Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Time to Kill

 There is a time for everything,
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build...    (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, NIV)
Many years ago, long before I knew God or had written anything of significance, I helped plan and run a sci-fi/fantasy convention for fans of the "Darkover" series by Marian Zimmer Bradley.  I've forgotten most of what went on at that convention, but a few things managed to stick in my brain, many of them quotes from a panel of writers who participated in a Q&A session with the fans.  If memory serves, the panel included Ms. Bradley and also Katherine Kurz and Anne McCaffrey...all of them favorites of mine at the time.  I can't recall who said what (we're talking more than 25 years ago), but some of these gems still spring to my mind on a regular basis and have influenced my own writing.  For example:
Of the harp and the violin, which is the greater instrument?  The violin.  Why?  Because the harp cannot sin, while the violin can sin but chooses not to.
Having attempted to play the violin when I was younger, I had to agree with part of that statement. (The violin can definitely sin in the wrong hands!)  I myself never had any better luck with the harp, but I admire those who can play it, which is probably why I taught Katan to love the kinnor. (Like Yochanan, who is arguably the most autobiographical of my characters, my hands have little skill at drawing music out of inanimate objects; most of my own music comes from my voice, although I have learned--like Yosef--to make joyful noises on my "flute," an antique alto recorder.)

The comment that most affected me was one I am fairly sure was made by Ms. Bradley, who caught my attention by criticizing one of my favorite writers, Robert A. Heinlein:
I lost all respect for Heinlein when I read the end of Podkayne of Mars.  Podkayne should have died.  By allowing her to live, he weakened the story and destroyed its believability for me.  I hate killing off my characters, but sometimes it is simply necessary.  The writer who cannot kill a character when the plot demands it, is no writer at all.
Writing fiction is a godlike endeavor.  In my opinion, it is the closest thing to pure creation that a human being can achieve.  All other forms of art take what already exists--clay, paint, stone, fabric, metal--and shape it into a new form; only fiction writing creates worlds, peoples them with characters created in the author's own image, and then maps out a destiny that the characters are doomed to follow to its bitter end.

Douglas Gresham, executor of C.S. Lewis's estate and co-creator of the Narnia movies, warns about this when he speaks about the moral responsibility that writers have.  I was privileged to hear him at a conference two years ago, but his words sometimes haunt me:
When we read a story in which a damsel has been tied to a tree and is about to be eaten by a dragon, before we rejoice in the fact that a prince is about to ride to her rescue, we must ask ourselves whose fault it is that she needs rescuing in the first place!
He points out, and rightly so, that the imagination of the writer is a formidable weapon for good or for ill.  Is it right, I often wonder, to create a character for the sole purpose of doing him in?  In spite of this moral dilemma, I have made the conscious choice to follow the advice of Ms. Bradley.  When it is necessary to the plot, theme, or character development in one of my stories, I kill the characters.

In my own defense, I will point out that some of the bloodshed in my novels is unavoidable.  Since I write historical fiction, it is not always my idea to kill the characters.  I mean, I wasn't the one who decided to chop off Yochanan's head: blame that one on Herod Antipas.  If I had been plotting that story, I would have allowed Yonni to ride off into the sunset and sit at Yeshua's feet until the end of his days.  (I am forced to admit, however, that it wouldn't have been as good a story; as Yeshua himself pointed out, "it is inconceivable that a prophet should die anywhere other than Jerusalem.")

I can't pass all of the bucks onto God, though.  I confess, I have killed off an awful lot of people just because they were in the way.  Real life may allow for 628 facebook friends, but just try to keep track of all of them in a novel!  And make them three-dimensional!  It's bad enough that Jesus chose TWELVE disciples.  To have him juggling a large family as well...brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins...and gets positively overwhelming.  Some of them simply had to go.  So, if you are squeamish about such things, don't read my books.  (You might not want to read the Bible either, because an awful lot of people die between those covers, and most of them are women and children.  But that's a topic for another blog.)

Sometimes I laugh and tell myself that, when I get to heaven and meet these people (the ones I didn't simply fabricate) they are either going to laugh in my face or beat the tar out of me for the things I said about them.  Please, understand that my novels are just that: works of fiction.  Because of that, I take the moral risk of doing things to the characters that I would never dream of doing to real people.  But I want you to understand that I get very little pleasure from their pain and suffering; it hurts me to torture and kill them, and sometimes I mourn for them to the point where I cannot eat.

I used to feel the guiltiest over Yoshiah bar Zebdi, a little boy whom I created for the SOLE purpose of drowning, just so it would give me a deeper motivation for some of the traits I had decided to develop in Yakob and Yuannan.  At the moment, however, I am filled with remorse about something I haven't even written yet.  You see, I refuse to kill a character I don't love.  A few months ago, I realized I was going to need someone to die, and so I wrote him into the story.  Now, before I can take him out of the story again, I need to fall in love with him.  I need to make him REAL.  (If I don't care about him, neither will my readers; if I don't love him, neither will they.)  And so I am making him lovable, writing all the little things that make him a real, lovable, LOVED person.  And the whole time I am doing this, I know what's coming and it is killing me to know this and be powerless to prevent it, but I NEED him to die for the greater good of everyone in this story.

There is a time to kill.

When I read the Bible and God is wiping people out left and right, I look at it differently now.  When I read the newspaper and God is allowing people to die in all sorts of tragic and "senseless" ways, I look at it differently now.  I have a feeling God has the same rule I have: He won't kill someone He doesn't love.  There is a greater good and only He knows what it is.  If He doesn't care about them, how can He expect us to?  And He wants us to care.  Oh, how He wants us to care!

1 comment:

  1. Again... you amaze me. Thanks for the insight into your creativity and passion. Love you Dee.