Several months ago, I got into an interesting, if brief, conversation on the message boards for one of my favorite webcomics. There was a bit of speculation going on over whether the comic’s writer was going to kill off one of her characters’ adorable little brother and sister. My initial comment was that she was foreshadowing in order to do one of the following: “(a) kill Vinny’s family or (b) merely make us paranoid that she’s going to kill Vinny’s family or (c) make us think she’s trying to make us paranoid so we’ll let our guard down while she kills Vinny’s family.” To which another user replied “The line between ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ just… got a whole lot less definitive?” To which I replied, “As a student of both literature and composition, I can assure you that ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ are hardly mutually exclusive occupations.”*
The conversation got me thinking about occasions where I felt profoundly affected by deaths of characters I liked in books, movies, etc. I can think of several times off the top of my head when I felt out of sorts after reading or watching the death of a particular character. I had to put down and walk away from Frank Herbert’s Dune for a while after Duncan Idaho was killed buying time for Paul and Lady Jessica to escape. He wasn’t a super-important character to begin with, but I kept expecting him to claim a bigger role in the narrative, particularly after he rescued them in the first place. And suddenly he’s dead, admittedly taking down a number of bad guys with him. Similarly, I stalled in seeing Joss Whedon’s Serenity for a long time because I’d heard that he kills two of the crew members. And since I really liked all of the crew, I didn’t want to find out who they were. When I finally saw it, I kinda figured Shepard Book would be one of the casualties, but like most fans I was caught completely off guard by Washburn’s sudden death. I remember feeling kind of rattled when it happened, then feeling kind of hollow for the rest of the movie.
I haven’t read any Shakespeare in several years, but he was notorious for killing off his more likeable characters. I recall reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time back in high school. The story quite nearly wrecked my view of Shakespeare forever, and for certain set it back by several years. (Why do high schools use R&J to introduce students to Shakey, anyhow? Or Hamlet? Or Macbeth? Why not start with something fun and uplifting like Twelfth Night or with a lot of action like Henry V? Do the curriculum designers really think teenagers are going to connect with all that death and drama? May rant on this in a future post.) Mercutio was about the only character I liked from the story–and of course he’s the first character to die. Leaving aside the fact that I had no way of knowing that this is standard operating procedure for Shakey, I recall being slightly rattled and rather annoyed by the loss of the one character I liked and felt any connection with.
Perhaps a better example is Boromir from the Lord of the Rings. I don’t recall having much opinion of him when I read the books. He was just kind of present the whole time. He traveled with the Fellowship for the entirety of Fellowship of the Ring, but he didn’t seem to play a very large part in their travels. Considering his largest contribution to the story was trying to take the ring from Frodo, then getting killed by orcs, I wasn’t overly affected by his death. In the film however, not only did they give him a larger and more impactful part, but they cast Sean Bean in the role. I’m a longtime fan of Sean Bean and think he’s the most underrated tough-guy actor in the movie industry. His Boromir went from being a cardboard cutout whose only part in the story was a negative one, to a tragic hero worthy of Homer or Sophocles. Boromir essentially gets portrayed as the epic hero who has saved his people from their foes on many occasions–kicked ass and took names against the best that the Enemy has to offer. His only weakness being his desire to protect his people–a weakness which the ring exploits. In the novel, his name comes up in some of the fights scenes, but in the film he’s in the middle of the action, dishing out the damage like the a true son of Gondor should. And where the novel never actually shows us his ultimate fight scene, moviegoers get to see him lay to waste Uruk after Uruk even while mortally wounded and bleeding. I can almost visualize Hector of Troy giving him a fist-bump in the afterlife. It was a death scene that touched me. I don’t recall that I cried watching Aragorn kiss the top of his head as he lay him back against the tree, but I remember getting goosebumps over how well the scene was done.
But I think the time I was most affected by the deaths of likeable characters was reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on the 1959 murders of the Clutter family near Holcomb, Kansas. Admittedly, the fact that it’s a true story of violent and senseless murders might have colored my opinion a bit, but I felt sick reading the chapters where he introduces the victims. I loved the characters and his descriptions of the lives they led, but felt sick because I knew from the cover that this lovely family of wonderful characters was going to die. Mr and Mrs Clutter reminded me of any number of couples my parents are friends with. The antics of Kenyon, the younger brother, reminded me a great deal of stories about some of my uncles when they were teenagers. And the daughter, Nancy, was described as exactly the kind of girl I was attracted to in high school. Capote’s descriptions made me hate the killers before they were even introduced in the story.**
I don’t recall if I’ve said anything in the blog, but I am writing a novel that’s been bouncing around in my head for several years. It’s a fantasy/adventure story based on an off-handed comment that a former classmate made in one of our graduate courses, and last fall I finally started putting it to paper. I don’t know how long it will be or if anything big will come of it, but it’s been a fun project so far. As I’m typing this, I’ve got the prologue and chapters 1-5, am working on chs 6-7, and have various other scenes typed up for later in the book. I’ve wondered on occasion how readers might react if I killed particular characters from the story. A friend made me promise that I wouldn’t kill off Ryla, the young heroine, halfway through the story–which was an easy promise to make, as I hadn’t intended to anyway. But occasionally I’ve asked myself how my heroine and readers would respond if I killed one of her mentor figures, such as the old scout who teaches her to hunt, track, and shoot or the ex-mercenary who teaches her to use big swords. The sheer number of choices I could make when writing this novel is almost paralyzing, as such I’ve constantly rethought and re-rethought where I’m going with the story. As a fiction writer here’s a certain feeling of egotistical godliness that comes from knowing that I not only control the lives, situations, and emotions of my characters, but the emotions of my readers as well. I’m starting to learn that this is a very difficult privilege not to want to abuse.
I won’t lie, I’ve been rough on Ryla in these first few chapters, and don’t look to let up on her anytime soon. She loses the person she cares about most in the first couple chapters, and will likely lose others she cares about along the way. Similarly, she narrowly escapes a rape attempt in chapter 3 after getting slapped around and molested by the would-be rapists–and again, this likely won’t be the most dangerous situation she finds herself over the course of the story. My brother made the comment, “you must not like this girl. You’re awful mean to her.” But that isn’t the case at all. I honestly really like my young protagonist, and genuinely care about her and what happens to her. But at the same time I enjoy seeing how she deals with the emotional trauma and mortal danger. I like seeing how strong she is emotionally and constitutionally, and I love watching her overcome and grow from these horrible experiences. In the same way I want my readers to hurt for her, to sympathize with her plight, and to root for her as she overcomes the emotional obstacles and various dangers I place in her path. And I think the most potent of emotional obstacles is for her to watch those she cares about succumb to these same dangers she’s facing.
As I type out this thought process, I have to wonder, is this at all similar to the thoughts other writers have when they decide if, when, and how to kill their characters?
*Opening conversation from the discussion comments at Amya Chronicles, comic #189.
**I can’t recommend In Cold Blood. It’s very descriptive and very well written, but I felt like Capote focused on the wrong characters. There were so many interesting characters and situations he could have focused on in the town’s reaction to the tragedy and from the search for the killers. Instead he focused most heavily on the killers themselves, who I had no sympathy for nor interest in. A pair of bed wetters who’re mad at the world because they were abused as children don’t get my sympathy when they use it as an excuse to kill innocent people.