Most writers are not serial killers, so far as I know. But many of us who write booky type things have Internet search histories that look something like this:
- Body stage of decomposition 12 hours after death
- Best place to dispose of a body
- Fall from second floor window fatal?
- PTSD symptoms
- Worst disease
- Worst disease skin falling off haemorrhage organ failure
- Cute cat pictures
- Torture device medieval Germany chair for bottom poking
I have friends who practise explaining to police that they do not, in fact, have a murder room in the basement- just a penchant for making terrible things happen to non-existent people of their own creation.
Writers are merciless beings. You have to love your characters. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t spend countless sweaty days and sleepless nights in their company, inventing their childhood memories and their favourite swear words and their annoying personal habits. You have to love them enough to see their flaws, to tune them up and tinker with them, and- ultimately- convince a bunch of total strangers that they too should fall in love with your imaginary friends.
But if your characters led lives devoid of conflict and incident, there would be no story. So you ship them off to the middle of an interplanetary war, or you arrange for their best friend to be shot in the head, or you give them permanent back trouble and have their wheelchair repossessed by an evil bank, or you get them attacked by mutant slime-spitting bees, or you trap them at a lengthy Thanksgiving dinner with their batshit bananapants uncle who spends the whole meal trying to convince them that Trump will make the greatest president of all time.
Kurt Vonnegut summed it up perfectly- of course he did, because Kurt Vonnegut summed up everything perfectly, from the fire-bombing of Dresden to the search for perpetual motion. He said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
If you’ve ever spent time in an imaginary world of mine, you know that I’m not exactly shy about dealing out damage. When it comes to Torturing Beloved Characters, I have earned my unholy stripes. If a Mountie were ever to find one of my research folders and have a good rummage through, she would probably shit a series of bricks and then bundle me off for immediate Recanadianization. (This, as we all know, is a process by which Canadians are treated for chronic assholishness, and requires the patient to eat pancakes with warm maple syrup and cuddle kittens for several hours each day. I’d try it on Ted Cruz, but at this point, I think he’s beyond help.)
But despite my devotion to this dark art, I have my limits. I admit it here, before the eyes of the almighty Internet and the all-knowing Bast: I am absofricking lousy at killing off characters. Abysmal. Appalling. Severely subpar.
In fact, so lousy am I at this, I will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. I twist myself into all manner of complicated knots, inventing reasons why the antagonist du jour can’t simply throw my heroes off a cliff and have done with it. I am, in fact, worse than a James Bond villain.
The fact is, I don’t like doing it. Not just because I prefer happy endings, or at least bittersweet ones. I am a believer that if a character is well-drawn, he or she will usually generate more story by being alive than by being dead.
Usually, I say, not always. Death can be a vital plot point which sends the story into new and scorching dimensions, or it can be a natural part of a character’s path, or it can be inevitable to the point that there’s no realistic workaround.
But we all know how character deaths usually play out- especially in episodic fiction, and especially if the dead character is a lesbian. If you’ve ventured at all into the queer part of the Internets over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard some vigorous screeching the deaths of a few more beloved lesbian characters. That brings the count of dead lesbian characters up to- oh, about fifty squillion. (If you want to get your rage on- I’ve heard that’s good for the skin- maybe wander over to Autostraddle to have a look at Heather Hogan’s gorgeous infographic.)
And again and again, the reasons are the same- and flimsy, and boring. The lesbian had to die to advance another (male) character’s arc. The lesbian had to die to bring attention to an Important Issue. The lesbian had to die because otherwise her partner would be too happy. The lesbian just had to die, all right?
We all hope for a world in which literature and pop culture teem so abundantly with queer women that the loss of one of them would barely leave a dent. But even if that day were to come tomorrow, my feelings on the issue would be the same: Let’s lead by example. Let’s show how much more interesting the world can be when beloved characters survive.