Friday, January 17, 2014

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Have you ever killed off a character you loved?

by Paul D. Marks

Before I respond to this week's question, I'd like to thank Sue Ann Jaffarian for recommending me to 7 Criminal Minds and I'd like to thank all the Criminal Minds for having me.

Let me introduce myself. I'm Paul D. Marks. My novel White Heat won a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America a few months ago for Best Indie PI Novel. And I've had thirty-plus short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, including some award winners. I write in a variety of styles, everything from noir and straight mystery to satire and even some mainstream fiction. And yes, it is true, I pulled a gun on two LAPD officers and I lived to tell about it. But I'm a lot more mellow these days... You can read more about it on my website (

Paul D. Marks, MGM Backlot #2, European Street
In a previous life I was a "script doctor". But there's little glory in that and less screen credit. So both to be able to show my parents what I do and for my own ego, I started writing stories and novels. I also have the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to film on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos. According to Steven Bingen, one of the authors of the recent, well-received book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot: “That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his [Paul D. Marks’] name on it."   

Okay, have I ever killed off a character I loved?

Well, I've certainly wanted to kill off a lot of 'characters' I've come across in my life, but we're talking fiction here. The answer is yes, several times. Killing off a character that you like is never easy. We all love killing the bad guys, seeing them get their just desserts. But when you kill off a sympathetic character, a character that you and your readers like and, who is a good guy and good friend to your protagonist, well, that's another story. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do for the sake of the plot and the story and a dash of realism.

  Sleepy Lagoon sheet music d1
Gaby, a character in my short story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set around the time of the Zoot Suit Riots during World War II, is missing. He's a friend of Bobby's, the story's main character. And someone who knows Bobby's deepest secrets. But knowing them, he is sympathetic to Bobby and a friend to him. So when he goes missing, Bobby wants to find out what happened. And it isn't pretty. And though Gaby meets an untimely end, I liked the character. So when I wrote The Blues Don't Care, a novel that "stars" Bobby in the main role, I resurrected Gaby to return in that story, which is set previous to the time of Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne. So, sometimes through the magic of fiction you can bring back a character that you like. (This novel is not yet available.)

My short story Free Fall starts off with the main character, Rick, free falling to his death from a high-rise apartment in L.A. So I'm not really giving anything away here. This was an interesting experiment for me as both the writer and reader know the main character, the narrator of the story, is dead from the beginning. As the ground comes screaming towards him and in those few seconds before hitting, we get his story. Having started this story off knowing my main character was going to die, I didn’t have time to become too attached to him, at least initially. But, as I wrote his backstory, I started to like him and empathize with him and I think that gave the story a little more depth and interest as we realize all the events that led up to him taking this ultimate final step.

Spoiler Alert -- Don't read this graph if you're planning to read White Heat: Probably the most heartrending death of a character both for whiteheat_pauldmarks me and my readers was the death of a dog in this novel. It's ironic because just a month or two before I got this question I read something that said you never kill a dog in a cozy. Well, this book is about as far from a cozy as you can get. Still, it was hard on my audience and I got a lot of feedback on that. Some people couldn't even read those parts. And it was hard for me to kill him off. But it did make people hate the bad guy even more -- after all, who kills a dog? I don't like the idea of hurting a dog anymore than anyone else. But you do what works for the plot. And in this case I thought it would jolt the reader into connecting with the characters in a more real way. Suddenly the bad guy is really evil and the hero more sympathetic. Is that manipulative -- maybe. But isn't all writing? Still, it hurt to write those scenes and you just feel it all well up inside you as you write. It was also hard on me because the real-life dog that the dog-character was based on was a dog I'd had as a kid. Luckily that rascally dog lived to a ripe old age. End of Spoiler.

Killing off the characters in the three cases that I mention above worked for each particular story. And you do what you have to do to make the story work. But that doesn't mean you don't regret it sometimes. In one particular screenplay of mine, that was optioned over and over but never produced, I kill off the main character's sidekick buddy. But I really liked that character and since it hasn't been produced, well, maybe it's not too late to save his ass.


Alan Orloff said...

Welcome to the blog, Paul! I'd like to hear more about your adventure with the LAPD officers...but perhaps you'd better save that tale for late at night in the bar somewhere (in a country without extradition).

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks Alan. Glad to be aboard. The cops were more scared than I was... But I doubt the outcome would have been the same today. And in the end we were all on the same side.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Nice seeing you here, Paul! I LOVED White Heat and the dog thing worked very well IMHO.

Meredith Cole said...

So glad to have you join our merry band of writers, Paul! Must admit that I skimmed over the end of your blog post (because I intend to read White Heat and don't want any spoilers to interfere with my reading pleasure...)

Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome, Paul - even though you stole my ancestral birthright of a blog title (which yeah okay, I never thought of yesterday!). Fabulous post.

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome. I can already tell this is going to be fun. I had to kill a sympathetic character in the book that's in revisions now - and, no, I did not revise the character back to life. But I think my editors were a bit put out. Still, it was vital to the business of bringing the crime close in to the protagonist, so there you are. We writers have to be bad to be good...if you get my drift.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks everyone for the welcome and comments. I'm glad to be here.

Thank you, Sue Ann. Your opinion means a lot to me!

Hope you'll like it, Meredith.

And Catriona you can steal something from me some time :).

Susan, paraphrase what you said about having to be bad to be good, as Nick Lowe said in song, sometimes we writers have to be:

Cruel to be kind in the right measure,
Cruel to be kind it's a very good sign,
Cruel to be kind means that I love you,
Baby, got to be cruel, you got to be cruel to be kind.

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