October 2009

Yet each man kills the thing he loves

Deciding whether to kill off a character in a novel is a very painful process. It is for me at least. For the last few months I’ve been wondering about the fate of Dan in my new novel, The Missing Boy. (This was called Break of Day but as I’ve written elsewhere, titles come and titles go.)

The problem is that I love Dan and, as his creator, I feel responsible for his future. The God-like role of novelists is very exciting but also a heavy burden. I don’t know whether all writers feel this. I suppose it might make you permanently unhappy if you wrote violent thrillers or horror stories and knocked off your characters on a regular basis.

It would help if only the guilty got their come-uppence but unfortunately life’s not like that and I like to think I write about real people – real invented people. So sometimes an innocent whom I love meets a bad end and I just can’t save him.

Oscar Wilde has his usual witty take on the subject: Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/By each let this be heard,/Some do it with a bitter look,/Some with a flattering word./The coward does it with a kiss,/The brave man with a sword!

During this difficult period, I’ve canvassed several people about the question and without exception they’ve given Dan the thumbs up. This is interesting when you consider the great deaths in fictional history from Anna Karenina to Little Nell and how very popular these books are.

On the other hand Jane Austen’s novels are very popular too and her pages are a death-free zone – despite taking place during the Napoleonic Wars. One wonders whether she was ever tempted to create a grisly end for, say, Mrs. Bennett. Think how well Mr. Bennett would have got on as a learned widower.

Perhaps allowing myself to feel a little pride in my soft-hearted nature, today I glanced at my previous novel, Lies and Loyalties, and was more than disconcerted to count the bodies piling up, at first not of people I much cared about, but finally about the one I cared about most.

Delving into earlier novels, I soon discovered that they are littered with deaths, many of them violent: a man falls from a cliff, The Space Between, although he thoroughly deserved his end, a woman becomes victim of a Northern Ireland bomb, [A Woman’s Life](/books/a-woman’s life), and I loved her.

It seems that, when the need arose, I have been able to kill without too much pain in the past and that this new empathy is a sign of change in me. What kind of change I have no idea but can only say it’s most uncomfortable.

I cannot of course reveal Dan’s fate. In the end the story decided for me and it didn’t feel as if I had a choice. Perhaps I should write historical fiction next when life and death has already been decided by a will greater than mine.