And for the story to be really interesting, the person who dies has to be someone we like. Someone sweet and beautiful, perhaps, on the bright brink of starting a promise-filled life. And the circumstances of their death? Mysterious, most likely. Even brutal.
All of this is a little alarming, of course, but even more so when I realise that, as the writer, I’m the one doing the killing.
There must be something wrong with me.
My first novel, Black Dog Summer, starts with a death (I murder the main character on page one, so no need for a spoiler alert). Sally’s brutal death is the catalytic event that sets the characters spinning off into their storylines and propels them towards potential chaos or catharsis. However, since the book came out last year, I’ve been asked: ‘Did you have to kill her?’
On the one hand, obviously I did, it would be a different story otherwise, but on the other, it’s an interesting question. As the creator of a made-up thing, surely I hold all the cards, have all the power? I can keep everyone alive if I want to, hell I can bring them back to life if I want to, this is fiction after all. In my own life I’ve faced the terrible, blank, non-negotiable finality of losing someone forever. Oh, what I would’ve done for this kind of power then.
But, somehow, when writing, it’s not like that. When working on a book, it seems that once the months of idea-crafting and planning are done, and the work is in progress, the story gains a momentum and a power of its own. Suddenly, I have a duty to the churning, inevitable ‘thing’ that it has become. If the story demands a sacrifice, then it has to be paid. I must kill.
There’s a responsibility in all of this. As a writer, this life you’re ending is not real, it is not fragile and extraordinary like the lives we’re touching on when we hear the news reports about someone killed, this many dead. The facts of the case are not going to set an innocent free, or bring justice to the grieving, or reveal the darker truth behind a public figure, but there’s a responsibility to telling them all the same. Fiction is an opportunity for us to try and make sense of the senseless, for us to play in the life-and-death-depths where everything is beyond our control, and ask ‘what would happen if’.
I believe that that’s important. To the ones left living. Perhaps that’s why we go there whenever we can, why we pick up those books or turn on those televisions and ‘switch off’ from our daily lives by experiencing people dying: we need to keep asking ‘what if’.
Perhaps, this is why I am compelled to write stories, to sit at my laptop and work at answering this as best as I can in as many different ways as I can. It’s not surprising that sometimes, I’m left with blood on my hands.