I’ve always been a softy when it comes to literary characters and, in hindsight, taking both Black Beauty and Watership Down on the holiday may have been a bad move. For books about bunnies and ponies, they both have surprisingly high body-counts. My family had hoped to enjoy a quiet week away with the seven-year-old me occupied by ponies and rabbits, instead they got a week of hysterics as key fluffy characters died and then had to listen to my musings on mortality over every meal. Not really the holiday they had hoped for.
It’s not just fluffy characters I mourn; when it comes to books I’m a full-on optimist with a massive sentimental streak. I find it hard to say a final goodbye to favoured characters, hoping for final reprieves and unlikely escapes long after the point where it becomes obvious that they are due to get the chop. I’m capable of holding out hope even if they have been declared long since dead and unlikely to come back (unless as a zombie). When it comes to losing characters, I’m far better at “au revoir” than just saying a straight goodbye.
Which is odd as this sentimentality doesn’t apply to other art forms. I find it annoying when movies are unwilling to follow through on threats, sparing everyone and wrenching the plot to ensure that everyone walks away in the end. (If you are going to have a move called The Expendables, expend someone). I’m more than happy to see characters killed in full and glorious techicolour. So why is it so difficult for me, and many other readers, to deal with the death of literary characters?
It’s not just readers that finds the death of literary characters difficult. J.K. Rowling had sketched out the deaths in the Harry Potter series years before she started to write the scenes and cried as she wrote some of them. She made herself follow through for the sake of the continuing story, despite pleas from friends, family, her fans and other writers (John Irving and Stephen King famously begged her not to kill Harry Potter in the final book of the series).
“Otherwise what would you do? You would just write very fluffy, cozy books,” she said. “You know, suddenly I [would be] halfway through ‘Goblet of Fire’ and suddenly everyone would just have a really great life and … the plot would go AWOL.” Rowling also pointed out that King and Irving were not in a good position to ask for characters to be spared, with their own high literary body counts. “When fans accuse me of sadism, which doesn’t happen that often, I feel I’m toughening them up to go on and read John and Stephen’s books,” she said. “It’s a cruel literary world out there.”
Not all writers feel so conflicted – or so moderate – in their dispensing of death. You don’t get much crueler than George R R Martin, whose pen scythes it’s way through supporting and main characters alike. But Martin has always been a tough cookie when it comes to killing characters, as he reveals in one interview where he says that Gandalf should have stayed dead:
“I do think that if you’re bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that’s a transformative experience. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”
What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”
And it’s not just the deaths of human characters that reader can find hard to deal with. When Stephen King had a character kick a dog to death in his novel Dead Zone he received more letters of complaint than ever before.”You want to be nice and say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like that,’ but I’m thinking to myself number one, he was a dog not a person, and number two, the dog wasn’t even real.” I’m not the only one with a sympathetic streak for ponies, puppies and all things fluffy; readers can clearly emotionally invest in anything and everything in a book. So why would a writer choose to kill off characters, and choose to do so with seemingly reckless abandon?
John Birmingham, who’s most recent offering opens with the death of 300 million and goes from there, is unapologetic. After being told he was a “nasty author“, he agreed wholeheartedly.
“I am, I really am. I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any After America spoilers, but yeah.
Is that such a bad thing though? When you write books full of explodey goodness, I think you’re shortselling the reader if some of those explosions don’t kill off the odd character. Even a favourite character. One of the great joys of reading a story or watching a movie where you’ve bonded with a character who is in great peril is not being quite sure whether they’re going to survive to the end… Nobody really likes to lose a favourite, but losing them every now and then is what makes having them in the first place so precious. And that can be so of both high culture and low.
When Norman Mailer was asked about the cruelty with which he treated his characters in The Naked and the Dead he replied with a brief lesson he learned about characters from reading Tolstoy. “Compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators’ arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not.”
Which is, I guess, a reasonable way of saying that characters should serve the story and sometimes that story includes pain and mortality.
But I’d still still prefer if we could let the fluffy ones live.