Terry Shames, author of A Killing at Cotton Hill and (just out) The Last Death of Jack Harbin, is my guest today. Her books are set in small-town Texas and feature ex-chief of police Samuel Craddock. Terry lives in Berkeley, CA and is Vice President of Norcal Sisters in Crime and on the board of MWA Norcal. www.Terryshames.com.
I’m happy to have a chance to do a guest blog for Criminal Minds for author Susan Shea. The topic Criminal Minds is addressing this week is whether as an author I’ve ever had to kill off a character I love.
The short answer is no, but that isn’t saying much since my second novel just came out, giving me only two novels to draw from. I have, however, read several books in which characters I loved were killed, and I think there is a right way to do it. When a best-selling author killed off a character I loved, a few years ago I felt betrayed. Asked if she had any remorse about it, the author said absolutely not. The long-term arc of the series demanded a dramatic change and someone important had to go. I understand her reasoning, but understanding was cold comfort.
The first time I ever read a book in which the main character was killed off was To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. She wrote the book in a response to the anguished loss of a whole generation of men in World War I. The book brought home how wrenching it is to suddenly have a loved one disappear. In Woolf’s case, although I was shocked, I didn’t feel cheated.
Why did I feel betrayed by one writer and not the other? Both writers had good reasons for killing off their characters. Maybe the answer lies in an interview I read recently. Author Mark Pryor said of his third novel, The Blood Promise, “I know some people are going to be upset by this, but one of the major characters doesn’t make it. I’ll be asked, I suspect, why I’d kill off a major character but the truth is, that’s how the story unfolded. And believe me, Hugo will battle with the sadness and distress of that event as much as anyone.” The italics are mine. In Woolf’s novel the reader has the second half of the book to mourn with the characters left behind. In the mystery novel I mentioned earlier, the death happens suddenly at the end, leaving hardly any time for the reader to process the distress of the event. In a way, it feels like a contrivance. Those who watch TV series have gotten used to having a key character die or disappear because the actor’s contract has run out. It’s hard to avoid the feeling those disappearances are contrived.
In my books, several of my characters are “geezers.” Sooner or later I’m going to have to let somebody go. In the third book of my series, which I’m currently writing, one of the characters is starting down that path. Even though the character doesn’t have much going for him, I feel a certain amount of affection for him, and want to give him his proper due before I send him off. It’s the author’s choice how to kill off a beloved character, but when I’m up against it, I’ll remember my feeling of betrayal, and give readers a chance to mourn properly.