The darker side of women’s fiction: writing a character who dies – Kim Lock

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By Kim Lock

The death of a character can be one of a novel’s biggest twists, and to talk about it sometimes risks giving away a spoiler. But it’s no secret that in The Good Mother, one of the main characters dies. It’s right there in the blurb; it happens in the opening pages. So I feel a little more comfortable talking to you about it.

But only a little. Because talking about this character’s death isn’t easy. And writing her death was even harder – especially so because the finished book is about draft number fourteen. So for me, Jenna Rudolph died over and over.

I can, however, let you in on one secret: In the first draft, Jenna didn’t die.

So what changed? What happens in the creation of a story that might cause the storyteller to kill off a character?

Despite how messy The Good Mother was in its first draft, I was lucky enough to have it read by a respected editor. They asked me to consider Jenna’s mortality. What would her survival bring to the authenticity of the character’s story? Or conversely, what about her death? Although I lamented this advice, deep down I knew it to be sound and true. The only reason I hadn’t killed Jenna in the first draft was because I was too afraid. Too squeamish. Terrified that I would botch it. I mean, I can’t even kill the caterpillars that eat the cabbages in my garden.

One of the key factors in creating a successful fictional character is authenticity. Readers don’t have to like a character, but they do need to believe that character. As a novelist this means living inside a character’s head, feeling as they feel, thinking as they think. Giving them the nuances that make them real – their nervous tics, their reactions to slight or pain or frustration, what makes them laugh. This authenticity includes a character’s humanness, and sometimes, the decision to steer them to their death.

Each time I reworked Jenna’s final scenes, it was necessary for me to walk away from the computer. I’d go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea, or outside into the garden and breathe in the scent of eucalypt. I would remind myself that it was a story, and it was only my job to write the words – they didn’t belong to me.

Some characters’ demise can be a triumph – the antagonist, or ‘bad guy’ meeting their comeuppance. But killing a ‘good guy’ without alienating a reader means the writer needs to make it feel irrevocable, and that there can be closure. This was something I learned as the manuscript progressed. It was easy in the early drafts to feel such a sense of doom in one character’s death that I doomed them all! But as I slowly came to terms with her outcome, I realised that her death gave me more determination to seek hope. It forced me to explore the story more deeply, to examine why, and to give the other characters – and hopefully the reader – that sense of light, love and life.

Kim Lock’s second novel, The Good Mother, was selected to participate in the QWC/Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program in 2013, and has since sold internationally. Her writing has also appeared in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald online, Daily Life and Kill Your Darlings. Kim lives in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, with her partner and children, a dog, a rabbit and a couple of cats.

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