Readers, Writers, Characters and Death.
Readers, Writers, Characters and Death by P.T. Mayes
One of the greatest wrenches a reader can experience is when a cherished character in a book dies.
There you are, you've been living with this character for something like 500+ pages, getting to know him or her in a way you'd never be able to do with a real living person, and then along comes the Big Bad Murderer -- or a runaway steamroller -- or the joke that was too damn funny -- and BANG! And it's all over in little less than a sentence or two. You think they'd get at least a paragraph! Damn that wretched writer!
You didn't see it coming, but then that's precisely what the writer wants. If it wasn't a shock then what would be the point of reading in the first place? But characters die because the battle for life, the struggle against death, is the basis of all drama. If you could take it for granted that every character was going to live happily ever after, then you wouldn't turn over every page with that pleasant dread of the unexpected that only a good book can give you.
Readers, of course, are innocent souls. When we read a book have no inking who is going to live and who is going to die (unless it's a horror or thriller novel, of course) and even when it is a horror or thriller novel we hope that "this one will escape". However it should be noted that new characters introduced at the start of a chapter set in a different milieu to the main story (say, a farmer in a book about evil investment bankers) are usually dead by the end of it. Readers don't know what's coming, so when the final moment comes they can only read on with boiled egg eyes and hope that it's a word processing malfunction, or that Superman might fly down and turn back time and bring them back to life, even if the book is set in the 17th Century. After all you can do anything in a book, can't you?
On the other hand, writers usually know who is going to snuff it well in advance. Characters are usually conceived with sell by dates stamped on their foreheads: To die in Chapter 12. And because writers are generally an evil bunch (although our author photos show us as being generally benign and avuncular (or materteral)) we give the doomed character a little bit of pathos, a little bit more humanity, so when their terminal moment comes the wrench for the poor reader is worse than what they would feel for any of the other, less sympathetic, characters.
But at other times the death of a character can take the writer as much by surprise as the reader, especially if the book is loosely structured -- and sometimes even if it is highly structured -- where the character was meant to have survived. The Story is almost like a character in itself, an unseen God who holds the fates of all the characters in his cruel hand. The writer merely writes the stuff down, and where the writer has assumed a character will live, the story insists otherwise. I have written death scenes in a state of stunned bewilderment. This character wasn't meant to die, so what the hell am I doing? They can't die. They were meant to play a big part in the sequel!
At least then you know it'll give the innocent reader as much as a shock as it gave you, and in a book that's priceless.
Two of my biggest wrenches as a reader are:
"Floating Dragon" by Peter Straub. This death (I won't say who) so upset me that I couldn't pick up the novel again for several days.
"Gai-jin" by James Clavell. This book sets up a strong hero and a heroine, only to slaughter them both in horrible ways, forcing lesser, "Weaker" (and indeed, reluctant) characters to step forward and take their places. It was an interesting twist (and maybe even symbolic), but I loved those strong characters and missed them right to the end of the book. Oh, where's Superman when you need him?
(Copyright 2013 by P.T. Mayes)