Off With Their Heads?

Here’s a simple question for you – should your characters die?

It’s a complicated question and one authors seem to disagree on a lot. J.K. Rowling made sure characters died as something of a regular occurrence in the Harry Potter books because death was a regular part of life as we know it. The counterpoint to that, of course, is that magic isn’t part of normal life but that’s in Rowling’s books so why not omit something that normally is a part of life while we’re at it?

Writers have bandied this question about for quite a while and we shouldn’t pretend to there’s a perfect answer since each work has a unique writer, audience and purpose in mind. What a writer deliberating over the fate of a specific character needs to do is consider all the reason to kill off a character and not to kill off a character (unless you’re one of those people who uses the “I was writing and found this person dead!” technique, in which case this whole discussion is probably pretty academic to you.) Yes, this is kind of cold-blooded but it’s also a part of the art and you’ll never be good at it unless you master this kind of decision making.

To Kill

Reasons a character may need to go under the bus include the following:

  • To provide finality to a situation. Sometimes you just want people to understand the story is over and killing an important character can create that understanding clearly. To a lesser extent character death can also signal going from one phase of a story to another as it provides a clear and distinct point of transition.
  • To distinctly show the consequences of an action or decision. Be it the execution of a noble freedom fighter for resisting an evil government or a drug dealer bleeding out in a warehouse after a fierce gun battle with rivals, death is the ultimate price for the actions a character takes.
  • To provide clear, understandable motivation for a character. These days this use for character death is pretty well-worn territory and probably not the best use under most circumstances. How many cliched characters are driven by the death of a parent, sibling or significant other? But the fact is, in reality people do draw powerful motivation from the deaths of loved ones.
  • Verisimilitude. Rowling’s argument holds a lot of water, especially in stories that feature a great deal of conflict or poor general living conditions. People die under some circumstances on a regular basis and telling those stories well may involve characters – even well loved ones – dying.

There are probably other good reasons for a character to die off in a story but these are among the most consistent and the strongest.

Or Not To Kill 

On the other hand, while most of the reasons not to kill of a character can be written around that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Plus the work of setting up a character for their death scene can demand more than your story can support. Many authors have told of characters who were always meant to die but never found the right time for their exit… a testament to how difficult a character can be to kill off. So why not kill a character?

  • It can break immersion. People come to entertainment expecting it to provoke an emotion. But if your audience notices you manipulating them to get to that emotional payoff they’ll be yanked right out of the story and that’s bad. Many character deaths feel more like direct emotional manipulation than true moments of loss or catharsis and then the audience notices you messing with them and they drop you – hard.
  • It takes away future stories with the dead character. Of course that’s a big part of what death is, an end to all opportunity. But you’re a storyteller not a character so be careful not to dead-end yourself when a character winds up dead. While dead characters can still appear in stories through various narrative devices the fact is killing a character will still close many doors to you – even if you think you’ve told all the stories you want to using a particular character there’s always more you could do. You might not want to close that door.
  • It can cause problems for other characters. Sometimes you sit down to write a scene and realize that it’s going to do things to your characters that will totally sidetrack your story. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes it’s more hassle than it’s worth. If you don’t want to sidetrack your story it’s time to ask yourself if you want your other characters to remain consistent to the character’s you’ve already created or change them drastically. There’s nothing wrong with a traumatic even changing characters in a story but if you do choose to do that you’d better commit or you’ll wind up with inconsistent and unlikable characters.
  • The audience may not like it. While I do feel that authors shouldn’t let their audience’s reaction to something prevent them from doing it I also recognize that entertainment is a two-way street. I don’t think you can make a solid argument for either authorial intent or audience interpretation reigning supreme in storytelling – they really need to meet somewhere in the middle. While an author does have an obligation to make his work as comprehensible to his audience as possible he doesn’t have an obligation to make them happy. On the other hand, authors do need audience investment to prosper, so this is a thin line to walk.

This Is The Question

A moment of real talk, if we may. Writing isn’t easy. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone who’s tried to write anything meaningful. That reality applies to any decision a writer makes but in fiction but, just like in real life, death in fiction is a very permanent thing. (Less permanent than in real life, let’s be honest, but still quite permanent most of the time.) It’s fair to ask if you really need to kill a character to tell your story. It’s just as fair to conclude that you do. But if you do keep in mind that working out that decision in your story is going to put your writing under an even higher level of scrutiny and be prepared for it.


The Last of Them

I was looking over my latest Reading List post and I noticed that four out of the seven fiction titles I’ve recommended have a central character who is the last of something. DCI Thomas Nightingale (Midnight Riot) is the last traditional wizard in England, Atticus O’Sullivan (The Iron Druid Chronicles) is the last Druid on the planet, Aral Kingslayer (Fallen Blade) is the last Blade of Namara and Aleksander Ferdinand (Leviathan) is the last of his lineage. So I thought I might write a few words about why authors tend to use protagonists who are the last of something, and what that might mean for us as writers.

First, the why. Aleksander is actually the prime example of this, even though the others might feel more ‘important’ in some way. You see, being the last of something, much like being an orphan (both of which Aleksander is) serves to help the character gain sympathy from the audience. Sympathy is only a step from empathy, a powerful component of audience investment.

Everyone’s felt like the odd man out and what’s a more clear cut example of that than being the last example of something on Earth? Nothing, that’s what! So a character who’s the last of their kind can automatically win a degree of sympathy from most audiences, putting them one step down the road to solid investment. A character who’s the last of their kind also provokes investment in another way, namely it makes the audience curious.

After all, if you have the last of something (let’s call it Spoon) you can immediately gather two things:

  1. There used to be more Spoons.
  2. All of those other Spoons are gone now.

Now I know that probably feels like a no-brainer but consider all the questions that this simple, two point premise immediately provokes:

  • What happened to all the other Spoons?
  • Is the Last Spoon in danger of having the same happen to it?
  • Can more Spoons be created to carry on the Spoony legacy?
  • How was it the Last Spoon survived when all the other Spoons met their fate?
  • What is the Last Spoon doing about its situation?
  • How does the Last Spoon cope with its change in circumstances?

And this list is by no means exhaustive. The questions raised by the existence of the Last Spoon also serve to drive audience interest and keep them guessing. Better yet, there’s no one formula to how the questions might be answered.

We know pretty much everything about the fate of Aleksander’s family from the get-go, the only real question the story addresses is how he will survive. On the other hand, while we know that Nightingale is the last wizard because they decided it was time to stop training them there’s no clear reason for the decision given beyond vague references to a place called Ettersburg. And Nightingale outlived his peers and became the last of them because for some reason he stopped aging (and in fact aged backwards for a while). That part has never been explained and we know Nightingale himself doesn’t know why it happened.

Being the last of a kind is a powerful technique for gaining reader investment, both because of the immediate sympathy it provokes and the enormous curiosity it brings with it. And it’s flexible enough to tell any number of stories well in the right hands. While such advantages can be squandered if you’re not careful and measured in what you do casting the Last Spoon as a central character in your story can be a real asset. Try it and let me know how it goes!

Pokemon, Spiderman and Enfranchisement

Curious yet? Then let’s dive right in.

Pokemon is a video game franchise with a lot of well earned criticism leveled at it. The graphics are kind of cutesy, the games themselves are very simple and kind of repetitive and all the tie-in media makes it very easy to view as a cash grab. But with all that said Pokemon has succeeded and done so in spades for one very simple, straight-forward reason. It’s easy to learn and get invested in.

This is both the glory and downfall of the franchise. People new to Pokemon find it very easy to pick up and understand. But longtime fans frequently complain that the game itself never changes or grows – not entirely true but it certainly hasn’t changed much since the early days. There’s a lot of nostalgia power in Pokemon but other franchises have since come along and done the formula’s story better and the game itself offers only fair amusement for far too much time investment.

What’s the lesson we can learn? Well, it’s about enfranchisement – or how involved people are with a thing. All entertainment faces the hurdle of getting the audience invested, or enfranchised and Pokemon follows the KISS method – keep it simple, stupid, providing simple yet fun scenarios to play around with. But the problem with that approach is it quickly gets boring and then a little insulting. Audiences familiar with the premise want to see more from it than they’re getting and they’re not finding it.

The problem is if you keep a long running franchise going after new things for too long you start to build up a ridiculously high barrier to entry and new audiences will have a hard time understanding what’s going on. The result is that your audience stops growing, or growth just slows to a crawl as people are scared away from your franchise. So how do you keep your enfranchised audience happy while still attracting new readers?

Well, that brings me to something I’d like to call the Spiderman solution.

Back in the very early days of Marvel, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were basically creating the brand from scratch they came out with this little character named Spiderman. Now Spiderman originated about a year after Marvel’s first big powerhouse title The Fantastic Four came out and it was particularly aimed at a young audience. Comic books were still “kids stuff” at the time but, after forty years or so, they were starting to find acceptance as mainstream entertainment and The Fantastic Four in particular may not have appealed to the young people of the 60s with its gritty (for the time) approach to superheroes. Thus, Spiderman was offered as an alternative for the wee folks.

Of course Marvel wanted Spiderman in its shared universe but, at the moment, the Fantastic Four were the keystone for that universe. How to show this without disenfranchising Spiderman fans who didn’t also read about the Fantastic Four?

Easy! Do it a little at a time. Things began with a stand-alone issue where Doctor Doom, the Fantastic Four’s greatest villain, showed up and caused trouble for Spiderman. The webslinger foiled Doom, of course, but this eventually led to his meeting the other heroes and learning what the score was. The problem of bringing the Spiderman audience into the greater Marvel fold was accomplished quickly and painlessly.

While neither major comic book publisher now uses the Spiderman approach to attract new readers – ie, create a new character in a new series and let new readers appreciate an existing world through their eyes – that’s mainly because the Big Two have refused to let any portion of their library fade to make room for new ideas. The methodology itself is sound and if you’re looking for a good way to bring new audience into existing work than by all means, avoid the Pokemon strategy and suit up with Spiderman. You’ll keep more audience in the long run.

The Reading List (Part The Second)

And we’re back with five more books that might be of interest to you! These are just books I recommend as good reads, with a short overview of what to expect and a link to any longer review I’ve done, if there is one. Without further ado, here they are!

Broken Blade, by Kelly McCollough

Genres: Low Fantasy

Sequels: Five in total

The Blades of Namara were the weapons of Justice on earth, dedicated to destroying those who, by virtue of wealth, status or personal might, committed evil without fear of mortal retribution. Aral Kingslayer was one of Namara’s greatest weapons, utterly devoted to the cause. When the incarnation of Justice was murdered and her servants hunted to the brink of extinction it did more than take his home and his purpose. It broke his heart and left him without a single thing to hold to.

The kingdom of Tien is the former kingdom of Ashvik the Merciless, who’s death gave Aral his name. It would take a special kind of gall for the assassin who murdered the previous king to hide from his enemies there – either that or true apathy about his fate. With Aral it can be hard to tell the two apart.

Namara has been dead for years and Aral never recovered. But the fact that Justice is gone doesn’t mean people don’t need justice. Although by any measure Aral is an adult the Fallen Blade novels are his coming of age as he learns to understand justice on his own and teaches others to do the same.

20th Century Boys, by Naoki Urosawa

Genres: Suspense/Thriller

Sequels: 20th Century Boys is a comic series that spans some 20ish volumes. Finding and reading them all may be difficult but is well worth the time.

When Kenji and his friends were young they wanted to save the world. So they built a small hideout in an empty lot and sat around, making up stories about how Earth would be in peril and how they would save it. They put them all in a book full of doodles and daydreams then buried them in a time capsule for their super-cool adult selves to dig up and remember.

Twenty years later Kenji runs the small general store he inherited from his parents and looks after the young daughter his older sister left behind just before she mysteriously vanished. Life is not what he thought it would be. But someone remembers the old daydreams and when a childhood friend of Kenji’s inexplicably commits suicide Kenji starts to notice that the world he lives in is starting to look frighteningly like the world he used to daydream about – complete with impending disaster.

I love this story because of how realistically it portrays its protagonists. Kenji and his friends are parents and brothers, shop owners and office workers, united only by old friendship and half-remembered principles. They’re not terribly skilled, even for the jobs they do. Their first instinct in the face of trouble is to flinch and look for an exit. They are not the people who they wanted to grow up to be.

But they are the brave men who will save the world – and their story is a delight to read.

This is a Book by Demetri Martin, by Demetri Martin

Genre: Nonfiction, Humor

Series: Stands alone

If you’ve never heard of Demetri Martin don’t feel bad – I hadn’t until I picked up his book. Apparently he’s a stand-up comic and he has a TV show somewhere. He usually embellishes his bits with drawings he’s created with maximum comic effect in mind and his book works much the same way. It’s a collection of hilarious essays with a bunch of sketches in the middle. Reading it is much like sitting with a friend who likes to ramble about whatever subject strikes his fancy in the most ludicrous way imaginable.

Martin tackles everything from welcoming his readers to the oddities of American colloquialisms with wit and a keen eye for the absurd. If you just want a book where you can read a few pages an evening and enjoy yourself immensely, this is for you. In fact, you’ll probably want it around just to help you detox from the next couple of books…

Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Sequels: Many, in so far as there are hundreds of books on the events before and after the ones covered in this book, but no direct sequels.

It’s not fair to say any one man can win or lose a war. But those in leadership certainly have more of an impact than most and their decision-making processes under pressure have much to teach us. Sea of Thunder is a look at four men who led others into the largest naval battle in history and, in their own ways, shaped the outcome of the greatest war in history.

Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita was a man dedicated to Imperial Japan but not in the way many of his peers were. He disapproved of suicide missions in general and specifically, later in the war, needlessly wasting the future of the nation for futile gestures. Ironically, he would command one of the largest suicide operations the Japanese Navy ever launched. He survived that mission and the war, quietly refusing to comment on his part in it to all but the closest of friends.

Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, on the other hand, enthusiastically embraced the kamikaze spirit, to the point where he himself flew a final kamikaze mission after hearing that peace had been declared. He also kept an extensive and revealing personal diary that sheds light on exactly what kind of mindset lay behind the suicidal fervor of many Japanese servicemen.

Vice Admiral (later Fleet Admiral) William “Bull” Halsey was the commander of one of the U.S. fleets operating in the Pacific. A man of great personal charisma and ambition Halsey fought hard, seeking to win the war by whatever tactics proved most effective. It’s widely assumed, however, that he wanted to personally win a big naval battle, to command his ships against those of the enemy from the battle line. Most of the big battles of World War II he missed because of timing – the Navy rotated command staff to keep them fresh and Halsey was not in the Pacific Theater during the battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea. He was in command for the Battle of Leyte Gulf – but he personally would still miss out on most of the action.

Commander Ernest Evans is the odd man out in the book – he wasn’t a flag officer and would never command anything more than a single ship. He was noted for leading by example and his crew loved him. More than anything he was a fighter and he promised his crew that theirs would be a fighting ship that would never turn away from an enemy force. His spirit would prove greater than the strength of his vessel.

In October of 1944 these four men would converge in Leyte Gulf and all the strength and weaknesses of their characters was on display. If you’ve an interest in human nature, the burden of command or just what it means to show courage under fire then this is a book for you.

 A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Sequels: Same as above.

The 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry divisions are legends in the U.S. armed forces, and with good reason. They famously helped paved the way for the Normandy invasion during WWII, in addition to participating in several difficult operations leading up to the invasion. The British 1st Parachute Infantry Division holds a similar place in the history of the British Army. What many people don’t know about these storied units is that they all, along with a regiment of Polish paratroopers and assorted other units, served together at one time as the First Allied Airborne Army.

Operation Market/Garden was a wildly ambitious plan enacted shortly after Operation Overlord. It’s objectives were simple: Seize a series of five bridges in the Netherlands and hold them long enough for key pieces of Allied armies to scramble across. The ultimate goal was to cross the Rhine river into Germany before the winter of 1944. The plan relied on good weather, good coordination and speed. The job of the paratroops was to hold the bridges open until the tanks and regular infantry could get up to and secure them. The entire plan was supposed to take five or six days and expected light resistance.

Two weeks later the Allies would limp sadly back to their own lines with a grand total of nothing accomplished. As one general had speculated as the plan was approved, the army had reached a bridge too far.

Airborne infantry, no matter the nation they serve, have a reputation as the best trained, best equipped and toughest soldiers in existence. The story of Operation Market/Garden does not disprove that reputation. Rather, it lets us see that reputation in action as the people who carry it face the greatest test there is: Failure.

What emerges from the dust is a tribute to the dangers of overconfidence, distrust between allies and acting before all the information is in. It is also a tribute to the fortitude, courage and determination of the First Allied Airborne Army as they very nearly accomplished one of the most daring maneuvers in the battle for Europe.

Genrely Speaking: Ghost Stories

Yeah, it’s that time again. In many ways, this genre is a spiritual successor to the fairy tale and in truth ghost stories probably started as a modern offshoot of folklore. However at this point it kind of exists as its own thing, with its own purposes and that makes it a genre of its own. What’s more, ghost stories are very popular, enduring and “grown up” modern stories where fairy tales are considered old fashioned and “childish” and generally a niche thing, baring reinterpretations aimed at a mass audience.

So what, exactly, is a ghost story?

  1. It is a story focusing on a string of unexplained events popularly credited to a supernatural force, namely a person who is now dead. Yes, I consider stories about demonic entities, such as The Exorcist, to be separate subgenres with their own conventions and tropes. In order to be a ghost story there must be a ghost, or at least the idea of a ghost. The quintessential American ghost story is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the reader is never clearly told whether Ichabod Crane’s terror is inspired by a ghost or just a jealous rival masquerading as one. Of course some ghost stories go all one way or the other – all Scooby Doo ghosts and goblins prove to be normal people plus some tricks while Jacob Marley is generally accepted as quite real in A Christmas Carol. The main point is that the idea of a ghost has to be present as an inciting incident.
  2. A focus on the state of the dead person before and after their death as a motivation. This is most pronounced in A Christmas Carol, with a heavy emphasis between Marley’s contentment with life before death versus his horrible state after death. Likewise, the nameless Hessian soldier’s loss of his head is exactly what drives his haunting of Sleepy Hollow and makes others terrified of him. Note that, while the states of these spirits are pitiable, they are more the source of motivation for the living characters to act. Yes, some ghost stories present clear cut motivations for a ghost’s actions but even in these stories the dead prompt responses from the living characters at the heart of the story and those reactions are what drives the story forward.
  3. A contrast between courage and exploration and cowardice and superstition. This is most pronounced in Sleepy Hollow, where Crane is strongly contrasted with his rival, “Bram Bones” Van Blunt, a very famous local who seems to possess more fortitude and a keener, if not more learned, mind than Crane. On the other hand, Scrooge’s willingness to travel with the other spirits he meets after Marley’s visit and learn about humanity and relearn his own story shows a courage the character is rarely credited with. Yes, he whines a lot but his circumstances surely justify it to an extent. Scrooge learns and grows where as Crane never does.

What are the weaknesses of a ghost story? As I said before, I truly feel that ghost stories started as just another kind of fairy tale intended to convey a simple moral in a memorable fashion. Unfortunately the memorable fashion was a story of suspense and occasionally horror and those are the aspects of the ghost story that far too many people emphasize in the telling.

A ghost story of cheap thrills and jump scares isn’t going to linger long. Worse, after sitting through a few of these the audience learns to anticipate what is coming and steel themselves against it. Worst of all, a surprisingly large number of people grow out of being easily startled as they age, to the point where a bad ghost story, chasing pure thrills, is going to break against them to no effect. Other than making the teller look silly, perhaps.

What are the strengths of a ghost story? When told well, with good atmosphere and an eye towards pacing, these stories can emphasize feelings of isolation, loneliness and, most importantly, how characters overcome these things or what weaknesses cause others to succumb to them. These are both incredibly valuable lessons that create empathy and understanding in audiences and when handled correctly make for powerful emotional investment for the reader.

Proof is no further than A Christmas Carol, one of the most commonly referenced stories of English literature. A TV show that lasts more than a season or two is probably going to do a homage to it, it has more TV, movie and stage adaptations than perhaps any other work of fiction and the original text still rings true today. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is another prime example, although it hasn’t had the widespread cultural impact of Dickens’ tale it’s still widely recognized and frequently comes up around Halloween.

Ghosts are rarely real things – I’m not going to say they’re never real and when they are they’re probably not what we think they are (dun, dun DUN!) But they hardly need to give you nightmares and, like many things that have little bearing on reality, they can be incredibly useful tools for making characters in stories reflect on themselves and, by extension, prompt audiences to do the same. So don’t be ashamed of reading a ghost story now and then, so long as you can rest in peace when you’re done.