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.