Kill your Darlings – Stephen King
She came down the row of chairs wearing an expression I have seen before. She neared, and I knew exactly what was on her mind.
“You had to have him die?”
“Who?” I played dumb.
“You know who.”
“You mean Rich’s Roommate?”
“Yes. Did he have to get killed?” Her ire was not fully serious.
“Well, yes. Roommate had to die so Rich could survive.”
“I don’t like it.”
She wasn’t the only reader to complain to me about Roommate’s death. People were not happy about it at all. Me, I wasn’t fazed in the least.
Let me explain.
My irate friend had just finished reading my thriller novel: Keeper of an Ordinary. Who is Roommate? Roommate is a Boston terrier, a stray the hero Richard Rice finds hiding in the basement of his tavern, The Ordinary. Little Roommate was flea-ridden, emaciated and wearing a wire collar that had cut into his neck. Rich, hiding out from Russian Mafia assassins, dubbed the small dog Roommate. They were fast friends.
Roommate was a classic black and white Boston terrier with big brown eyes, upright ears, and a happy disposition.
He was an expressive little guy and an excellent barometer from Rich’s various moods. In this regard, he was a foil, a four-legged foil and minor character in the larger drama.
The death of Roommate is something that affects many readers of Keeper of an Ordinary. And, I am sorry to say, the dog’s death was essential to the continuation of the story. It apparently shocked people.
Of course, the thriller boiled up to a confrontation between the Russian Mafia and our hero, Rich. Fists and chairs and swear words were thrown about in a furious fight. Things looked bad for our hero as the Russian bad guy clobbered Rich and then held him at gun point. He was a goner.
Or was he.
To the rescue, little Roommate had a running start, leaping and latching his sharp teeth on the bad guy’s calf. It must’ve hurt, because the bad guy screamed and yelped and the gun clattered to the floor. He danced about, trying to pull the dog off his calf.
This gave Rich a chance to shake his head and clear the cobwebs. He scrambled for, and got the gun. Fortunes changed.
However, the bad guy managed to rip Roommate off his calf and in his anger at the dog, snapped his neck and flung the body to the wall.
Rich was saved, but Roommate was lost.
Frankly, in the writing of the scene, I thought it sad Roommate had to be sacrificed, but I thought readers would understand. They didn’t.
I have been called “dog killer” and had friends say they didn’t want to talk to me. This sounds quite bad, but it isn’t really that serious. The readers, as am I, are dog owners and very concerned about animal abuse.
But I do have to confess to a little bit of pride in that what I wrote had a profound effect on the readers. They liked the dog named Roommate and cared about his well-being.
The lesson here is a variation on the old writer’s adage, if your story is flagging, kill the baby. Or, in this case, kill the dog.
That may seem shocking but it basically agrees with Stephen King’s adage to never get so attached to your characters that you wouldn’t let them be killed off when that is absolutely the right thing to do to further the story.
So shed a tear for the little Boston terrier named Roommate, savior of the hero, and an unforgettable secondary character.