21 October 2009

WHY I KILLED RAY SHARP

CAUTION: SPOILER AHEAD

Oh, whoops, too late. I already spoiled it in the headline.

So, for those of you who don't know already, Ray's dead. Live with it. He won't.

I'm not going to tell you how I killed him. That would be giving too much away. I will tell you that he dies halfway through SHANGHAIED; in first person - present tense even, like he did everything. It's a very neat trick if you ask me.

Then Wen Lei Yue takes over the story. She doesn't know she's doing that for a few chapters. She's got too much else to deal with. The poor dear, she's going to take over the series, too. What a responsibility. You'll get an inkling of what's in store for her by the end of the book.

Maybe you're wondering why I killed off Ray. Maybe you're upset about it. Maybe you're relieved. Maybe you could care less and you read my blog for reasons having nothing to do with my Ray Sharp series of books.

In any case, I'll tell you why I murdered Ray.

But first, here's a picture from Google Earth of the place where he died. There's no good reason for me to put this here, but I like to break up these blogs with some photos from time to time.


Here's why Ray had to die.

I don't outline my books. I just get a basic idea, an idea of where the story is headed and what I want to say with it, and I sit down and start writing. It helps keep it fresh for me, I feel like I discover the story in the way that my readers will.

So there I was, happily writing along, minding my own business. I had an idea of how the story was going to end and what Ray was going to be doing at the end. But then, Ray's in trouble, bad trouble, life threatening trouble. How's he gonna get out of that?

The problem is, one of the things I always liked best about Ray Sharp as a character was that he was a normal human being. Sure he was tenacious and loyal and smart and energetic; but he wasn't much different from you and me. He was no James Bond, no Jack Reacher. He was the kind of guy who relied on wits, luck, and a little pluck, to get himself out of jams. And sooner or later, a guy like that, his luck was just going to run out. It's unrealistic otherwise. And I always wanted Ray to be realistic, too real for some people even.

So Ray did what you or I or most of the people we know would do in a similar situation - he died.

I hadn't expected that. It totally freaked me out. I made three panicked phone calls to three good friends, along the lines of: "You won't believe what I just did. What the hell am I supposed to do now?"

I wasn't really asking for help. I wanted sympathy, understanding. I'd just gone and hoisted myself on my own literary petard and I was flailing away up there.

It was obvious that Lei Yue had to take over. I was only halfway through the book and she was the only other character who knew what was going on. I was concerned, though, that my readers didn't know her very well. I'd beefed up her character in the beginning of the book, tried to make her something more than just a sidekick or a curiosity. But I needed to quickly make the story hers, and get the reader wrapped up in her story as well, while keeping it moving along the track it had started on with Ray.

And the voice had to change. I didn't want Lei Yue to simply become a stand-in for Ray. She needed her own distinct way of narrating. I had my work cut out for me.

It was the most fun I've ever had as a writer. It was hard, challenging, and the more I plowed ahead the more convinced I became that I'd done the right thing in killing off Ray.

Maybe some of us writers aren't cut out for writing long series. (I wouldn't mind Robert Parker's royalty checks, but I can't even begin to imagine writing the 25th, or even tenth Ray Sharp book.) Or maybe Ray just wasn't the sort of character who could survive all that long anyhow. (Sooner or later an outraged girlfriend would have probably done him in.)

I don't know about Lei Yue, yet. In some ways she's tougher than Ray, meaner, more of a survivor. But I do have some pretty nasty stuff in mind for her in the two books that are presently percolating.

11 comments:

A.H. Ream said...

As the recipient of one of those panicked phone calls, my first (unsaid) thought was, "Are you out of your mind?!" Then I took a breath and said the right thing. "It's brilliant." And it was. Your best book yet.

jennymilch said...

That kind of shocker can really lead a book to new heights. I love when plots turn so utterly around. I'll read the surprise scene over and over again.

How nice to have a new series to work through!

Kurt Taylor said...

Eric, as a reader and RS fan I was left wanting a little more--'wake' is the best word, in the memorializing standpoint, and as a ripple effect that would give his death some meaning. As is, he dies and we quickly transition to Wen Lei Yui and her quickly developing relationship, and story. I respect the huge story decision and the pull to get it right, in terms of character. Reading, though, I wasn't ready to jump on board with the next character. . .almost like she was standing in for the hero. Maybe at some level you were ready to be done with RS?

Stephen Parrish said...

Yikes. I was just about to start the book.

I'm concerned about all those literary prostitutes who are now out of work.

Jacqueline Vick said...

Excellent post. I did wonder when I found out that Ray was a goner how much agonizing went into the decision. Good for you for "being true" (a sappy phrase but you know what I mean) to your writing.

Jacqueline Vick said...

Excellent post. I did wonder when I found out that Ray was a goner how much agonizing went into the decision. Good for you for "being true" (a sappy phrase but you know what I mean) to your writing.

Linda said...

Eric, you know I love your writing. And there aren't many series that I follow as a reader, so I get your point.

But it cracks me up that my cousin's husband flamed me on Facebook for what YOU did to Ray!

xxx ooo
Linda

Eric said...

I am always pleased when blame that ought to be headed my way is misdirected.

MrsL said...

Is this like Bret Farve's retirement? He's gone, but whoops, not really gone? To have a serial character with a following is a good thing. It ranks high on my writer's to-do list.

Ginny L.

Dana King said...

I wish you luck. It's a gutsy move, implying you have more faith in the series than in any single character. The problem with too many series is the author gets the protagonist into too many death-defying situations. It may be fun to watch him escape, but they eventually wear down the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief on other fronts. Now your readers won't be able to relax, wondering how Wen will get out of certain jams, knowing you'll kill her off, too, if the story demands.

It takes guts to write a character-based series, and yet place events (the story) above the characters' well-being. Congratulations.

Jeff said...

I just got to that part in the book and had to google "is ray sharp dead" to make sure I hadn't just misread what happened.

In a literary sense I loved what you did, but I will miss Ray more than I've ever missed a character.