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Character killing

As those of you who watch The Game of Thrones, this week showcased The Red Wedding scene. If you haven’t scene the episode or read the books, you probably don’t want to keep reading. Not that I’ve watched it, but I intend to talk spoilers all the same. Anyhow, GRRM did an interview, which you can read here, discussing that scene and killing characters. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. I’ve been thinking about killing characters and what a writer owes to readers and what a writer owes to the story. Does the writer owe anything to a reader except a good story? Or does she owe live characters? I know that a lot of readers, me included, hate it when beloved characters get killed off. Nancy Kress said once that she gets tired of characters and kills them so she can begin fresh. You’ll see in that interview that GRRM says:

I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.

I find that a really interesting statement because he knew early on he wanted to kill the characters off, not because the story dictated it, but because he wants unpredictability. I get that. When stories are predictable, readers can lose interest or get bored. He also says in this piece he wanted to really highlight the darkness in the world and the evil, along with the joy. On the other hand, knowing you’re going to kill characters early on can change the story you want to tell in such a way that you don’t tell that story, but a different one. Also not a bad thing, if you’re okay with that. It also means that you will build up their deaths to really be emotional crescendos, as is The Red Wedding.

This isn’t the way I write. I wonder if it could or should be? But that brings me back to my particular audience. Will my audience forgive me killing off my main characters? Will they still with me? Or would I build my audience if I killed off more people? I have killed off characters I love. I’ve also changed them in devastating ways. But I know that I wouldn’t kill Max or Alexander. Well, maybe I would Alexander. Is it bad that a reader knows that going in? Or suspects it? Of course, that might not apply to all books. It depends. I think part of what it depends on is how many characters there are to carry the story. If a reader is completely invested in only one or two characters and one of those dies, then that’s a difficult thing to swallow. But if there is a cast of many and a reader is invested in a number of characters, losing a few beloveds might not hurt as much.

I’m trying to think of other authors who kill of important characters. Well, JK Rowling is obvious. I should mention I haven’t read this far in the GRRM books. Mine got packed when I was decluttering a couple of years ago for moving (yes, the house has been on the market that long), and I was already behind on my reading. Plus I wanted to wait for more of the books to come out. Anyhow, I’m wondering if I will like the books. I have to say, though, that what I know of The Red Wedding scene means that it will be a gut punch to the reader. Even without investment into the characters, it’s a deeply affecting moment. It can’t help but be (and it’s awful and yet wonderful that it draws on real events. Humans are so terrible).

What do you think? As readers and/or writers? What do you think of killing characters? Of how to approach it? I’m really curious about your thoughts.

 

 

 

Originally published at www.dianapfrancis.com. You can comment here or there.

Comments

Killing characters to be unpredictable can start getting predictable.

I've read the first three GoT books and I did think the death of Ned Stark was effective (I'm not sure how much of a shock it was to me, though).

But as the series went on (and I need to note here that I think Martin is a very good writer) I began to feel some things were being done for shock value and that, for me as a reader, starts to feel predictable.
That's the real key. What's for shock and what's for story. Or if shock is enough for story. Sometimes I wonder how shock works for readers. If they like it or if they shy from it. Again, his books are incredibly popular, so it's not a turn off. I do wonder if that in spite of the character killing or because of it. As you say, he's a good writer.
I think because of it.

Another example is the UK tv show LUTHER. Spouse and I watched the first season together. It is very "shocking" but in fact (although Idris Elba is fabulous throughout) it became horrendously predictable very quickly: women die, and die horribly. We never watched season 2.
If an author kills off characters for the sake of unpredictability, they also create a new paradigm which I call "spot the dead people". I put up a mental wall between myself and the novel and spend my time trying to figure out just how many and who will be killed off. Killing characters becomes the new paradigm, and as all the GRRM memes show, people now expect him to kill people (lots of people).

I realize that some people like their fiction gritty and chewy, but for me the grittier the fiction the closer it becomes to the news. And the news is very often an unrelenting stream of depressing things punctuated with an occasional uplifting story (that's also supposed to make us feel guilty at the same time).

When people tell me that the lead characters have to feel like they're in danger, that usually precludes people saying "and that's why I kill off other characters". As if that's the only way to provide that sense of danger. But for me, that doesn't make me care about the characters, that actually makes me push away the characters in a novel so that I don't care so much. I'm reminded of Othello when he said that he wasn't someone who didn't love enough but too well.

I've thought about this a bit, not when GRRM's books became so "must read", but when I read John Marco's The Jackal of Nar. By the time I got to the end of the book, I had begun to question whether the central character really is the hero of the story. After all, he'd lost just about everyone and everything he cared about (except the girl), and how can a reader (me) look at all that and say "Yep, he's the hero." Or watching the train wreck of Thomas Covenant in the Stephen R. Donaldson novels and not having a lot of revulsion at Thomas as a hero.

Yes, I know that Covenant is pretty much the definition of an anti-hero, but Richius Vantran (from Jackal of Nar) is not an anti-hero but a "well, I guess you get to be the whipping boy but we'll let you live" hero. Which makes me think of the initiation scene in Animal House: "Please sir, may I have another?!"

I guess I approach my fiction warily these days, poking at it to see if it'll bite back. It's like how someone who had been burned in previous relationships approaches a potential love interest: cautiously, slowly, with a sense of suspicion and a refusal to be played for a fool again. Only after the end of the story do I consider letting the characters into my heart; a good, well paced story with likeable characters doesn't mean that I'll turn around and fall in love with them.

On the flip side of it I can appreciate the appeal of Romance novels, because the wish fulfillment that is at the heart of most Romance novels can be a great draw. Why read another literary novel about broken people and a broken life when you can read a novel about someone with a happy ending? (Which is why Hollywood rakes in money on those movies rather than the critically acclaimed ones that show up at Oscar time.) But the problem with Romance novels is that, well, they become too formulaic.

(I just started chuckling, because my inner critic is hollering at me "So you DO want characters to be killed off!!")

Well, no. I think that unpredictability can be achieved without character death. We sure got it in The Riddlemaster of Hed, and with the exception of Boromir we got it in LotR.
Maybe I ought to expand this into a blog post. I'm due for one, anyway.
Do eeeeeet!
That's really interesting--the spot the dead people idea--and you're right, it makes it harder to invest in characters if you know that they could get killed relatively randomly. I read Carol Berg and she will kill characters and torture them, but it's always gut wrenching because it's never gratuitous. It's always in service of story.

I think what makes romance movies/novels enjoyable is that sense for readers that there they won't be gut-punched at the end. But I also think it's about the journey rather than outcome. In fact, a lot of fantasy strikes me that way, though I think skilled writers make the whole journey and ending fresh.

GRRM says he doesn't write for escapism, and maybe you're right, it's more like the news (which is a kind of hyper-reality focused on the negative, so it skews things significantly).

I like heroes, myself. People who will sacrifice themselves for others. And to make that real, sacrifice has to actually be a possibility. So killing characters is necessary.
I don't mind heroes, but I think there are various forms of sacrifice, more than simply character death. PTSD, the ungrateful/uncaring populace, being declared an outlaw, injury, survivor's guilt, they all require a form of sacrifice. I just think that character death is just too easy and acts more to push me away from a story than draw me in.
Most definitely. In fact, death is the ultimate for the reader in a lot of respects because the reader loses that character, but for a person, death can often be better than suffering. So when the character suffers and overcomes and get through, then it's more of a sacrifice to him/her and therefore I think can connect with the reader more. Does that make sense or is that totally weird?
No, it makes sense.

Look at Frodo, to pull a rabbit out of a hat. He would definitely qualify as suffering from a form of PTSD --as well as whatever lingering injuries he had-- but he also was ignored back in his hometown much to the dismay of the other hobbits. And all that combined (plus a little handwaving by the Valar) pretty much set Frodo on the final path to leave Middle-earth.

No character death needed to have the emotional impact.

I'm sure this is heresy to some people, but I can't really get into a Joss Whedon production because I spend too much time deciding who is going to die and when. If someone would have told me Cap dies at the end of Avengers, I'd have shrugged and said "that's what I expect". I know better than to care, only to have my hopes dashed.
I killed a number of major characters in Living With Ghosts, mainly because deeds have consequences, and fiction needs to reflect this sometimes. So I am quite open to other writers doing this. I don't likes seeing a favourite die, but it happens in life, and fiction is big enough -- or should be big enough -- to include that.
What I hate, hate, hate, is the kind of consolatory fantasy in which characters die, but it's all right really because their ghosts keep popping back with hugs and flowers.
I hadn't really thought of the coming back sort of thing. I like your ghosts because they are unhappy and there's a definite division between life and death and what that means to the character.
Thank you :-)
Interesting. The Red Wedding was one of the reasons I kind of gave up on reading Martin's work. It became really apparent that shock value mattered more than plot at that point, and frankly, I completely disagree. Is it well written? Sure, I won't argue that. But until we see the end of the Game of Thrones series, I'll withhold judgment on its necessity. As it stands, I think he's lost track of his end game, which is probably the biggest problem with modern day fantasy bloating.

And maybe I'll look back in ten years and realize how wrong I was about this statement. I hope so. I want to like Game of Thrones as a set of novels, but beyond the first two novels, they don't work for me.
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