One of the biggest challenges I faced while writing my recent novel Stronger Than This was creating two characters, Martin and Samantha, who die within the first few pages. Yet, because their deaths have an impact on the lives of both of my protagonists for the remainder of the story, I quickly came to realize the importance of dead characters.
In planning the novel, I knew Martin and Samantha were just as vital to the story as their loved ones, Daniel and Charlene, who were alive and coping with their unexpected deaths. Their presence had to be felt in order for the void they leave behind to be consequential. Because my readers spend so little time on the page with Martin – and no time at all with Samantha – my task was to create a sense of their personalities, voices, and existences, and reveal these through memories. In writing the novel, I found this was no easy feat. Yet, it provided me with the most challenging writing experience in my career.
As the novel is an epistolary one and the story is told through letters, text messages, interviews, memos, and online chats, I could not rely on traditional flashbacks to establish the characters of Martin and Samantha. Instead, readers had to experience them through Daniel and Charlene.
The deaths of Martin and Samantha had to create a powerful impact that would ripple throughout the rest of the novel. Therefore, when I sat down at my computer and started to type, I recognized that readers needed to find both characters likeable in order to feel the same sorrow that Daniel and Charlene endure. They had to be emotionally invested. However, because of the timeline of the story, readers wouldn’t form sympathy for them until long after their deaths. Like my main characters, readers wouldn’t realize what they lost in Martin and Samantha until they were gone – similar to the emotional epiphanies of Daniel and Charlene.
The most difficult aspect of this writing process was selecting the right moments to reveal more information. It was a constant tightrope, balancing between needing to develop their characters without appearing heavy-handed in doing so. Never did I want the reader to feel as if the memories of Martin and Samantha (essentially their backstories) were forced.
Overall, the writing process during this particular novel was educational and enlightening. I’m grateful for the experience because it’s made me more aware. Never before had I recognized the significant value of all the characters that populate the universe of a story – even the dead ones.