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Posts Tagged ‘believability’

Killing Off a Character

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Creating a character takes a ton of work.  Not only do you need to know who a character is and what they look like, but you also need to make the reader care about each one (at least enough to keep reading).

There’s nothing more interesting (or, at times difficult) than killing off a character–especially one that a reader never sees.

As a writer, you might kill off a character during the story for many reasons, such as (and not limited to):

  • Raising the stakes:  making a situation more real for the main character
  • Provide a start to a mystery
  • Carrying a story along:  for example, following a serial killer
  • The now-dead character may have known too much
  • Providing motivation for the main character to change

However, what’s harder for a writer is to kill off a character in more than just the storyline.  This type of death is more permanent:  wiping a character from the manuscript before a reader ever has a chance to see the character.

In other words, I’m talking about killing a character who never exists (from the perspective of the reader).

Why would you kill off a character this way?

Simplify the plot

Sometimes too many characters ends up causing confusion rather than adding intrigue.  For example, there may be an advantage to combining two characters.

As an example, over the weekend I had an insight about a story I’ve been working on.  I had two sections that I was having trouble connecting.  The scene introduced a new character, but I wasn’t convinced that she was believable within the scope of the story.

My insight was that I could actually reuse another character.  The original character won’t make it into this novel, but she may make an appearance at another time.  Reusing the other character means that I can leverage the work I’ve already done to create a believable character.

Avoid breaking the illusion

One of the big problems I had with the character I mentioned above was that I felt she broke the believability of the story.  I felt like including that character would have been carrying the illusion one step too far.

In the same way, sometimes you choose not to include a character because they simply don’t fit within the world you’ve created.  Perhaps they’re too similar to an existing character, or outside the norms of what you’ve already established.  Instead of trying to force them in, try killing them off and starting with someone else.  You can always keep their skeleton (character sheets, scenes you’ve tried, etc) and use them in a different story.

Add complexity for your main character

Sometimes a particular character makes the situation too easy for your main character.  In the past, I’ve removed characters from a story to actually make the problem harder for my protagonist.  This made the story more interesting, and also served to show a different side of the protagonist.

It wouldn’t have been possible to see that side if I’d allowed the other character to continue to exist.

Making a situation more challenging (without making the plot overly complex, as mentioned before) can make the story more interesting.

Have you ever killed off a character before someone had a chance to read about them?  Why did you choose to do so?

Creatures of Fiction: Vampires

Monday, July 12th, 2010

There’s a little-known theory for how the story of vampires came to be.

Vampires, like all creatures of fiction, are based in reality–real events, real symptoms, and real people.  Without access to today’s wide resources (like the Internet), everyday people tried to explain these events–giving birth to the tale of the vampire.

The legend of vampires came from:

  • Rabies symptoms
  • Burying people who were not dead
  • Animals that easily catch/transmit rabies

I came up with this theory on my own, but found that dozens (if not hundreds) of other doctors and scientists beat me to the punch (including Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso in 1998).  It’s far from the first time this happened, but it’s still satisfying–those dozens or hundreds of people provide support for my opinion.

While Dr. Gomez-Alonso’s inspiration came from the Dracula movie, my inspiration came from an episode of House that describes a woman who has rabies symptoms.  Among the rabies symptoms shown in the film were:

  • Aversion to light and water
  • Aggression–biting and drawing blood
  • Immunity to pain
  • Bats flying away from the affected woman’s living space

These symptoms (and others) combine to create an understandable image of the modern vampire.

Biting/sucking blood

Vampires are perhaps best known for their tendency to bite victims and suck their blood.  Occasionally, this will turn those victims into vampires themselves.

Rabies is often transmitted via a bite from an infected creature.  After a sufficient incubation period, the victim will then demonstrate rabies symptoms themselves.  By the time rabies symptoms are present, the victim is not treatable with today’s technology.

Creatures of the night

Vampires are traditionally known to attack during the night.  Their victims, often asleep, are at their most vulnerable.

Rabies victims experience photophobia (fear of light), which often causes them to turn away from the source, hissing and with bared teeth.

It’s easy to imagine a vampire movie at this point, with Dracula (or some other vampire) turning away.  I’d also imagine that the idea of using a cross to defend oneself against vampires was accompanied with a bright torch–and this would certainly cause the rabies victim to turn and run.

Garlic and Holy Water

Traditional defenses against vampires include cloves of garlic and holy water.  These defenses actually would have worked.

Rabies victims experience hydrophobia (a fear of water) and a hypersensitivity to strong smells.  Garlic and water would have certainly repelled any perceived vampires.

Transforming into Bats

Bats are often associated with vampires–vampires are said to have the ability to transform themselves into bats and fly away to escape capture.

Bats are also known carriers of rabies infections.  It’s easy to imagine coming upon someone sleeping, only to see a bat flapping away into the night.  With other rabies victims (or vampires) already known in the area, it would have been easy for someone to get confused and assume that a vampire transformed into a bat.

Super-human strength

Vampires are known for being impervious to pain.  This is why the “only” way to kill a vampire is to pierce its heart with a wooden stake.

Rabies victims also become immune to pain as the disease progresses.  In the House episode above, the victim is hit with a taser, and feels no pain.  For people who had more primitive weapons, it’s easy to imagine that a rabies victim would have appeared to have superhuman strength.

Rising from the dead

Vampires, of course, are known for being undead (more active than zombies, but still sustained by human blood).

As described in this Wikipedia article, some of this is explained by the natural decomposition process, which can make it appear as if a body is fuller and have blood around the mouth.  This may also be partly explained by someone who was accidentally buried alive, which, horrifyingly enough, did happen from time to time.

For you as a writer

As you can see, though vampires are fictional, there’s a basis in reality.  If you’re looking to create a new creature, it may help to take symptoms of a disease and use it to guide the creation of a new race.  These traits can also help you to create believable trends, and will help guide you in creating more realistic characters.

If you happen to write about vampires (as it seems many people are), then you may want to consider researching rabies to guide your story.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in: Real-Life Fantasy Creatures

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