When I’m watching a movie, especially thrillers or films with plenty of characters, I’m always looking for the ‘dead meat’ , or DM’s for short. DM characters are usually primed to attract our sympathies but are guaranteed to be bumped off somewhere before the end of the movie. It’s kind of a predictable, watch-for-it moment, but it still gets me every time. After all, I cared about those characters. They snaked their way into my heart with good deeds and decent, good-guy actions until I had no choice but to feel their loss, regardless of whether I saw it coming.
Movies reveal their DMs more easily than novels which, due to the differences in length and form, take longer to unfold and may include more subtle character detail. Still, almost all engrossing fiction has a character or two who will meet an untimely end. Remember Little Women? Louisa May Alcott breathed life into a cast of characters, made us love them all, and then killed off beloved Beth. I can think of hundreds of examples, as probably you can, too. Nearly every piece of literature features the death of a beloved character. In fact, when you think of it, we writers are a murderous lot. Fellow writers, hold up your hands.
In a recent book club meeting, one of my readers asked why I felt it necessary to kill off a certain character. I felt on trial, she was that unhappy with this character’s passing. She liked that person, identified with the personality, and hoped to become reacquainted in a future book. I explained that, in fictional terms, I was only doing my job. If you’re not experiencing real human emotions, if you don’t care about the people you spend time with inside the covers of a book, the author hasn’t hooked you.
But, all that aside, what turns a writer’s heart to murder? The simple answer is because we must. In many cases, we love our characters, too. They emerge from our imaginations in some alchemy of creativity and intense observation, and almost like children, we watch them develop. In my case, I don’t give birth to a character to see him or her die, but as the story world unfolds, often someone must. Writing, like art, should move you. Readers want to laugh and cry so that, when they turn the last page of the fictive world, they feel as though they’ve experienced something authentic.
Were you moved? Did you shed a tear? Good, because I did, too. I promise never to take a reader anywhere I wouldn’t go myself. Rest assured that while you cry over the demise of a favorite character, I did the same while bumping them off. Otherwise, I am guilty as charged.