Thursday, 23 February 2017

Slaying Your Darlings by Steve Gladwin

Sometime last summer I planned a murder. Before I ever carried it out I had – like anyone with such an exacting task to perform - to give careful and meticulous thought to the method. I could not for example just dive in with a sudden slash to the throat or hand over the cup of deadly cyanide with my most winning smile! To begin with I would have to introduce myself to the victim, ingratiate myself with her and then alas having gained her trust, move in for the kill.

Luckily I am not really a murderer and reading about it in a lot of detective stories is hopefully as close as I come. But what I was planning at the time did feel like a murder. What I was actually planning was a literary death and it was made all the more poignant that in order for her to die, I would first have to introduce my character, have me and my potential audience warm to and grow accustomed to her and then kill her off in a rather wasteful, almost casual way.
Well as the book with my lost, brave heroine is currently trying to bag an agent, I live in the usual hope of success we writers have and therefore don’t want to give any more details in case she’s up there jostling for position with J.K. and David Walliams some day. So her name and the actual nature of her demise will in the meantime remain a secret.

The scene of my crime (Sssh)

But planning,( and sadly executing) a literary death, did get me to thinking both about the effect of the death of a character and the various ways in which we do it.

I wrote a version of this blog before Christmas and in it I talked about how two literary and one movie deaths had had such a great effect on me. Realising that the final result was perhaps veering a little too much away from a children’s book blog, I’m going to leave leave Inspector Morse and the character of Kevin Laine in my favourite series of fantasy books, Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderful ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’ for another time. Instead I will again weep long and copious tears about the death of Boromir in the film of The Fellowship of the Ring. Before I do however there is a connection between the second and third of these because Guy Gavriel Kay actually spent a year as Christopher Tolkien's assistant on ‘The Silmarillion’.

Anyway I’m a fairly hardy and hard bitten male, if a little emotional in places, ( oh well alright - a lot!) but every time I see Sean Bean shot through with those massive Uruk Hai arrows like some fantasy St Sebastian – well I’m all over the place. I’m sure mostly it’s the bloody soundtrack, as it so often is, but I have a further theory. Basically we became so used to seeing Sean Bean not die in every episode of Sharpe that we can’t quite believe that he does and this really is the end. I’ve never got that from the book itself or the much loved radio adaptation, but here I get it every time and please doctor what is the cure?

Of course there doesn’t need to be one, does there, for where's the harm in letting our emotions over-rule our ‘don’t be so soppy’ inner castigator. Of course we need to do the whole cathartic experience far more often than we do, and if more of us did and had, we would surely be a far healthier and happier world.

The death scene of course is a long and for the most part honourable tradition, particularly in the theatre where it can be as hilarious as Bottom’s stop-start approach in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in most operas where dying sopranos can somehow miraculously summon enough breath and life to give it their last all in a final belter of an aria. There are of course many very sad death scenes, Hamlet’s adding to the already accumulated pile of stabbed and poisoned bodies in the castle at Elsinore, or Cleopatra’s making an asp of herself in Antony and Cleopatra are two that spring to mind, and in Love’s Labours Lost the whole joy of the imminent uniting of four pairs of lovers is unfortunately compromised by the death of the King of France, (thoughtless or what?) The whole mood of the play darkens and maybe that’s why Shakespeare needed the now lost sequel, Love’s Labours Won.

Like a great many people I imagine I was transifixed by the BBC’s recent tribute to Terry Pratchett -Back in Black’, and those of you with eighteen month old memories may remember that he featured in my very first official blog here.

Anyway perhaps I need to give a spoiler alert here to anyone who hasn’t read Terry Pratchett’s last book ‘The Shepherd’s Crown. Are you looking away? Good.

At the very beginning of the book a much loved character, long associated with the author himself is killed off. It’s both unexpected and rather shocking,( although you get enough of a clue if you’ve read the dedication first). It’s also very brave because as the documentary makes out, it was his last book and he knew he was nearing the end. Likewise the character, who’d known it for a long time, so all the preparations made for the literary death were as meticulous as both a fan and reader would expect.

What makes a character someone you simply can’t kill off? I mean look at Stephen King and all the fuss that Misery Chastain’s greatest fan made in ‘Misery’. Then of course there are those characters who return more or less by popular demand, even if the reader has seen them in his or her mind’s eye hurtling to their death from a treacherous waterfall whilst grappling with their arch nemesis!

However when a long running popular character is killed off in a children’s book, there is a different level of responsibility, because we have to look to the possible shocked sensibilities of someone at an impressionable age. This I found out to my cost after my then dentist had bought ‘The Seven’ and given it to her eight year old to read. I wondered at the time why she didn’t seem as communicative as she examined my mouth and was maybe was just slightly rougher. It turned out that her eight year old girl had been somewhat traumatised by the section in which my hero Tony talks to his mum’s ghost. The scene is deliberately casual, but is also - for obvious reasons - somewhat emotionally charged. Tony’s mum looks like his mum and he can even touch her, but eventually she begins to fade as the moon does. As the book was originally targeted at 8-11 year olds but eventually re-assigned to Young Adults she maybe had a point. (At least this wasn’t Marathon Man!

How often, I wonder, does a writer know that he or she will have to kill off a character? How many of us might even find ourselves wielding the savage pen or keyboard without even being aware that we were intending to do so?
And if we do decide to off our favourite, might there still be the glimmer of a second chance of an EastEnders type miraculous revival, or in the case of Dallas and the famous Bobby Ewing shower scene, the dream of a whole series.

Who knows the answer to some of these questions, because for the most part they remain quite rightly a mere gleam in the imagination of the writer. But Should any of my characters encounter me hanging over the page with a certain glint in my eye, be very scared!   

The unkindest cut of all

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in MInd'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Susan Price said...

Good luck with your murder, Steve. I'm planning a couple of nasty murders at the moment - one's a very unpleasant character who almost deserves it, the other an innocent.

You just have to steel yourself to it, don't you? The story dictates it and stands there, tapping its foot, waiting...

It's odd the way my nearest and dearest get all white-eyed and nervous when I describe my murder plans to them. If anything, I think a writer's relatives are safer than most. One thing planning a literary murder brings home to you is just how grisly and hard to get away with real murder is.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Sue. I'm afraid in the end it was more of a theatrical accident but it still broke my heart a little. Good luck with your own nasty murders! Love the idea of a story being impatient. As for giving away your intentions to loved ones - be scared, be very scared.