Killing Your Darlings, Literally

Craig Henderson screeches onto the crime fiction scene with Welcome to the Game, a fast-paced debut starring ex-rally driver Spencer Burnham that races through Motor City and has danger at every turn. Craig chats about the idea of a false protagonist and explores whether it's pure entertainment or an underused device.

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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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Comments

  1. Linda Clark

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  2. Christine R.

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  4. LasVegasNan

    Sounds great and thanks for the chance.

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  6. Joe Titone

    Great Prize!

  7. Vaneta Harper

    Always searching for a great book to read or a movie to watch. I am looking forwards to checking this out, thanks for the opportunity.

  8. Deborah Lane

    Hitchcock ruled.

  9. Richard Silberg

    I enjoy a debut novel, getting to know the characters and hoping that I’ll have lots more future books to read.

  10. Hal Moeller

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    it sounds like a great read! I am almost finished with my current legal/crime/mystery novel and would love to have a copy to read next!

  13. Cindi Hoppes

    Hi, I can really relate to the day John Kennedy was assassinated! I was 8 years old and had returned home from school. The news coverage was on the tv and my mom was in tears… Mu grandpa had passed away the same day. That day is forever imprinted in my mind.
    Thank you,
    Cindi

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    Life is a game

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    Well now you’ve piqued my interest! (And motivated me to see/read a couple of those that I haven’t yet. )

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    Fascinating and captivating.

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    my kind of book

  21. Matthew Garcia

    Sounds fun! Any inspiration from “The Driver” by Alex Roy?

  22. Laini Pearl

    Intriguing and definitely interested in this debut novel.

  23. liv4roc

    great story! Thanks.

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    I would love to read this book!!

  25. Jeffrey B. Burton

    Looking forward to reading this one.

  26. Holly

    This is a terrific list!

  27. carloshmarlo

    Terrific list. I’ve never seen Slow West, think I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the chance to win this cool book.

  28. Taryn Lee

    Sounds intriguing, can’t wait to read it!

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    can’t wait!

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    Wow awesome,I love a great grilled book thanks

  33. jordanma

    Sounds great! I’m looking forward to reading it

  34. Kelly Martin

    Welcome to the Game sounds like it’s going to be an interesting read! Love the recommendations as well.

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    Sounds like an interesting book.

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  42. stephenorr

    I loved this article. I hadn’t previously thought about the false protagonist as a writer choice, before. Now, I’ll be looking for it!

  43. Maude m

    Interesting

  44. Elizabeth

    The false protagonist is a new concept to me, and I’m intrigued!

  45. Jeana

    I look forward to reading Welcome to the Game.

  46. Louis Burklow

    That’s a tricky question, when (or if) to kill off a sympathetic character. Looking forward to seeing how you handle it.

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  51. TJ Gordon

    I can’t wait to read Welcome to the Game. Sounds like it will be a page-turner that will keep me up.

  52. Katrina B

    added to my To Read list! thanks for a great giveaway!

  53. Suzanne Williams

    Anything to do with the motor city!

  54. Marcus T

    I love a book, or movie, that keeps you guessing. The standard single protagonist starting low and achieving greatness against the odds has a place when done well. However a properly gut wrenching twist does it for me over heartwarming conclusions, or visual shocks and special effects for that matter. Can’t wait to read the book Craig!

  55. Lori Fletcher

    This book sounds like a perfect choice for my book club. Can’t wait to dive in!

  56. jane

    Sounds interesting.

  57. Susan Morris

    I think I would really like this book. Sometimes we agonize over the killing of the protagonist we believe is the heart of the story.

  58. Karyn M. Newton

    That final shot of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho”…brilliant.

  59. Deb Philippon

    I get invested with characters, so the stories mentioned have had a real impact on me. I haven’t seen Slow West yet, but I’ll certainly search it out.

  60. wolfen37

    Interesting. It seems, though, that killing off a likeable protagonist intensifies the drama and focuses emotion on the villain moreson than a simple detection.

  61. Rebecca Wilden

    Interesting list!

  62. Nathan Glasser

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  63. arball

    Sound intriguing ! But generally prefer characters I’m invested in not die.

  64. Tad Ottman

    Can’t wait to read! Sounds good!

  65. Suzanne Sorice

    Fascinating to find out how the fact that the protagonist gets killed off right away will effect my ability to follow the plot of the book. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.

  66. Mike

    I am intrigued

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    I am always looking for new authors to read.
    This book sounds like the kind I enjoy reading. Can’t wait to read this one.

  68. Laura Flores

    The book sounds promising. I can’t wait to read it.

  69. Diane S

    thank you for the introduction to another book to add to the tbr shelf.

  70. Anne H

    I generally do not like my favourite characters to die, but am interested in your book.

  71. Julie Matzke

    this book sounds very appealing to me and will have to put it on my must read. My mom and I are always looking for new authors to read. Each year we read between 500 and a 1000 books.

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    Can’t wait to read!

  73. Lisa Garrett

    I am intrigued!

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  75. NANCY

    This is right up my alley. I feel most at home with these type of books…because they welcome me into their dark space. Bahahaha

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    I would like to win

  77. Daniel Weber

    Sounds great.

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