“Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.” –Elvis Presley
In which I try to convince you, dear writer, not to kill or rape the main character
This is the third and (for now) final episode in my rant on writing. My mission is to change the situation I found myself in eight years ago, in which I was so flat out of decent fantasy and science fiction to read that I was forced to write it myself.
I want to be clear that the crappy sci fi and (especially) fantasy I was on about was not crappy because the writers couldn’t put a decent sentence together. (They put a lot of decent sentences together, these people. Way too many, in my opinion.) It was not crappy because the writers had no good ideas. (They had piles of ideas. Far too many ideas.) I also want to be clear that there are gigantic exceptions to everything I say. (If you know me, you know this is true in general. You also know I use too many parentheses.) The Foundation Trilogy, for instance, is almost entirely an idea; with a time line that covers over three centuries, it’s hard for it to center on character, and “The Milky Way” is hardly a setting at all. And yet it’s beyond excellent and into canonical.
In the last episode, I listed five ways in which writers overdid the ideas they found so cool—ideas that replaced what I was actually looking for, which would be character and setting and, what’s the third thing? Oh yes. Character. SO:
Please do not kill off your main characters unless you absolutely have to.
Unless you’re writing Jane Austen homages, your story will probably not go forward without a little bloodshed. The Lord of the Rings kills off literally dozens of named characters; the Harry Potter novels involve the deaths of multiple major figures; The Hunger Games slaughters children nearly two dozen at a time. I like The Hunger Games; the other two are, to me, basically scripture.
But: Tolkien doesn’t kill Frodo (except metaphorically at the end), nor does he kill Gandalf (well, he gets bettah) nor Bilbo nor Aragorn nor Gimli nor Merry & Pippin & Sam, and that’s basically the complete list of people who qualify as protagonist. Rowling doesn’t kill Harry or Hermione or Ron; she kills Dumbledore but he’s almost as much an active character after he’s gone. Collins doesn’t kill Katniss. My beloved noir novelists, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, literally write about murder; in Hammett’s Red Harvest, my students counted 26 major characters, of whom 19 are killed. But they never even approach killing their own detectives.
Any writer of anything that has the threat of death in it, and this is ten times truer when war is involved, has faced the issue of which characters have to die. You have your hero Princess Suzy, and her beloved, Captain Andre. You have Andre’s four loyal underlings, Roberto the Tall, Vaughan the singer, Ingrid the Amazon warrior and Shawn the misfit. You have the dwarf thieves Thinger and Thanger. You have Suzy’s loyal retainer Fredenger, her maids Sylvie and Inimita, her sickly but studious uncle Starker and her plucky kid brother Bruce. Oh, and her widowed father, the Duke, a good man if a bit stiff, and his elderly but faithful butler Pemberwall. Well, there’s a siege on; has been since Page 130 and the book is 547 pages long. We just passed 400 and none of the above has died. You know, I get it. Someone is going to die or these barbarians (who will breach the walls on page 429; house to house fighting will ensue) are lame indeed.
So, as an author, you look down the list. Roberto or Vaughan but not both; Shawn if we’re desperate. Not Ingrid, but let’s kill one of the dwarfs and have the other mourn him (or her) floridly. One of the maids. Starker sacrifices himself to save Bruce, who gets badly wounded but doesn’t die of a dagger thrown at Suzy. The Duke, of course, dies, heroically perhaps, and Suzy becomes Duchess, with faithful butler Penderwall (unless he turns out to be a bad guy, which could be). The old retainer Fredenger should not make dinner plans for tomorrow.
But we don’t kill Andre and we definitely don’t kill Suzy.
We threaten to kill Suzy, of course, and Andre too. You know what? We have Andre about to die at the hands of the barbarian khan; no, scratch that, he’s about to die at the hands of the scoundrel Vaughan. And Suzy, who herself barely escaped the evil intent of the barbarian khan (who got himself brained by Ingrid, or even better, by the maid Sylvie), puts an arrow in the back of that scoundrel’s neck just as he has his scimitar raised to end the existence on this earth of the man Suzy didn’t realize till now she loves more than life itself.
I don’t want to rag on George R. R. Martin. He’s sold more books than Lao-tse; he’s beloved of readers and viewers I know personally to have excellent taste; and it’s worth adding that he once mentioned my own parents’ books on life in the Middle Ages among his (many) sources. But he is famous for his willingness to kill main characters. And that has twice kept me from getting beyond the first thirty pages of A Game of Thrones. In the prologue, we meet three people. We are given their relations and their back stories. We come to care about them and understand where they come from and seem to be going. At the end of the prologue, two of them are dead, and the third dies off-page early in Chapter One. Why do that to a reader? To show your cojones? Well, that may be the sole reason in other cases; Martin is on record with a more cogent explanation.
Interviewed by Conan O’Brien, Martin said: “We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble — he’s surrounded by 20 people, but you know he’s gonna get away ’cause he’s the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him… I want my readers and I want my viewers to be afraid when my characters are in danger. I want them to be afraid to turn the next page because the next character may not survive it.” In other words, it’s not sufficient to allow the reader (or viewer) to wonder if Lavender Brown or Kingsley Shacklebolt, if Boromir or Legolas is going to die; you have to keep Harry or Ron or Hermione, Frodo or Aragorn or Merry Brandybuck in play.
But it’s not true.
People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Sometimes (The Iliad) heroes die; sometimes (The Odyssey) they don’t. (Everyone in the crew but Odysseus dies. Sorry—spoiler from 2800 years ago.) While we’re on the Greeks and spoilers, let’s note that Greek audiences generally would have known how the stories came out—and they wouldn’t have cared. They flocked to plays not in spite of knowing how they ended, but probably in part because they knew how they ended.
Knowing a character is safe in the long run basically has no effect on how you feel when he or she is in danger. Think about the last time you read a novel where the main character faces a significant and well-set-up threat: for instance, Frodo in the dell below Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring. I find that scene terrifying—and it was basically just as terrifying the tenth time I read it. The scene in Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry figures out that he conjured (or will conjure—time travel, amirite??) the saving Patronus: the fourth time I read it, and the eleventh time I saw the movie, I was still yelling at him: Expecto patronum, you moron! It wasn’t your dad! It was YOU!!
So, with the rare exception (Julius Caesar pretty much requires that Julius Caesar die midway through), the argument normally cited to kill the main character prior to the absolute climax of the story doesn’t actually hold. You get as much out of almost killing the hero as out of actually killing the hero. So much for the upside. What’s the downside?
The downside, and this applies to major characters of the rank below the hero too, is that the reader has lost a friend in the story—not to mention a foothold there. Without Gandalf or Dumbledore as guide, reader as well as characters feel lost and alone. With the death of Duke Leto in Dune, the hero is both lost and unprotected, and is forced out into a world where he knows no harbor. But all of these are necessary to move the plot forward.
It’s the Hero’s Journey, baby. The Guide has an important function, whether it’s Obi-wan Kenobi or Gandalf or Vergil or Mentor or Hamlet’s dad’s ghost, but the Guide has to let the Hero go forth on his or her own, or else it’s the Guide’s Journey, and the Guide has already been there. But killing off the Hero every 211 pages and bringing on a new Hero is just pointless torture. And also? It stops the reader in her tracks, and now she has to reset her whole orientation to the story. Sure, Harry could have got himself killed in Book Two and had Hermione take over, but why would we want that? It’s not as if we’re not scared for him in Book Five and Book Six and Book Seven because he survived Book Two.
So please, I implore you:
By all that is right and good, be kind to the protagonist. Not too kind, mind you. I did a lot of bad things to poor Countess Vivian; Alice lost her whole family and spent a lot of time hungry and cold and on the run; my beloved Jacky C starts right off losing her girlfriend and treks through four different completely doomed worlds, making friends who are themselves pretty much completely doomed. I’m not a nice person to my main characters, no more than my own heroes, Professor Tolkien, Ms. Rowling, Mr. Lovecraft et al. The hero needs to be tested, obviously. But death, unless you’re Jesus (or Gandalf, actually), is too final.
One last thing.
Addendum: Rape is not the same as murder, but be warned. If you subject your main character to sexual violence, I will not read your book. Most of my main characters are women, and it’s true that sexual violence is something that actually happens to women, but as a writer, you need to tread very carefully there.
Even something like Ella Enchanted, which is in many ways wonderful and doesn’t involve literal sexual violence, wanders near that uncomfortable region with the idea that Ella can be made to do anything someone else wishes for her to do. The last, fourth, best of the Aurian novels, Dhiammara, has this major flaw: the psychological violence visited on characters sours the whole experience. Besides that, when Villain A controls the actions of Good Character B, it loosens the bond of character to behavior and makes you wonder what the heck character is actually worth.
But these didn’t involve the threat of rape. That used to be a standard marker for the villain to incite the hero, although often (as lampooned in The Princess Bride) it’s dressed up as forced marriage rather than forced intercourse. Nowadays, the thought of Princess Suzy being forced to marry the bad guy seems awful enough, but if she then used her wedding night to stab him, well, that’s just plot. But if he drugs her and proceeds to take his pleasure—I’m going to stop reading (or writing) and go rinse my eyes with some nice light literature. Lovecraft, perhaps. No sex there.
And with that, I am done with my three-part rant on how not to write. Thank you for reading this public service announcement. I’m just trying to make what I read better.