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April 2017

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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.


Any emotional investment that produces the reader's ire is, in one way of looking at it, a good thing!

It means that the author has reached a point of excellence in construction.

It is like a badge of accomplishment, even though it may lead to dangerous circumstances in the most extreme of cases.

Still, if my work reached that point, I would be prideful (while I cowered in my Bunker)! :o)

Edited at 2012-02-20 02:58 am (UTC)
It's a powerful and humbling thing indeed, to arouse the emotions in a reader.
I cry when I do it, but I do it again and again. If our characters don't hurt, they don't really LIVE, and that's just not a good predicament to put a character in.
Interesting...I'll admit, I can't do that -- and maybe that's why I'm still pre-published. (I also hated the last book in BtR, which is why I only reread the first two.)
Another Raamo fan! I understood why, thematically, the 3rd book in BtR story took that turn--but boy was I distressed when I read it as a child. I wonder if it would strike me the same way as an adult.
Oh, I was devastated! I cried and cried -- and I refused to read it after that. It even took a long time before I'd reread the first two...I haven't tried it again as an adult, either -- good question ;)
I admit to quite a bit of sadness every time my story informs me that Character X dies. But I liked X! Too bad, the story needs what it needs. (I can usually only complain to other writers... not writers are like to say "but you're in charge of what happens!" and don't understand that that's simply not true. :P )
Yeah, the story has a force and a set of rules that not even the writer can ignore! :-)
I can't like this enough. I believe I messaged you a few years ago about this very same topic. There has to be something of value at stake, and the chance that the characters may not achieve it. I wrote a whole essay about how I threw away Breaking Dawn because I could tell there would be no sacrifice and no one would lose a thing. That's not real.

I am reading Game of Thrones for the first time and I know George RR Martin's reputation for killing off characters. I open each chapter with apprehension, but it is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.
Your mentioning Game of Thrones reminded me that Nathan Bransford mentioned it recently in a post somewhat related to this topic:

Nathan described it as being unsentimental about the characters. I think we actually can be (probably even should be) attached to our characters, but we just can't let it stop us from doing what's necessary. It's only the appearance of unsentimentality. But the story resonates more if everyone does care about the characters.
Thanks for the link! Checking it out now.
I understand both sides of this debate rather intensely myself. As a teen, I read Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel Trilogy. The story deeply enthralled me, but at the end I was so shocked, so infuriated at the conclusion I swore never to read it again. I now own the first two books in the trilogy, but I haven't re-read the third even once. I probably should, I would likely appreciate it more as an adult and a writer now, but somehow I can't betray my childhood self by giving in.
I'm not sure if I would be thrilled to invoke that kind of emotional response in a reader, or if I would feel upset by it.
Perhaps both!

I think there are times when the writer knows a choice will evoke pain; there are other times when the writer is surprised by it.
Heh - the movie Misery immediately came to mind. That Stephen King knows a thing or two about frustrating reader expectations . . .

And the old adage "No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader" exists for a reason. Writers are usually pretty upset about killing off a character that they like. I can't imagine writing something like The Hunger Games, for instance.
Wonder how Shakespeare got through all those tragedies where the bodies pile up like cordwood?
'Sometimes the writer cries about killing off that character, too.'

Yes we do :(
*sigh* If the readers only knew ...
Old Yeller, Angela's Ashes, The Art of Racing in the Rain, to name but a few very-many tissue books. I didn't just cry, I sobbed my heart out (crap, I'm tearing up right now just thinking about them). But I have to say, as much as I mourn the death of my favorite characters, I love a book that gives me a good cry.
Many people do find it very cathartic!