Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There was a time in my life when the protagonists of my short stories had a worse survival rate than early seasons of Game of Thrones characters. I guess back then it seemed like the most definitive way to end a story arc. Character’s dead, what more do you people want? Just go home. Eventually, I’d moved on beyond this, adding more nuance to my stories. Endings were still a troublesome beast that didn’t come easily, but at least I no longer took the simplest way out.
For this reason, death had become a less prominent feature of my writing, while as I grew older, became a somewhat more prominent feature of my life. So it goes.
Other than a few notable exceptions, like the novel that I’m finishing up which does include death in a fairly prominent role (though that could be explained by the fact that I plotted this out years ago), I haven’t had much opportunity to explore the topic until recently. With the ramp up of both my science fiction and fantasy web novels, I’m delving into the kind of adventure whose stakes necessarily involve characters dying. Whether a bandit attack or a starship exploding, someone out there is bound to be caught in the crossfire of plot and meet an untimely end.
I don’t know about other writers, though there is the common stereotype that writers enjoy torturing characters and/or their readers, but this exercise brings me no joy. Sure, there’s some satisfaction to putting together an emotionally impactful death, but that’s a feeling detached from the characters themselves. When it comes to the characters, I have a sense of responsibility for the fictional lives I’ve created (perhaps why I might never be as brave as other writers who have no qualms in making the lives of some of their creations a living hell). What I had recently discovered, is that I have particular sympathy for the “red shirt” characters I write.
I use the term “red shirt” here in reference to how it’s used in Star Trek fandom – characters that are specifically put into dangerous situations alongside the main cast for the simple reason that their deaths will highlight what a high-stakes situation this is for characters we know will survive no matter what’s thrown at them.
I don’t use my red shirts in quite the same blatant way, but sometimes one does need a tragedy with no handy well-established disposable characters to spare. Out come these little side characters, who may be introduced a chapter or two in advance, that I know will need to meet a terrible end in order to advance the plot. I feel terrible for these figments of my imagination.
As their writer and creator, I can pull them out of the ether and into existence – give them a family, hopes and dreams, in short, a life. Instead, I’ve nothing to offer them but death.
They’re grumpy, or bubbly, or stoic, or cheerful. That’s all the red shirts ever hope to be. The reader gets a glimpse of their personality and then the window is shut.
One of my earlier writing idols, Michael Crichton (problematic views on climate change notwithstanding) was a master of these. A new character is introduced in the chapter. Within two pages, you know their sister’s name, their relationship with their father, their entire career trajectory up until that point and their short-term and long-term goals. By page three, they’re stung by a paralyzing octopus and dumped into the bay.
I wonder if the author of Jurassic Park and Westworld had similar reservation about dispatching his disposables or if he approached it more coldly and methodically. I also wonder if it would make me feel better or worse do give them more backstory, though perhaps not in the same rapid-fire way that Crichton used to do it.
In the meantime, I’ll continue serving them up as sacrificial lambs to the plot, and thanking them profusely for their contributions.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.