Sunday, February 19, 2012

Can this character be saved?

So Karen Healey posted about writer-hate as it is found on the internet, especially with respect to the gender of the authors in question, which led to all kinds of interesting discussion. But what I want to post about today is not really continuing that conversation, so much as it is looking at one interesting nugget Karen's research turned up, and taking that off on a tangent.

She found several instances of people hating on writers for killing off or punishing their favorite characters (including having their favorite characters not chosen in a love triangle), or for just generally making them cry. And while I think "hate" is a strong word, and Heaven knows I don't advocate hating writers, that subset of comments made me think a lot about what I believe they're really saying, and about what happens between writer and reader.

As writers, we ask readers to make an emotional investment. And when they do, sometimes they get hurt, because the story doesn't always turn out the way they would have wished. The underlying message of so many of those comments was, Why did you hurt the character I loved so much? Why did that character not get the nice ending I thought he deserved? Why did you make me cry, Author? Why did you make me feel sad?

I'm a reader as well as a writer, and I know where those readers are coming from. My two favorite characters got killed, quite brutally, in Lord of the Flies. I have a prize-winning record of choosing the loser in love triangles. The ending of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Below the Root trilogy devastated me. I still cannot read the end of Charlotte's Web without choking up. And we will not even speak of Old Yeller. Sometimes I read certain books with my breath held, thinking, "Please don't kill that character."

But I'm a writer. And one of the things writers are taught to do--taught because, you see, it often doesn't come naturally--is hurt their characters. Without pain, there is nothing at stake. Without conflict, there is no story. And every character cannot get a happy ending for a few reasons: it doesn't happen that way in real life; and if the main character always triumphed, there would be no suspense to any story, because they would all end the same way. And finally, most importantly, the bottom line for a writer is to serve the story, to convey a theme. If a character has to die to fit that theme, then that character has to die. I attended a panel discussion today that was part of the Breathless Reads tour, and Beth Revis warned the audience that none of her characters are safe. In other words, she will sacrifice any character for the good of the story.

Certain stories are more powerful when you like the character who's going to get the short end of the stick, when you see the attractiveness of the villain, when you care about whatever is lost in the story. And that is why a writer may work to form an attachment between the reader and the doomed character.

Plus, you want to know a secret? Sometimes the writer cries about killing off that character, too.


  1. Great post, Jennifer! I agree with you all the way on this, and I've been known to kill off characters and upset people. Cinders has a very high body count, but it's what had to happen for the story. Like Beth, I'll sacrifice anyone, and that means not only killing characters off, but letting them turn evil if that's what has to happen. Or tearing them away from what's expected.

    I think The Secret Year was interesting because you started off with a dead semi-main character. That set a lot of things into motion for me!

    1. I actually prefer stories that acknowledge that all is not fair and just and sweet in life. There is hope and beauty, but not everything aligns perfectly. And from your discussions of Cinders, I suspect you have a similar sensibility. There's some kind of truth that demands to be told ...