As part of my author guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot.
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Now without further adieu here is Gail’s awesome guest blog.
And don’t forget to check out her new book:
The Grief of a Writer
By Gail Z. Martin
Faulkner (and others) are credited with telling authors to ‘kill all your darlings’, meaning to ruthlessly edit the scenes and wording we often like the best. But writers also murder their characters—a different kind of darling—and it’s never easy.
Before a book gets into a reader’s hands, the characters have lived in my head for months, if not years. Or decades. I’ve gotten to know the character inside-out—fears, hopes, dreams, secrets, scars, and faults—and curated their life to present the fraction of it you’ll see in the novel. I have to be fascinated with characters, whether hero, villain or sidekick, to live with them that long. So naturally, I get attached. And when heads have to roll, it hurts.
I’m not talking about ‘red shirts’—guards in a skirmish or infantry in a huge battle scene. When you’re writing about death on a massive scale, you can’t have a backstory for everyone. That’s when description has to convey the horror of war, the terror and confusion of battle, the gore of the slaughter. (I write epic fantasy and dark urban fantasy—there’s a lot of blood and mayhem in my books.)
Still, as Joseph Stalin said, “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We feel more keenly for the individual. So if you’re writing about an apocalyptic slaughter, make the reader care about one person, a single child, a particular family, a pair of lovers. The reader will identify more strongly with that representative individual and feel the loss more viscerally than he or she will when confronted by a list of names or a battle toll, no matter how large.
Photographers know this. The photos that drive home to us man’s inhumanity to man are the ones that distill a huge, complicated drama to the pain of a single person. Flip through the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of the last century and you’ll find war, famine, dislocation, natural disaster and other catastrophes epitomized in the face of a single traumatized human being.
Photos really are worth a thousand words, so writers have to work harder to make readers care, because we have to work our magic with words instead of the immediate, visceral visual impact of pictures. We need to make all of our characters real to the reader, but especially so if they need to feel for the character through triumph and tragedy. Getting readers to fall in love with a character who will survive and thrive is fun. Making a reader empathize and identify with a character who is going to suffer and die is emotionally wrenching—for the author as well as the reader.
Think about the fictional deaths that have stayed with you. Fred Weasley, Albus Dumbledore, Dobby and Sirius Black. Old Yeller. Wash from Firefly. Boromir. River Song. Just thinking about them hurts. I remember meeting Mercedes Lackey for the first time and telling her how much I loved her Last Herald Mage series. I said that twenty years after I read the books, I still grieved for Vanyel Ashkevron, the main character. She responded, “Me, too.”
I almost always know which of my main cast of characters will live and who will die. I need to know that to develop the plot arc. The death has to serve a purpose for the story, and it can’t come completely out of left field. There has to be foreshadowing, and the death needs to have an effect on other people.
Much has been said about the ‘women in refrigerators’ trope where the murder of a lover sends a man into a tailspin of bloody vengeance, but the truth is that we are most changed—for good or ill—by the death of someone closest to us. Maybe that’s a parent or a sibling, a best friend or a doting grandparent instead of a lover, but to tear us apart, it has to be someone we care deeply about. Peter Parker avenges his Uncle Ben. Batman avenges his parents. Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester have avenged each other’s (multiple) deaths with truly apocalyptic repercussions.
When someone we love dies, a hole is torn in the fabric of our reality and nothing—including ourselves—will ever be the same. We have a choice of what to do. Die or go on, is the first choice. After that, it’s a question of how to move forward. Will the motivation be vengeance, or something more positive, such as preventing a similar fate for others? Is the choice weighted by survivor guilt, self-loathing, or issues left unresolved between the person who died and the one left behind? Does the one who remains take any comfort from the support of a community or the belief in an afterlife, or is he/she left to grieve alone—or worse, to shoulder the blame for the death?
All of these questions factor into an author’s master plan for killing main and supporting characters. The death should mean something, even if it illustrates the randomness of fate. It must have a lasting impact on other characters, both positive and negative. In the emotional flow of the book, a notable death is either a crescendo that has been building for a long time, or a sudden, devastating switch in tone, often coming after a moment of triumph where the characters—and the readers—let down their guard only to be sucker-punched.
And yes, it hurts to write a death scene for a character you’ve come to know and care about, who has lived inside your imagination for a long time and whose life you’ve carefully crafted. If a death doesn’t make me cry when I’m writing it, it probably won’t make you cry either, so I’ve done it wrong. I’ve got readers who are still mad at me years later for killing off characters, and that’s as it should be.
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Scourge: A Darkhurst novel, the first in a brand new epic fantasy series from Solaris Books. Also new are: The Shadowed Path, part of the Chronicles of the Necromancer universe (Solaris Books); Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novels Deadly Curiosities . Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
Gail is also the organizer for #HoldOnToTheLight, authors blogging about depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, self-harm and other mental health topics to encourage inclusiveness in fandom and stand in solidarity with fans. Learn more at http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com
Find her at http://www.GailZMartin.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/GailZMartin and free excerpts on Wattpad http://wattpad.com/GailZMartin.
Epic new fantasy from the bestselling author of The Summoner. In a city beset by monsters, three brothers must find out who is controlling the abominations.
The city-state of Ravenwood is wealthy, powerful, and corrupt. Merchant Princes and Guild Masters wager fortunes to outmaneuver League rivals for the king’s favor and advantageous trading terms. Lord Mayor Ellor Machison wields assassins, blood witches, and forbidden magic to assure that his powerful patrons get what they want, no matter the cost.
Corran, Rigan, and Kell Valmonde are Guild Undertakers, left to run their family’s business when guards murdered their father and monsters killed their mother. Their grave magic enables them to help souls pass to the After and banish vengeful spirits. Rigan’s magic is unusually strong and enables him to hear the confessions of the dead, the secrets that would otherwise be taken to the grave.
When the toll exacted by monsters and brutal guards hits close to home and ghosts expose the hidden sins of powerful men, Corran, Rigan and Kell become targets in a deadly game and face a choice: obey the Guild, or fight back and risk everything.