since this creates an equal amount of conflict but doesn’t create the assumption that some people are just born evil.
A good example of this would be the A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George RR Martin (Game Of Thrones), when nothing is black and white and it’s just a series of varying shades of grey. (This turn of phrase seems particularly appropriate given the amount of sex in that series. I swear down, nobody warned me about that and after the first hundred pages of book one, I was so horrified I almost stopped reading.) Throughout the series, characters we initially dismissed as horrifically evil are redeemed, while others deteriorate morally.
But murder… Well, it just seems so drastic. In my current novel, I’m not currently planning for my heroine to kill any of her friends or relatives, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to kill anybody. She’s already killed one named character and an unspecified number of guards and the total is set to rise after the chapter I’m about to write.
Is she still a heroine, then? I mean, a lot of her decisions are incredibly morally dubious. I suppose I’m already emotionally attached to her, because I created her, but my readers may well feel that her actions outweigh her personality.
I’ll have to wait and see what they think. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve got any books where characters kill their siblings, best friends, lovers, and it’s not shown to be a terrible mistake. I’d kind of like to know I’m not the only one writing them — at the moment, I’m wondering if I might be something of an oddity.
I realised while writing this that it covered a very similar topic to one of my older posts, “Flawed Heroes and Heroic Villains”, though a slightly different aspect of the debate. It’s a sign I’ve been blogging too long when I start repeating myself, isn’t it?
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*For some reason, Dragon decided that totally said “sleep with”. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to convince them to do. I have a feeling that would definitely be a mistake.