Today on the blog I’m honoured to feature Barbara Nadal, author of the Inspector Ikem and the Hakin and Arnold mystery series. Here, in a moving piece, she talks about killing off characters.
Cold hearted killer? Moi?
Authors are in the most unique position of being masters of their own fictional universes. Scriptwriters, poets, artists and musicians may also fall under this data gory. And as creators of our own universes we can also, completely or in part, destroy them too.
How do you go about killing off a character and why? We’ll, you got about it with caution as I know to my cost. As an inexperienced writer at the beginning of my Cetin Ikmen series I killed off a character that I liked and readers liked. It was Ikmen’s father Timur and I regret it bitterly. Even now I don’t know why I did it. Relating what happened at that time makes my skin crawl.
My own father was still alive when I killed Timur Ikmen, but unlike him, dad was healthy. He was about the same age as Timur Ikmen and shared some of his vices. But he wasn’t nearly so irascible. However, only a few months after I killed Timur, my father died very suddenly and very shockingly. And like Timur Ikmen he spent his last hours on this earth on a life support machine. Horribly the decision Cetin Ikmen and his brother Halil had to make about Timur when he was on life support was one that I had to make too. It was as if in that book ‘A Chemical Prison’, I had been rehearsing for my own loss. Magical thinking I know. But how would you feel?
Ever since then I’ve been very wary of killing off my series characters. I’ve tended to only slaughter those who are, or become, unlikeable. In ‘Harem’ I killed off a rouge sergeant called Orhan Tepe who turned out to be a massive misogynist – other characters have left, moved on, got divorced etc. I have always avoided killing them.
But in ‘Body Count’ my sixteenth Ikmen book, I came to the decision that one particular character had to go. Basically this person was in a bind and I couldn’t see any way that he or she could get out of it undamaged. Confidence was waning, he or she was losing their grip and some, albeit subtle, signs of mental illness were beginning to manifest. I could see the slow decline approaching and so I had to decide whether I wanted to put my character through that. Would he or she want to go out like that? Or would a sudden, albeit shocking, end be more appropriate.
As I do a lot in my fiction, I let the book dictate what happened next. Too cowardly to take the decision myself I watched the way the wind was blowing with this character, I shall call X. At one point I did actually decide that the slow decline was my way forward. But then I changed my mind. X was becoming pitiful and it wasn’t right.
Characters who have featured prominently in a series deserve to be treated with respect. God almighty, they’ve worked, cried, laughed and bled for our amusement! No author, or reader should just write such people off (as it were)! There has to be dignity and, in some cases, a level of nobility too. And so I decided to kill X in a way that would ensure that he or she went down in the annals of Ikmen as somebody bloody good who we would all miss.
I planned the ending of X for some weeks. Insanely, I felt guilty and had moments of doubt and even self-loathing. But by this time the plot was moving inexorably towards the death of X and, although his or her death was not essential to the resolution of the plot, X and myself were gearing up for it.
I designated a day when I would do it and I stuck to it. In the morning of that day, I resolved that I wouldn’t leave my desk until X was dead. I almost stuck to it. What stopped me was that I had to go to the bathroom to get some paper tissues. As X began to die, I wept. I really, really did. Was it just because, like the death of my father, once the process had started it was unstoppable? Or was it because I’d got to know X very well over the years and had come to like, almost love the character? Or was it a bit of both?
I achieved my goal that day and killed X without hesitation or mercy. But it drained me. In fact I took the rest of that day off and just read, which is most unprecedented for me. When I went back to ‘Body Count’ the next day I felt as bereft as my bereaved characters. Unlike them however I was glad that X had died as opposed to just faded away. X’s death had some nobility in it and I knew then and know now that he or she will be remembered for a long time in part because of that demise.
So how do you act as a cold hearted killer to your characters? Carefully is the answer. It takes a lot of thought, a lot of soul searching and quite a few tears to do it properly – which I think I’ve done. But read ‘Body Count’ and judge for yourselves.
I’d be lying if I said that killing X gave me some sort of insight into my father’s death or even some form of closure. It didn’t. But I think, and hope, that my many experiences of bereavement since dad’s death have at least made me able to write about loss in a convincing manner. Because when I killed X I really did lose someone and it was someone that I cared about.
Body Count is published by Headline and out now.