The One Where Nobody Dies

4 Jan

by Savannah J. Foley

~

I like to kill people. I love it. If someone doesn’t die at the end of a story, I feel unfulfilled (what, you didn’t think I was talking about real life, did you?).

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

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9 Responses to “The One Where Nobody Dies”

  1. Pamela Wilson January 4, 2010 at 1:59 PM #

    Interesting thoughts. I prefer to leave the main protagonist standing, whilst killing off other main characters. There is finality, but also the emotion that remains.

    • Savannah January 4, 2010 at 5:58 PM #

      Me, too. I guess I should have specified above that I meant other main characters, not THE main character.

  2. sara January 4, 2010 at 2:52 PM #

    Oh man. I HATE death of main characters 😦 But they can be oh so moving to read. Usually after I read a novel along those lines, I have to read one of my standard happy-ending favorite books to keep my spirits up!

  3. Marina January 4, 2010 at 4:20 PM #

    I think that sometimes it’s not the main character, but a secondary character’s death that really strikes in the heart. Such as when Serius or Dumbledore die, I ended up crying until I finished the book. I think it has something to do with the fact that the main character also feels pain and we are continuously reminded of it as we go on with the novel(s). Maybe it has something to do with the fact that while we spend so much time with the main character, we don’t get to spend enough time with the secondary characters– even if we re-read that book a dozen times we still don’t get to see them as much. Besides, main characters death also have to be pulled of real well and they really have to work, because sometimes they seem completely pointless if they’re not explained well enough or explained too much.
    I don’t know if you know Lurlene MacDanielle, but at least one, sometimes more of her characters die in every single one of her novels. At first it didn’t seem so bad, but after several books I didn’t want to read any more of her books because I was getting a tad depressed from them. My thought was “Well, I know the girl or guy is going to die, I’m gonna cry like a baby and get a headache, why bother?” So, I’d be kind of careful with making it your signature move, because while MacDanielle’s books are really well written and are usually pretty interesting, the whole death of a character gets a little old.
    I think it works best when you don’t see it coming. Like BAM!! and someone’s dead, and the reader feels like they’ve been slapped in the face– like with Serius. And you just want to write a vindictive letter to the author and demand they be brought back. That’s when you know you’ve got a great character, when both the writer and the reader feel the pain of their loss.

  4. Caitlin January 4, 2010 at 4:28 PM #

    Yes and no, many times I do think the death of a character, especially a main character is a cop out. I have found myself thinking exactly as you feared, that an author killed a character as a way to avoid the complications that would arrive from living. Life is complicated, death is simple. Don’t be completely discouraged though because in one especially prominent example I can think of, I am sometimes upset when a character doesn’t die, when the author cannot bear to leave the readers unhappy and thus continues the story to a point it should not have been taken to, to be put simply and bluntly, that time we all thought the main character was dying and I cried because it was so poetic and just and so beautifully made the authors point? I really didn’t appreciate the author resurrecting said character only a scant few pages later.

    What it comes down to then is how it’s written, how heavy handed it feels and whether it truly fits or not. Honestly if I were someone devotedly reading all of your books in which a character dies at the end I wouldn’t excitedly try to guess how you would kill someone off this time or try to guess who would bite the bullet, I would probably judge you for it and I would probably make fun of you for using it as a signature cop-out move, in much the same way I make fun of Nicholas Sparks.

    Which leads me to say that however good you are at killing your characters off and making it significant and not cloying, if you continue to use this eventually I personally as a reader will see it that way, even if individually every death is wonderfully poignant and fits so well. Everything in moderation.

    So anyway I do hope you’re not sitting there thinking “She’s not even a writer so she doesn’t understand the use of death in a book” because I admit freely that I am not a writer of anything more than school essays, but I am a reader and ultimately it’s us readers that authors should fear.

    I am very glad to hear that you’re facing a book in which for the first time you’re not killing a main character in the end, because it would allow a reader like me (or my family) to see your works more individually each book, and each ending, for its own merits rather than lumping them all together as “those books where someone always dies at the end”

    (also I hope that all makes sense and I really do applaud you for considering all of this and writing this article about it, you’re asking yourself the right questions.)

  5. Rowenna January 4, 2010 at 8:08 PM #

    Interesting question…I haven’t yet killed off a main character (protagonist). I’ve killed a secondary characters (not Red Shirts, real characters), will probably do away with plenty of those as I go along.

    I very seriously considered it, though. I even wrote it out, almost by accident, and played with it to see how it felt. It was too pathetic of an end to keep. Maybe that is the real end of the story–how that character’s life would come out–but my readers didn’t need to know that. I wanted there to be enough ambiguity that they could imagine the hero and heroine settling into happy old age–or the hero dying shortly after where I stopped writing about him. There’s a quote–Oscar Wilde, I think–that having a happy ending is all about where you stop the story. I think a good ending has the sense of both happy and sad, because they are culminations of the conflict and passions of the characters.

    Ending with deaths can be that way if there is a sense of completion to their end–or they can simply stop the story with a “That’s all, folks.” But that’s not specific to deaths. My biggest disappointments in terms of endings have all been because there wasn’t enough significance in what happened in the final pages. So much rides on how we wrap things up!

  6. Rachel S January 4, 2010 at 8:44 PM #

    I’m about to get to a point where I am killing off two characters in my story, and its scary. I don’t want to do it! Do I HAVE to? 😉

    But I think that deaths of characters can bring both characters and readers closer. As a bond. Like when **SPOILER FOR DEATHLY HALLOWS** Hedwig died, readers mourned alongside Harry.

  7. Chantal Mason January 6, 2010 at 3:51 PM #

    Interesting article! I haven’t read too many books where a main character dies, but I always love i (in a sort of love-hate kind of way) when it happens, because it elicits such an emotional response. On one hand it’s like “noooo, why? I loved them!” but at the same time, it’s very delicious 😛 I wouldn’t overuse it though! You don’t want people expecting it!

  8. junebugger January 7, 2010 at 1:06 AM #

    I find that the most difficult part of killing one’s character is….preparing yourself for at least a third of your fanbase sending you death threats. Many love their HEA. Deprive it from them after days of devoting themselves to your work, and you’ll get yourself one frustrated, heart broken nutcase (me). tee hee

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