Why I like to kill my friends on a semi-regular basis

Hello again, everyone, and apologies for the long spell incommunicado. Numerous events have eventuated, including a weekend spent in Berlin, home of more leather-boot shops than you could shake any reasonable length of stick at, and also home to a world-class zoo which had two month-old baby jaguars (any women reading this, you may now go ‘Aww’, though I insist you do so only in the privacy of the inside of your own head). But I’m back, and I’m back to the daily grind, and part of that grind includes writing the current novel.

I raise this with slight triumphalism, because in this last week I have managed to break the 60,000-word mark. Every time I manage to change the first integer of a five-digit number it’s a big thing for me, because by-and-large it means I have managed to complete another chapter. Those of you possessed of more than usual cunning will have worked out that this means that my chapters tend to average 10,000 words each. Well done: you may have a sweetie.

10,000 words is quite a lot. 10,000 words is equivalent to a Masters dissertation, although 10,000 words of fiction is considerably easier to write, because fiction doesn’t require anally-retentive levels of footnoting every two sentences.  Even so, the effort involved is considerable, partly because on one hand I’m trying to drive the story forward in a relatively determined manner, while on the other everything I write has to agree with everything that has preceeded it in the narrative thus far.

That gets tricky when the narrative is as long as mine (these 60,000 words push me over the half million in total). One of the reasons why big stories are difficult to tell is that sustaining a concept over such a long trajectory isn’t easy. Ideas have a natural tendancy to change and evolve, so you need to keep a very firm grip on them right from the beginning. That can be a simple as making sure the names of the protagonists retain the same spelling throughout or as difficult as creating character motivations that have room to be fleshed out over the story arc while remaining internally consistant. And, again, scale is a complicating factor. In a file simply entitled ‘Ships’ on my hard-drive there are the names of all the vessels that have, or that could, appear in the story. There are more than 1,000 of them. The same goes for named characters. There are more than 300 of them.

300+ is a lot. It’s so many, in fact, that actually just thinking of names for them all becomes something of a trial, and I have to delve into my book of baby names and the phonebook in order to make them up. Or, alternatively, I can simply lift them wholesale from my friends.

There are people walking around an entirely fictional universe who I nevertheless run a real risk of bumping into in the street. Sometimes I take the name but not the character: in the universe of the Fulcrum War, for instance, President Alex Burton is quite the baddie, whereas in real life my friend Alex Burton is a thoroughly good egg. That’s a simple name theft. Sometimes I take physical characteristics and put them under a new name and give them a new attitude: there’s a character called Dana Greer who, in my head at least, looks like my friend Diane.  Or I tweak names and attitudes but have them still recognisable: Dave Wark became Dave Warrick. Susan Rendel (as she was then: she has subsequently married and changed her name) became Susan Rondahl. But there is a danger in doing this, and it is not merely that someone might get offended by what you’ve written. The danger is that characters develop a mind of their own. ‘Susan Rondahl’ was written in primarily as a one-scene joke to amuse Susan Rendel, with whom I worked at the time, but ‘Susan Rondahl’ swiftly took over that initial chapter and now she is arguably the primary female protagonist of the entire thing.

So much for authorial control.

If a character begins to get too wilful, of course, I do have ultimate recourse to the final authorial Big Stick: charactercide. I can kill my characters. I can do so for many reasons, not least of which is if it seems like a good idea at the time. But there are a couple of reasons why doing this is a wrench. First of all, you’re dispensing with an asset. Characters enable you to do things with narratives:by definition, they propel the plot (I can’t think of any books that have characters who impinge on the plot in no way whatsoever). Removing a character removes a tool which facilitates that propulsion, and so moving forward becomes more difficult. Secondly, when you’ve gone to the trouble of including your friend in a story it becomes particularly painful and problematic to tell them that actually they just came to a Bad End. Unless you have a grievance, in which case it offers a peculiarly therapeutic resolution to the whole affair (and yes, I have done that too). I must admit to feeling fortunate, in that no one thus gotten rid of has told me they felt aggrieved at the treatment dealt out to their namesakes. Some have even encouraged it, requesting heroic or, as their temperament leads them, spectacular deaths.

It’s on my mind particularly this week because I am about to kill off another friend. His death will occur at the end of a chapter (the 10,000 word thing is only a rough guideline, so although I already have 60,000 words this will be the end of chapter 6, ‘PURITY’) and it’s a slightly unusual one in that it’s the death of a friend whose name and character and occupation I have sequestered for my own devious ends. His demise is, therfore, both heroic and spectacular. It seems only fair. Although I’m not sure how enthused his wife will be when she finds out what I’ve done to her man.

Using friends’ names and characters in this way is a slight cheat for me as an author as well, and not just in terms of not having to think of new names. It’s a short-cut to emotional involvement. I care what happens to these fictional constructs because some part of them is based upon people about whom I care in real life. So for that reason, I like to put them in dangerous circumstances. I want them to pull through, and hopefully that sense of engagement will rub off on the reader because of how I write the characters and the humanity I give them or observe in them. But sometimes putting them in harm’s way leads to harm befalling them, and sometimes even I, the author, have no idea who will survive and who won’t.

It keeps me on my toes. It keeps the readers on their toes. And it keeps my friends worried. What more could any reasonable man ask for?

Today’s Zen is another, brand-new Starlingford video: some of better pictures collated and accompanied by one of my favourite songs. Enjoy!

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to Why I like to kill my friends on a semi-regular basis

  1. Seraph says:

    I’d settle for a dying cameo, if the opportunity arose.

    Incidentally, which of your deceased characters did NOT die spectacularly?

  2. starlingford says:

    Ah, but Seraph, I’m afraid you’re doomed for disappointment, as you are one of the characters placed (unusually) under ‘protected’ status. Yes, I am going to include you: I just haven’t gotten to your introduction yet.

    Non-spectacular deaths? Fox springs immediately to mind…

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