Sunday, 19 June 2011

Open House Day 20 - Dave Sakmyster

I'd like to talk about killing people.

Got your attention? Are you reaching for the phone, dialing Crimestoppers?

Easy now, I'm only talking about murder – the cold-hearted destruction of another human being. Possibly someone I love very much, someone I care deeply about, someone whose life I've invested a great amount of time into. Someone who, in short – I've created from scratch, someone whose whole existence I carefully sketched out from birth until… Well, that's it, isn't it? You've had a good ride, a lot of time on the pages, but sorry, now I have to kill you.

It's hard work, but sometimes it just has to be done. I don't like it any more than I imagine they do, but sometimes good characters just have to die in service of the Story.

What's even harder is when this character, who has spent all this time believing he or she was part of something grand ("hell, I'm in a trilogy, I have to live past the first chapter of Book 2!"), just needs to get brutally slaughtered early on. The stakes need to be set, the readers need to be jarred into reality – they have to understand that nothing can be taken for granted. Everything is unpredictable and there are no givens.

Sure, there will be the inevitable hate mail. Amazon reviewers will give you 2 Stars and say the book "was great, but the #!$@% author killed off my favorite character twenty pages in! I'll never read another book by this moron again." Deal with it. Bad things happen to good people in fiction too, as in life. And hell, in the kinds of fiction I write – horror novels and thrillers – yeah, you'd better believe good people are going to be filling up the morgue. Often, they'll be the ones you care about. If you didn't care about them, if you didn't feel anything for their passing, then I haven't done my job.

So I wrestle with these kinds of who-lives-or-dies moral dilemmas during outlining. While plotting book two of The Morpheus Initiative ('The Mongol Objective'), I knew I was going to piss off my first reader (my wife) by killing off a certain someone (no spoilers here); but of course I did it anyway, because 1) frankly that character had pretty much served his/her purpose in book one, and 2) I needed to raise the stakes – to prove the extent of the villain's intentions and to scar a certain other young character for life.

Who wasn't shocked when Obi Wan fell to Vader near the end of the first movie, or when Dumbledore bites it in Book 6? The point is: death is sudden, unpredictable and merciless… but it's also a creative force – forging new emotions and thrusting the surviving characters into different trajectories, seeking vengeance or redemption, and of course changing them along the way.

Sure it's a tough gig, playing The Reaper and determining who lives and who gets the sickle, but we knew that going into this job.

Okay, time for me get back to the business of murder. Now, who's going to die next? Let me see…

David Sakmyster has over two dozen short stories and four novels published, including CRESCENT LAKE, a horror novel from Crossroad Press, THE PHAROS OBJECTIVE (Variance Publishing), book one in a series about psychic archaeologists searching for ancient mystical artifacts, and the epic historical fiction thriller, SILVER AND GOLD (Dragon Moon Press) – a Finalist in the Foreword Reviews' Book of the Year Awards.  David's stories have appeared in ChiZine, Horrorworld, Black Static, Talebones, Blood Lite 3 and others.  He has won the Writers of the Future Award, a Writer's Digest Genre Award, and had a story on the recent Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.


  1. Nice to meet you! I am interested in the archeology book! Keep up the killing!

  2. G.R.R.Martin has a penchant for killing off his characters, especially when you begin to like them. Makes me wonder if any from the original story (the first book) will survive to the last one!

  3. What? Dumbledore dies? Surely not!

    But seriously, as I believe the funny men say, a cracking post.

    A book I'm reading at the moment (the title of which I won't reveal so as not to spoiler anyone) kills off one of its characters half-way through. Even though they're at death's door, you're sure their going to pull through and then WHAM, they've gone. Shocking, but absolutely wonderful.