Requiem for a Fictional Person

An author has the power of life and death over her characters.

It’s most convenient when you want to deal out the ultimate payback to a dastardly villain. However, sometimes in a story, it becomes necessary to eliminate a character the author and readers actually like. This might happen for a number of reasons.

1. If the character is too important to the hero or heroine, an author may have to remove them in order for the protagonist to grow. Frodo had to lose Gandalf in order to come into his full stature as the Ring Bearer.

2. Some characters may be wearing “red shirts,” a la StarTrek. In order to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, someone may have to die.

3. A character may offer himself or herself up to a dangerous enterprise, a self-sacrifice for the good of other characters. Sometimes, an author can save them. Sometimes, the character may be called upon to live out the consequences of their altruistic choice. Consider Sydney Carton, Dicken’s sardonic hero of A Tale of Two Cities. For the love of a woman who has chosen someone else, he goes to the guillotine in his rival’s place.

4. A character may sometimes have to die because the author is too cowardly to write a happy ending. Nicholas Sparks, for example, is so afraid of writing a romance, he makes his hero in Message in a Bottle engage in a stupid final gesture that leads to his tragic, senseless death. This kind of character assassination makes me want to hurl the book across the room.

I’m considering this topic today because I may find myself writing an ultimate final scene for one of my characters in my current WIP. Killing off even a fictional person is not something to be done lightly. I have to weigh the needs of the story with my affection for this rascal of a character. He may still need to die, but I don’t know yet whether it will have to come to that.

So how do you feel about losing fictional people? Is there a story where the death of a character you liked haunts you? Do you ever wish an author had bumped off one of their creations?

16 thoughts on “Requiem for a Fictional Person

  1. Ashlyn Chase says:

    And I’m totally with you re: Nicholas Sparks. I HATE his books. Hate them, hate them. Don’t bother defending him, anyone. I’ll still hate him.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Nicholas Sparks is talented storyteller. No doubt about it. But when I read his Message in a Bottle, I felt he’d baited and switched me. All the way through, this story feels like a romance. I’m cheering for this couple, both of whom have lost at love before by either infidelity or death of their spouse. I think they’re going to work through their issues and built a solid life together, when it seems Mr. Sparks smacks himself on the forehead and says, “Whoa! I’m in serious danger of writing a romance here. In order to avoid that horrendous fate at all costs, let me contrive to have the hero do something quality stupid that gets him killed!”

      That’s my beef with Mr. Sparks. A book makes a promise to a reader. If you set the reader up to expect one thing and then yank the rug out from under her with a totally unsatisfying, out-of-character action, an author shouldn’t be suprised if his book becomes airborn.

  2. Ashlyn Chase says:

    Oh! I bet I know what’s going to happen! Oh, oh, oh! (Ash jumps up and down with both hands pressed tightly over sealed lips.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      As my crit partner, you’re sworn to secrecy, Ash. (Even though I’m not sure yet myself what may happen!)

  3. Mia Marlowe says:

    Oh, I just encountered a 6th reason for character death when I started re-reading Sherry Thomas’s Delicious this morning. She uses the death of Bertie as a catalyst to propel the hero into his inheritance and into the heroine’s life. Since readers have zero invested in Bertie, there’s no emotional recoil, but it’s an interesting device to advance the plot.

  4. When I write, oh…how I love to toss in the unexpected death. The expected ones are almost harder to handle! I cried myself when I took out a beloved character in a series I’m still working on…

    I think what drives me crazy more are the undeaths. When a writer puts me through the wringer with a death and then takes it back.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Do you mean by undeath that the characters come back to life, as in zombie or vampire-style, or that they are pushed to the brink of the abyss and then snatched to safety?

      I think readers can deal with an unexpected death, but not an irrational one, i.e. one brought about because the character behaved in an inconsistent manner.

  5. I was completely unprepared for the death that comes in the first book of Eloisa James’ Essex sisters series, Much Ado about You. The turmoil the sense of loss causes between the sisters was horrible to experience, but so true to life & so engaging. I think it was the reason I HAD to have all the books in the series, and marked off the months on my calendar until each arrived.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Well, there’s a fifth reason for whacking a character that I hadn’t considered–as an emotional hook.

      Come to think of it, Deanna Raybourn does that in her Silent in the Grave where she begins with the heroine’s husband’s death by poisoning.

  6. Candi Wall says:

    I’ve read so many books I’m not sure I could pinpoint a certain one that I could use as an example, but I’m sure we’ve all seen it done well, and done badly.

    I have the hardest time accepting a self-sacrificing death. Not the instances where the char is trying to help even when he/she knows they could die, but when the death feels contrived, I get really upset, especially if I liked the character.

    However, done with the right set-up and for the right reasons, I mean as writers we do tend to put our chars through hell, the death of a character has made me cry, buckets even.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      If a character has to die, it ought to be because it was absolutely inevitable. A senseless death in fiction (as in the aforementioned Sparks novel) seems like such a waste when the character might have been given a second chance just as easily.

      Speaking of crying buckets, it’s just come to me when I first encountered a character death. It was in Little Women. I mourned Beth as if she was my own sister.

  7. I am *still* not over what happened to um, a very important character in Bertrice Small’s All The Sweet Tomorrows, which came out in 1984. When I reread the O’Malley series, I leave that one out. “Losing” that character was hard enough once. Don’t ask me to do it again.

    Pirate in my Arms by Danelle Harmon had a character, distraught over the death of their infant, cradling the body so long that another character had to remove the body from their arms. I sobbed over that one, and I don’t even have kids. It still sticks with me.

    Which may surprise some, since I’m pretty sanguine about fictional character death, and character death is a fact of life in my own stories. (No domestic animals, though. Kill a pet, lose me forever, dear writers.)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I gave up dog stories for that very reason, Anna. I still get a little weepy thinking about Where the Red Fern Grows.

  8. Xakara says:

    I freely admit to crying over character deaths. There’s a character in a Kim Harrison series that I still want to come back and hold just the tiniest bit of hope every book that somehow it’s all been a cruel trick. I was just so kicked in the gut at the death that I never accepted.

    The second character death was foreshadowed several books ahead. It still brought tears when it finally happened. I know both deaths brought growth but honestly, as a reader, protag growth can feel very overrated when death is the way it’s achieved. After all, Frodo grew without Gandalf, but Gandalf didn’t have to die for it to happen. Sometimes I think writers fail the creativity test by using death to foster growth. It’s the ultimate motivator for forward momentum but it is not the only one and in my opinion not even the most transformative, the post-illness/injury Second Chance will always do more for reevaluation than the Final Bow.

    The only two character deaths I understood even though I didn’t appreciate them were in the Odd Thomas by Dean Knootz and The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

    I’m still mourning a character from Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden Series….Sigh.

    ~Xakara

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I know what you mean about even a foreshadowed death hitting you hard, Xakara. As in real life, we may be expecting it, but we’re never quite prepared for that permanent interuption in the conversation.

    2. I still remember the loss of the character Justin from my childhood reading of the classic _Mrs Brisby and the Rats of NIMH_. I must not be alone in feeling that way because the sequel (written by a different author) brought him back to life.

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