Killing Your Darlings, Literally
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Everyone who’s old enough remembers where they were when Kennedy was killed. The mention of Elvis and Lady Diana Spencer provoke similar recollection. Why is that? Simply because they were famous? Or because they touched the lives of so many? Maybe your favorite Elvis song, played continuously on a loop, woke you from a ten-year coma. I’m not saying these people aren’t significant but it’s interesting how folks can come to care about, to hate, or even love, people they’ve never met. It’s this uniquely human trait that provides us, the fiction-writing fraternity, with gainful employment.
Who lives, who dies and when? They’re questions most of us try not to dwell on much of the time. But if you’re a writer of crime thrillers, they need to be at least lurking in mind most of the time. People die. I don’t like that either—in life or my work; I’ve known my favorite characters longer than anyone. I conceived and birthed them—my babies, my darlings. I had to kill more than one in Welcome To The Game. Some had it coming for a long time. Others neither had it coming nor saw it coming. Sometimes I was surprised by the lack of warning I got myself. That’s my responsibility to you, the reader: To keep you on your toes and drive it home that no one is safe.
The early and unexpected death of a character who the viewer or reader has come to think of as a protagonist takes the fulfillment of this responsibility as far as it can go. Use of the false protagonist technique is not without its dangers; your reader, grief-stricken and frustrated, might even find solace in the pages of another writer. Handled well though, it can dramatically enhance the peril and stakes for the character or characters who pick up the mantle of the deceased. If you’re George R. R. Martin, and your main protagonist killing is so prolific that it’s become a meme, then you can even turn the technique into a trademark.
I’ve put together a little platter of slam-dunk darling deaths for your delectation. First a caveat, one so obvious it pains me to say it: Spoilers ahead.
Psycho (Movie, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)
Unlike the 1960 film, Robert Bloch’s excellent novel opens from the point of view of Norman Bates. It’s Hitchcock who chose to establish the doomed Marion Crane as the protagonist. Even though she’s a thief, we can’t help but root for her to come through with some sort of a happy ending. To kill off your protagonist back then was a shocking, even controversial, thing to do. And not only was Hitchcock a risk taker, but he had courage in his convictions; he forbade movie theaters to allow late admission as he felt Crane’s early character-establishment scenes were so important.
Desperation (Novel, Stephen King)
This is one of King’s lesser-known works. It contains, in my view, a perfectly-executed example of the technique. We begin from the POV of New Yorker Peter Jackson, driving across the Nevada desert with his wife. Although others are being introduced, it seems Jackson is the character we’ll be spending a lot of time with, so his murder intensifies the peril faced by the remaining characters really effectively. And the timing is excellent; we’ve become sufficiently invested in the guy to care, and to care about his wife being widowed, but not so much that we feel resentment at the hoodwink. So, we sit up and move a little closer to the edge of our seats—but not off them. King makes it look effortless.
The Final Problem (Sherlock Holmes Short Story, Arthur Conan Doyle)
Conan Doyle felt his Sherlock Holmes stories were mere hack work, distracting him from loftier literary goals. So, he propelled his tweed-clad sleuth off a big waterfall. Not only did his readers really not like it, but they really let him know. One particularly rabid Sherlockian groupie began her letter of complaint to the author with, “You beast!” After eight years of this wacko sentiment, Conan Doyle capitulated, resurrecting Sherlock to face The Hound of the Baskervilles and other, frankly superb, adventures. Besides the questions this affair raises about authorial autonomy, it’s also a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger effect at work, in that Conan Doyle, and only Conan Doyle, is strangely incapable of recognizing the quality of his creation.
Slow West (Movie, dir: John Maclean)
Sixteen-year-old Jay Cavendish turns his back on wealth and privilege to embark on an odyssey, fraught with danger, across 19th-Century frontier America, hoping to be reunited with his love. How can we not buy into that? His death is shocking, and all the more tragic because it’s in the moment of his dying that we discover the love wasn’t mutual. A well-made, original, and nuanced movie.
No Country for Old Men (Novel, Cormac McCarthy / Movie, dir: Joel & Ethan Coen)
McCarthy sets us up to believe, to hope, that Llewelyn Moss will be with us at least until the end of his beautifully-written novel. Moss is a sympathetic character, one who makes the fateful decision early on to return to the scene of his crime, the theft of the cartel’s money, in order to bring water to a dying man. And he has skills that give him at least a fighting chance against a monster like Anton Chigurh. So it’s a shock when he dies two-thirds of the way through the book. Yet throughout, there’s been so much death, none of it by natural causes, and most of it visited on the innocent—so why should we be so shocked and deflated? McCarthy’s been reminding us, through Chigurh, of this way of things from the start. He’s like that cold-hearted parent telling a child whose beloved pet has died: Now do you get how life is? The Coens came in for some criticism for not even showing Moss’s death. But they were merely being true to the text and its message; it’s just another death, among many, going on every day in that world. Perhaps now we understand.
Executive Decision (Movie, dir: Stuart Baird)
We go from timeless excellence to retro schlock in this underrated action flick from the nineties. Tension ramps up so relentlessly it’s like a lesson in action screenwriting, helped by an A-list cast bringing their A game just to keep up. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t—it’s fun. The reason it’s here, and in such distinguished company, is because it’s also a brilliant example of the use of star power to work the false protagonist angle. Steven Seagal was at the height of his fame back then and anyone who says they saw his early death coming should be impeached for kidding themself.
*Author Photo Credit: Rosie Collins
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