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The Write Stuff: The gentle art of killing

By David Flin



In the last article in this series, I wrote about the need to be prepared to kill off characters if the plot and tone require it. In this article, I’ll be running through a few examples of characters who were killed off, and talking through the author’s thought processes in coming to the decision as to when and how to kill them.

Since the only author whose thought processes I can talk with confidence about is myself, I’ll be using Six East End Boys as an example. If you are yet to read this, then be warned, details of events in the story will be covered.

SPOILER ALERT: This article reveals details about the content of Six East End Boys.

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The overall theme for the story is not subtly presented. It’s mentioned frequently throughout the book. Justice is only justice if it applies to everyone. Scott, as well as the other central characters, mention it again and again. Naturally, if they are to have any chance in achieving their aim, this has to apply, and it has to apply to them.

They’re not spotless. They do some bad things, either individually or collectively. They’ve done bad things in the past, and several of them have, at best, questionable morality. Justice has to apply to them, and that means there’s a price that needs to be paid.

The first to die was Spade. A number of factors came together. The pace of events was picking up, and I needed something to mark the transition from preliminary work to the start of the main event. I wanted to make the reader aware that people, characters included, were going to die during the story. Thirdly, I needed an incident that would fire up the bulk of the people into a feeling of anger, anger that could be directed by the surviving Boys.

That required one of them to die, and the question was which of them. Spade was the most self-centred of the Boys, narcissistic and somewhat flamboyant. He needed to die, and he needed to do so in a manner that was actually selfless and helping others. It needed to be public, so that it could be used to inspire.

And then there were five.

Tufty’s death was inevitable from the moment he first appeared. A killer with a fascination for watching the moment of death does not, in most stories, have a high survivability factor. In the past, people had put their trust in him, and did not live to regret it. Inevitably, his death would be related to one of the others having to do the deed. Not quite trust betrayed, but death brought about by someone he trusted.

And then there were four.

Jif was next on the list. Jif was weak, without the commitment to the cause that the others had. He’d done his role by bringing Megan into the mix, and he was a bit of a loose end. Megan was growing up, and needing him less. More specifically, he couldn’t control her as he had been able to. Megan had become an integral part of the team, and one of the features of East End culture is however much you mess with outsiders, you don’t mess around with family. That pretty much resulted in determining that he would die as a result of betraying Megan and the others.

And then there were three. The astute among you will have noticed a pattern emerging.

Nick was the calculating one. The Boys had long since worked out that strength on strength would just end in defeat. They somehow had to shift things such that England couldn’t use their full strength for long. Early in the story, the possibility of striking at the Queen had been raised. I reprised that suggestion, with all of the characters understanding that this was a one-way trip. Obviously, killing the Queen would make England extremely angry, which would have meant an all-out assault, rather than a half-hearted one. The result of that was to come up with something that would undermine English morale from the top.

And then there were two.

Whale was next. The previous deaths, after Spade’s, had been concealed, almost private affairs. This had to be very public. It also had to set up the conclusion, and it had to be something that would be iconic within the world.

And then there was just the one.

The outcome had to be on a knife-edge at the climax. Furthermore, this was a personal obsession for Scott. The final outcome had to be dependent on Scott being prepared to make the final sacrifice. Because Scott’s main ability, other than his being obsessed, was that he was inspirational, that meant that whatever happened, it had to be something that inspired others to finish the job.

It was also fairly clear from what had happened up to this point that everyone would be just about exhausted and not able to give any more. The death needed to be something that would cause people to keep going for a bit longer.

The one final element was that one of the repeating myths in Britain is the Hero Who Will Return, and that Scott got his nickname through being able to get away with things “scot-free”. The manner of his death had to be such that the reader could wonder if maybe he had somehow got away with it.

And then there were none.

I deliberately left open the possibility that maybe Scott had escaped. An unlikely option, but something that left a chink of light for the reader to imagine that maybe, just maybe, he got his “happy ever after”. Clearly, he wasn’t coming back, but just maybe, somewhere he was alive and happy, and got to see his dream fulfilled.

Or maybe not. Maybe he did have to choose between his life and his dream, and he died to ensure that his dream lived.

Other characters died during the course of Six East End Boys, but the centre of the story was around the six plus Megan. Megan represented the future, and thus her survival was assured.

As for whether the result was worth the effort, that’s for the reader to decide.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow