by Savannah J. Foley
I like death because of its significance. When someone is gone it makes their story and their life just that much more precious, because they aren’t here anymore to be an everyday, taken-for-granted thing. If your character lives at the end of the story, your audience can always return to the book and find them just as they were, going about their life, getting into adventures and coming out safe at the end. The character’s life continues after the story; your audience is comforted by the fact that the character is somewhere out there having witty conversations with the secondary characters, getting into spots of trouble and eking by again, paying bills, flushing toilets, and doing the dishes.
But, when a character dies there is no ‘after’ to imagine. Their life culminated in this story, and ended there. Your story is the high note, the final verse, the last words spoken by a significant hero or heroine. What they did, said, and believed, takes on a different meaning. These were the actions of a life in its final throes; was the struggle worth it? Did their sacrifice help lead the other characters to a new meaning? Will their story be remembered and retold; have they become a legend?
Yes, death is significant. A death at the end places a higher value on the life at the beginning and middle. I have said before that I try to kill off a main character in each of my works. I love the sorrow, the nostalgia, and the wistful longings for what once was, or what might have been.
Like an artist who always includes a particular object into his paintings, I considered death of a main character to be my mark, my signature move. ‘Which one’s going to get it this time?’ I imagined my future audience saying. I looked forward to surprising them, to making them love someone and then ripping them away. How much more they would love me, I believed, if they knew their journey with my characters was limited, a short, sweet burst of companionship, of ‘golden days,’ and then the ‘afterward,’ where everyone goes on with their lives and realizes the best times are just behind them.
And now the characters from the novel I’m working on (my 6th!) insist there is going to be no death at the end. If I’m being honest, I really can’t see a death at the end either, and this places me off balance. How can I pan away, if not from tragedy?
Nah, I’m just being dramatic. I know exactly how this story will end: Nobody dies. Instead, my characters are forced to live. In case you haven’t been following me at my livejournal and reading the sneak peeks I posted, my novel is about a girl who time-travels into the past (just once, and by accident), and devotes her life to watching her younger self grow up on the sidelines. Her interference and obsession with her younger self change the original timeline, and at the end neither girl is the way they were meant to be.
I comfort myself by believing that they have died then, in a way. The original girl is lost, like she never was, for she doesn’t actually exist in their timeline. For the past 15 years my main character has known what will happen next, but as dawn rises over a world that she’s never seen before both she and her younger self must reconcile their differences and wait to see what will happen in the moment where the present catches up to the future.
Or so the exciting version goes. Having a story where nobody significant dies is a new phase for me. It makes me wonder if I have used death in the past as a cheap way to make my audience feel something. Is my use of death a blunt tool where now I need to learn how to use a fine scalpel? I have a fear it might be this way, but it certainly never feels like an easy way out.
Death is hard, even for the writer. We must accept that the story ends here; there is no chance for a sequel. Unless a prequel develops (rarely a well-executed idea), my journey with the characters ends the same as yours. For this reason I don’t think killing off characters is easy; it’s hard to say goodbye, hard to judge how the other characters will react, and pull it off realistically.
I guess you could say I don’t know how to end a story with life. What conclusions can be made? How do you determine when the plot has drawn to its final close? How do you deal with the lingering questions of what happens after ‘The End?’ What can my characters possible say, or what can I say, about the long, steady march through life, that hasn’t been said before?
Fellow writers out there, what do you think? Is killing a main character the ‘easy’ way out? How do you like to leave your ‘life’ stories at the end?
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com