Monday, October 4, 2010

Motivated to kill




Early in my writing career I realized I was good at killing characters. In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m halfway through chapter six and have already killed two children, a woman, and several men . . . though I’m thinking of resurrecting the children and carrying their story through to the end.

Why bother to write in characters you’re going to kill off? It’s because there was a war going on in 1914 -18 and also an influenza pandemic. Millions of people died. As I’m writing in a specific historical period, to set a story then and ignore the tremendous loss of life at the time, would seriously undermine my credibility as a novelist writing in the historical arena.

To demonstrate how death affected a normal family in the past: in the photograph, which was taken about 1916. It’s a portrait of my grandfather and his family at the time. Missing is the eldest son, who had died from an illness not long before. The seaman at the back went down with his ship in the battle of Jutland, at the age of seventeen. The lady (my grandmother) was accidently killed when run over by a motorbike and sidecar in 1939. She was trying to cross a main road. By that time she was so crippled by arthritis she could only walk slowly. I never had time to get to know her. My grandfather and the sons on the left and right of the picture just survived into old age. So did the younger boy at the front, who is my father. So out of a family of seven, only four survived to live the proverbial three score years and ten.

The events of war and epidemic itself would have affected social history at the time. There would have been food shortages. Family members would have died, children orphaned. With such heavy losses of single men at the time, many more women would have remained single and childless. Quite simply, death can change the course of many characters’ lives, demolish a plot line and create another story. I like this concept because it works well in saga writing. Everything is fluid as several paths are opened for you.

Facts such as war and flu epidemics can be worked into stories as part of the plot, or simply arise by using them in a dialogue between characters, to add historical authority. To leave them both out in 1914-18 would be unthinkable, because it would rob the story of credibility.

Events like the above bring many changes. Apart from changes in family and fortune, there are also structural changes. War forced women into the workforce, doing the jobs that men used to do. Many of them liked earning their own money, and enjoyed the awareness of feeling that they were skilful and intelligent enough to work outside of the home, housewife and baby. Some resented going back to their former roles of nurturing, and rights for women took a new turn.
Whichever way you look at this, WW1 did bring a new maturity of thinking and awareness to woman.

The role of death in a book should serve a purpose. Death touches the emotions. It might simply be there to satisfy reader outrage. If it’s a villain being disposed of, then readers get closure in a way they probably wouldn’t in real life. One reader told me she was glad I made the villain suffer, and if he hadn’t been a fictional character she would have gone and danced on his grave. This made me realize that revenge is still alive and kicking, as long as somebody else swings the cudgel.

Death also brings change. It’s a turning point. There is nothing like a deathbed scene at the beginning of a book to suggest motivation, and to evoke tension between characters. Grandfather dies surrounded by six loving daughters with expectations. The sisters had always got on well together. Only one inherits!

Now . . . think of the passion that would churn up . . . the recriminations and accusations, the soul searching. To give the pot another stir the legatee could be a nun, who can only inherit if she gives up her vocation. A whole series of books could arise from killing off grandfather when the whys and wherefores are examined.

Disposing of children is riskier. In the past, bigger families were the norm, and it was expected that some children would be carried off by disease. In Victorian times a flourishing industry grew up around funerals, with its own set of protocols, since the Victorians wallowed in sentiment. Ordinary workers paid money into a funeral fund, so there would always be money to bury a family member – something that was common. My own mother came from a family of 11 children. She helped her mother lay out 3 of her younger siblings who had died before she was 14, and was obliged to take up employment as a maid in London.

You can foreshadow the death of a child by planting clues, so the reader expects it when it happens. In one book my victim was sickly all the way through, so when a childhood disease carried him off, it was expected. However, I’ve also killed off a child to end a dynasty, and simplify matters for the next book in the series. I made it a heartrending end because I felt guilty for doing it.

Killing animals? Approach this with caution. In one of my books I had a dog named Spot. Spot was stolen by an itinerant worker; who did bodily harm to a female character along with several of his companions (remember motivation?). The female character met a sticky end by jumping off a cliff in a fit of depression to end her suffering. Her loving husband avenged her by going after the men who did her wrong (5 of them, I recall!). He murders them all in cold blood and breaks the dog’s neck!

Gasp!

Well okay . . . he did break the dog’s neck – but only in the original draft. Every member of my critique group hated the dog being killed. I promised to rewrite the chapter and bring Spot back to life. And I did. I eventually left the dog on the doorstep of a farmer with several kids, and a wife with a generous, loving heart.

Funny thing was, my group didn’t mind the male protagonist carrying out five murders in cold blood. Why? Because it was properly motivated. It was retribution for an unspeakable act against an innocent. It served a purpose and they deserved it.

There was no motivation for killing the dog!

3 comments:

Vonnie said...

Oh dear, Janet. I have a major problem in my present romantic suspense where I kill off a guard dog. My critiquers have gone crazy about it and say, "No! No!"

But it adds tension and adds a twist to the plot which is revealed later on so...I really want to kill off poor old Peaches. (His name because he is so obviously NOT a peachy kind of guy).

Now you are making we wonder if there is another solution to the death of Peaches.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Janet,
That was a marvelous blog.The first world war is my favourite era to write about.
My husband's great uncle died in the battle of Jutland, I don't know what ship he was on.

Regards

Margaret

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