Thursday, December 16, 2010

Death of a Character - Is it Gratuitous or Does It Move the Story Along?

I normally read 3-4 books a week. I have an hour commute each way to work and am one of those people who has to read a bit before falling asleep. I've learned not to read Lisa Gardner before bed but Jo Davis gives me fascinating dreams. Mariah Stewart gives me something to think about and Shirley Rousseau Murphy gives me something to chuckle about. But characters come and at the end of a book or series they go. Some stay in our memory; others fade away.

Today while I was out walking on a break I found myself thinking about a book I'd just finished reading. I loved the hero.

Okay, reality check? I lusted after the hero and tried to figure out who in my real life was just like him. No one.

No, it wasn't that he was too good to be true. He was actually very well drawn and three dimensional. He had personality, charisma, charm, was intelligent and while emotionally vulnerable, he knew he was and resolved it for himself. It was marvelous to see his development through the story.

What turned me off on the story was the death of one of the characters. I didn't particularly care for her. She didn't resonate with me. She reminded me of one of those women who thinks she's hot stuff and doesn't care who she stomps on while completing her agenda. Still, there was something about her that, I felt, in a future story could be redeemed.

The book is part of a series featuring one profession. I can see from the introduction of a character in book 2, who shows up in book 3 that here may be a story in his future -- errr, I mean a story about him in our future. And from his there would be others in featuring this second profession -- if that makes sense.

To clarify, say for instance the initial series is about doctors and they have a police officer showing up in the ER. So the series about the ER doctors finishes out and then you have this hottie cop who leads off a second series. Does that make a bit more sense?

So while I was thinking this secondary "cop" character would make for an interesting story of his own with this female as his heroine, she's killed off. And not in a very nice way. I was stunned. It made no sense. Here was all this potential and she's just killed off. And the author made her really ugly in death. She was crushed and rendered totally unrecognizable.

Why? I couldn't see any reason for it. And the hero, who was her best friend, just moves on with his lady. Goes to the funeral but his life just moves along, as does the heroine, without the nightmares or sadness or remorse at the other woman dying. It read, to me, like gratuitious drama rather than an inherent thread that added to the story. Such a missed opportunity!

A few weeks ago I read another book that was the third in a series. Two secondary characters in book 2 were hysterical. I totally enjoyed reading them. The author treated her readers to some marvelous banter between the two and I was delighted to see one of them had his own story in book 3. It was an okay story, nothing special, but still an enjoyable read. And then the best friend gets killed off. And he wasn't just killed with a conk on the head or a bullet that hit a vital organ. Oh no, it was a long, lingering death that, again, read like gratuitous drama, not something that enhanced the story.

Okay, now I've had characters with qualities of people I haven't particularly had a good experience with die off. When you write fiction you can have the ending you would like to have seen in real life with the benefit of no one getting hurt. You have a moment (or longer) of catharsis, you have closure to a rotten experience and move on.

After reading these two books I've looked at the upcoming death of one of my characters. Does she really need to die to make the story work? Given the bad guy is someone awfully like Jack the Ripper that would be a yes. Jack didn't just scratch your arm and move on. He sliced and diced in a very definitive way. So yeah, in that case, killing off the secondary character fits.

How do you, as a reader, feel when a character dies? Have you pined for a well-liked secondary character that was killed off? Did you feel something else could have happened to achieve the same emotional ending without the needless drama? When is a character's death the right thing?


  1. Oh, do I have a book for you! Talk to you about it some time. Good post, Regan.

  2. Hmmmm. I don't care if an evil villain dies. Especially is he's really heinous. I do care if a significant secondary character dies - especially if the character dies in such a way that does not further the plot. On occasion, when a strong, likable character dies, one who I feel could easily go on to have his or her own story, or could at least continue to contribute significantly to the story I'm reading, I get really pissed off at the author.
    But...if you're writing about a nasty Jack the Ripper type, ew! Somebody's gonna bite it!

  3. I do kill off a secondary character now and then, but I try always to 1) make it make sense in the story, and 2) have consequences for the other characters. I learned from Stephen King that killing off a well-liked character can really ramp up your involvement with a book if done well. But I do agree that if a character has been developed and dies, there must be some enduring and ongoing response from his fellow characters -- it shouldn't be a glancing blow unless it was some minor red shirt...

  4. To be honest, if the description of a murder gets too detailed, I simply don't read it. I live my stories. I agree that in certain cases evil characters are needed to move the stories forward, but I'd rather there was nothing likable about them to start with:-)So I guess I would vote for gratuitous.

  5. Interesting, as always, Regan.
    I tend to remove really bad characters by letting them have a fatal accident or things like that. I write romance, not romantic suspense, so detailed murders, deaths, etc., would seem gratuitous. But when a character has beome really nasty, oops! he gets killed, offstage...


  6. I write historical romance set in the American Revolution so there is a fair amount of death. I actually try to keep the "casualties" down in number. I hate it when they die! During a smallpox epidemic in my recent novel, I researched the actual percentage of fatalities usually expected and allowed death accordingly. But it is not always the "bad" guys that die. I believe in redemption for my characters. And I always want the characters to be grieved and remembered. Their "lives" matter to the plot.