Eight down, maybe nine, thought Veraine, spinning on his heel and shaking the hair out of his eyes, ready for the next attack. The square was in uproar, with people everywhere shouting and shrieking. But when he looked for the Slavers he saw only fallen men, some lying dead and some wounded. He paced a tight circle, adjusting his grip on the slippery hilt of his sword. People scattered before him.
Reflected in their eyes he saw a monster.
(from Burning Bright)
I kill characters. Lots of them. Not just the villains who deserve it either, as above – though I certainly do relish killing off villains: in Divine Torment for example the high priest collapses with dysentery and shits himself to death. But that epidemic also affect thousands of innocents. And then there’s the earthquake, which partially collapses a clifftop temple on top of a barbarian encampment during a pitched and bloody battle … thousands and thousands of deaths, all so that my two heroes can get it together and run off into the sunset.
He could be right. My personal idea of a satisfying ending is one which includes Tragic But Redemptive.
I don’t kill my characters for that reason. I don’t think BDSM tendencies are a mental illness. I don’t think submissive women characters are "asking for it." I’ve only once fucked a character to death – in The Temptation of St Gregory (a short story in Cruel Enchantment) – and it was a man, and he was a jerk who deserved his fate, and it I wrote it because I was so irritated by the sacrificial girlies in other collections. And it wasn't a bad way to go, with an ‘angel’ at one end and a ‘demon’ at the other:
She understood. With a smile of infinite compassion, she parted her robes with one hand, revealing a small, white, and perfect breast tipped with a little nipple of maidenly pink. Gregory gazed at it with holy awe. She tilted him toward her and his mouth closed over that cool, stiff point. As his despised flesh below thrust towards its unholy apotheosis, Gregory began to suck upon the angel’s breast. Ecstasy incomprehensible exploded in him. The fire and the light became a howling flame that tore him apart. His body poured pulse after pulse of acid seed into the hungry cunt of the demon, and his soul erupted forth.
That passage - in which the actual experience of dying is portrayed as erotic - is all but unique in my writing. I usually portray death as painful, frightening and to be avoided if possible. So I ask myself why I do kill characters.
Well, partly it’s because I write in fantasy/historical settings where armed combat is part of the milieu. I love my warriors, with their honed bodies and their self-reliance and their skill and their courage and their refusal to be victims. (To set the record straight, much like Madelynne Ellis in her Bloodstained Men post below, I like my violence safely distanced by fiction – and preferably a non-contemporary setting - or by a ritual/sporting context: real violence in the real world absolutely repels me.)
Partly it’s because in the context of these settings I want my villains to be real villains. If someone is introduced as a terrifying opponent to my heroes I want him to be genuinely worth opposing, not just a bit of an irritating sod. (In an early VBL novel which I shall not name, a character in a Norman Conquest setting was introduced as being almost diabolically evil – which was certainly worrying and intriguing for me as a reader until it turned out that by "evil" the writer meant "has such incredibly good sex with his floozies that when he dumps them they CAN NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH ANOTHER MAN". At the time I concluded that the writer either knew nothing about Anglo-Norman history, or was a complete moron. Okay, nowadays I’d be more charitable and mutter darkly about romance genre limitations but back then I naively hoped for narrative honesty.) My own villains are real bastards and they do commit murder.
So it’s about drama.
It’s about doing something that matters. My fictional worlds are (almost as much as the real one) places of injustice and cruelty and sudden violent death. In the face of these, my characters get to decide where they stand. What it is that matters to them. What they are willing to fight for and perhaps risk everything for – in other words, because this is romance, for each other.
Other authors may be able to carry this off in the setting of, say, a pastel-coloured suburban wedding, but I like to paint with a broader brush and deep shadows. I find it difficult to define what has value and is good, except in contrast to what is terrible. I write erotic romance because I think love and pleasure have value: how can this be seen except against the contrast of loneliness and pain? How can a sacrifice have worth unless it involves loss? How can an action be courageous except in the face of fear?
Here’s Veraine, fettered in the dark and waiting to be tortured to death:
I shall die silent, Veraine told himself: he will not make me scream
There was one shred of comfort and he wrapped his heart around that thought. Every man died, and few in the cause of anything of worth. They lost their lives for trivial reasons; for standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, for turning their head to the left instead of the right or the right instead of the left. For a misinterpreted glance, for an incautious remark, for being too cowardly to act or too brave to run. They died by mischance, by stupidity, by ignorance, by the casual malevolence or cool indifference of others more powerful than themselves. But he, Veraine, was going to die because he’d made a choice. He had let the gods know that there was something he wanted more than fame or riches, more than anything else in the world. Something he would sell everything in his life for. His soul’s desire. And for once the gods had listened.
He’d had her. For only a few hours, but with such intense passion that even before the priests had discovered them, he’d known that he wouldn’t emerge unscathed or unchanged.
In the darkness, invisible, his dry lips tightened in a fearful smile.
(from Divine Torment)
Along with real villains I want to read about heroes who are genuinely courageous. How can you be a hero if you aren’t mortal - if you risk nothing? Superman isn’t heroic – he’s just better than everyone else. Wolverine is a fake – I actively dislike the character – because no matter how many fights he gets into the hairy bastard is incapable of really losing. At worst he walks away to fight another day. That is just so wrong!
I believe love and lust both matter. I believe in passion!
I kill because I think it matters.
So when I wrote a novella for Black Lace’s forthcoming Magic & Desire collection I took the decision to start with the death of the romantic hero. And when his lover, the high priestess of Inanna, chooses to descend into the Land of the Dead to find him again, she has to confront all her worst fears and surrender everything that is most precious to her. And she has to come face to face with her own motives and see herself in her nakedness:
I’m parched, and grateful when the gatekeeper eases me into the water. I wonder briefly what it is he has left to take from me – and then he dunks me beneath the surface and begins to scrub me. He is very thorough. There are moments when I am sure I am going to drown on the very threshold of the House of Dust. I’m too exhausted to struggle, almost too exhausted to care. He scrubs every inch of my skin. He scrubs my hair. He scrubs the inside of my mouth and my cunt and my arse. Then he drops me in the pool and wades out.
I kneel in the water until I regain my balance, then rise to my feet. I feel almost empty of sensation. The water is curiously heavy, reluctant to ripple even as I wade across it. The black surface reflects better than that of a mirror, and with one glance down I am snared by my own reflection. I stare in horror.
In all my life I’ve never seen my own face without the temple makeup upon it. My face, even to me, was that of the goddess: dark-eyed, dewy-lipped, smooth and lovely. Without the paint I have the face of - Well, I could be anyone. A merchant’s wife. A domestic servant. I’m a little paler than average perhaps, through working indoors. My wet hair hangs in black strings. My eyes look small and lack drama without kohl. My lips are less full. Two lines crease my neck and tiny bird-prints bloom at the corners of my eyes. There is no seduction, no fire, no delight in this face. Instead there are freckles across the bridge of my nose.
I didn’t know I had freckles.
I close my eyes briefly, searching within. The goddess has gone. I understand what the last gatekeeper has taken from me and it fills me with cold thick despair. I am not a goddess. I am not the centre of all desire, the heart of all love. I am not Inanna anymore. I am just me.
Throwing back the bar, the gatekeeper opens the Seventh and last Gate, then turns and looks at me.
‘I can’t go before her like this,’ I tell him. Even my voice sounds thinner.
That hooked beak opens to speak: ‘The laws of the Underworld are perfect. Do not question them.’
Bowing my head, I climb from the pool and pass through the door. Beyond is a short ramp down onto a grey plain. Slowly I descend, until I sink over my toes into the dust that covers everything, and the great lead doors close behind me.
Movie Deaths: Troy – The Fellowship of the Ring – Spartacus – Gallipoli - 300