To Kill Or Not To Kill: That Is The Question!

Many of you probably remember the Artemis myth. She’s one of the most widely known of the Greek goddesses. Her Roman counterpart is Diana. Artemis is a departure from the maiden/mother/crone depiction of women in that she was a virgin goddess. Women who attended her also had to be chaste. What she’s probably best known for, other than tending to the moon with her brother, Apollo, is righting wrongs.

Years ago when I was in Soundpeace, a metaphysical bookstore in Ashland, Oregon, I plucked a silver pendant off its black velvet backing. It was about an inch-and-a-half in diameter and had a woman with a dog by her side and a bow behind her, carrying a light. This was long before I’d studied much in the way of mythology. All I knew was that I was drawn to that pendant and had to have it. It’s been around my neck for most of the thirty years or so since then. In the intervening years, I’ve come to recognize my pendant goddess for who she is: Artemis.

So what does that have to do with my life? Or with writing? To answer the first question, I’ve always had a finely etched sense of what’s right and have fought many a losing battle because I didn’t want to see the other side, mostly comprised of big businesses like pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies win. While my ideals may have been admirable, retrospectively, I never had a chance. The magic of writing is you can make everyone an Erin Brokovich. Remember? She took on a big corporation that was polluting water and won the largest class action suit ever.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that in real life things like that don’t happen very often, which leads us to the answer to the second question.  In fiction, they happen all the time. I think that’s why people read. At least it’s why I do. To transport myself to the world of the possible. To have heroes I can root for.  A skilled author can scare me half to death that things won’t go well, even when I know in my heart of hearts they won’t kill off the protagonist. Or, maybe they will. George R.R. Martin is quite good at that. Though, I must admit I didn’t like the series nearly so well after Eddard lost his head. It started feeling like a Greek tragedy after that.

There is a fine line to who to kill off in a story so you don’t alienate your readers. That’s something I struggle with. I might add maim and traumatize to kill. There are lots of ways an author can stress his/her characters. Each stressor adds depth to a character, but only if you can tie the wounding back in with how the character acts after it happens. The character shouldn’t overreact, but they can’t underreact either.

To put a finer point on things, it’s easy to kill off a character no one liked in the first place. Face it, even the author didn’t particularly like them which is why you, the reader, saw them as vapid and shallow, too. This is why drawing three-dimensional antagonists is just as important as creating fully developed protagonists. The reader has to feel something when a character dies or gets hurt—other than relief because the character seemed superfluous and annoying anyway.

To the extent fiction mirrors real life as much as possible, we can relate to it. That’s one of the reasons I set my novels in “real world” settings rather than a more typical, high fantasy world. I want that dystopian, near-future to feel real enough to make readers think. I suppose that’s my Artemis complex creeping in, but there’s not much I can do about that. One of the reasons many of Stephen King’s books work so well is they start out feeling fairly normal. The creepy, crawly elements often don’t intrude till near the end, like in Bag of Bones, for example. I don’t think the ghouls came out until the last fifty pages. By then I was so caught up in the reality of the world King had drawn—because it was my world—the addition of fantastical elements felt perfectly logical.

What have some of your favorite books been? Why?

What drew you in and made the world feel real?

Who are some of your favorite fictional characters?


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