Susanna here. All week I’ve been remembering a vintage post I wrote nearly a dozen years ago, on my now retired Not-A-Blog. I called it, “Doing Murder”, and it went like this:
“I’ve been taken to task several times now for killing off characters readers are fond of. Not in every book, but in enough of them that people sometimes comment on it, and it was the rare review for Every Secret Thing that didn’t make note of the body count.
In my defense, I have to say it’s not a thing I like to do. For starters, I’m the kind of person in my private life who rescues worms from rainy sidewalks, and who captures spiders in a cup and puts them back outdoors instead of squishing them (except the spiders who were always in my bathtub when I lived in Wales, but they were big enough to carry me outdoors, and I did warn them first…) So I’m as sad as anybody when I learn I have to kill a character.
Because I’m not an outliner, I usually don’t find this out until I’ve come to know them for a while. Only once have I ever created a character knowing that I’d have to kill him, and he turned out to be the most lovable person, and when the time came, I felt terrible. First I wrote slower and slower, avoiding the scene, and when that didn’t work I tried changing things so he’d be saved, but the simple fact was that, if he didn’t die, then my heroine wouldn’t have done what she needed to do. So I killed him and shouldered the guilt, and I still don’t blame readers who hate me for that one.
Sometimes it’s not murder. Sometimes, as happened with another favourite character who was already dying from disease, a person chooses death. I fought in that case, too, but in the end he dug his heels in stubbornly and chose his moment, and no matter how I tried rewriting that scene, he would not be moved.
My characters are often unpredictable, as life is unpredictable, so though I must plead guilty to the crime of doing murder on occasion, I can tell you that it’s never done without remorse. Not even to the spiders in the bathtub.”
I wrote that in March of 2008. And the reason it’s been on my mind again this week is that I’ve just had to do murder again, in the novel I’m currently writing.
There wasn’t a way NOT to do it. He was a real character from history, and he actually died when he died, and as one of my own characters—Carrie, who's a writer, in my book The Winter Sea—tells her literary agent, “I can’t change what happens to real people…I can’t change history.”
But it’s always difficult to do, and as always, I found myself writing more slowly approaching that scene, as though by doing that I could somehow delay the inevitable. It didn't work, of course, and as with all the other times, it's left me Sad and Remorseful.
And wondering…for fellow readers, what characters’ deaths in books hit you the hardest?
And for the writers, what characters did you find hardest to kill?