I’ve discovered there’s a brouhaha among Karin Slaughter’s readers, some of whom are not happy that she killed off a major character in her most recent novel, BEYOND REACH. Reading the comments on the discussion board, I’ve learned that: 1. Angry readers can be very scary people, and 2. Killing a main character has consequences.
I’m reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle and his ill-fated decision to kill off (temporarily at least) his beloved character Sherlock Holmes. The firestorm of readers’ protests eventually forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in a later story, where he explained that Holmes had miraculously survived that fatal tumble over the falls.
At least he didn’t resort to the lame “Dallas” explanation: “It was all a dream.”
As a mystery writer, I regularly kill off characters. Most of the time, those dead characters aren’t people my readers have grown attached to, or they die in the first act, before we get to know them. If the character is particularly likeable, it’s painful for an author to kill him off, although I’ve done it on more than one occasion. In GRAVITY, officials in Mission Control have only moments to decide whether to blow up a spacecraft and kill the astronaut riding inside it. Their struggle to make that inevitable decision is all the more dramatic because the astronaut they’re condemning to death is a lovable guy. But Misson Control has no choice. He’s only a secondary character, but because I grew to care about him, his death was one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever had to write.
In THE SURGEON, I was fully prepared to kill off Jane Rizzoli. She was, in fact, supposed to die in the climactic scene in the cellar. She wasn’t the major character; she was only a secondary character, and not a particularly likeable one, so killing her wouldn’t have broken any hearts. But as I was about to perform the coup de gras on her … something stopped me. You know what it was? She’d grown on me. She had so much heart, she’d faced so many struggles, that to end her life there struck me as appallingly unfair. So I let her live. (And I’m damn glad I did.)
But in BONE GARDEN, a major character does die toward the end. A number of my readers have written to tell me how shocked and moved they were by that death, but no one has yet expressed any anger about it. Everyone seems to understand that it was necessary to the plot. They also understand that the death was integral to the major theme in the book: that wrongs committed in the past can somehow be redeemed by what people do in the future. Yes, the death was painful to write. Yes, I hesitated to do it. But without that death, the tale would lose its power. I also made sure I gave my readers the chance to process the tragedy, by allowing the book to coast on for a few chapters longer than I normally would after the mystery was solved. It gave my characters time to grieve as well, and to eventually look back on the death with a sense of perspective. When the book ended, I wanted my readers not to feel grief and dismay, but a bittersweet and healing sense that, yes, life would go on.
One of my favorite books of all time is LONESOME DOVE. At the end of it, one of the two main characters dies and I remember sobbing in disbelief after it happened. Was his death necessary to the plot? Not really; he could have ridden off into the sunset, and the story still would have had a satisfactory resolution. But McMurtry chose to kill him, and initially I felt betrayed. He also did something very wise: he didn’t end the book abruptly, but gave me time to grieve. He gave me time with the surviving characters and let me see how the death would affect their lives for the better. It was a masterful way to end the story.
Killing a major character can be a courageous artistic move … or it can be a disastrous one. The difference is in a writer’s reason for doing it. Is it merely to shock? Is it to merely to get rid of a character you’ve grown tired of? Then you’re probably going to have legions of angry readers writing you hate mail. But if the character’s demise sets off its own dramatic chain of events, or if it’s necessary to the theme of your story, then you may have to do it.
And hope that your readers will understand — and forgive you for it.
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