Recently, I’ve been thinking about character immortality. Not just in regards to my reading, but my writing too. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever killed off a “good guy” main character that readers have gotten to know, and hopefully like, in any of my books—so why and how did I get here in my meanderings?
Here’s the trail that got me started on character mortality thinking…. G.B. Pool and Jackie Houchin recently delved into the importance, scope, and all around “goodness” of reading. Then—once again—a book club happening moved my thoughts further on. That’s what reading will do for you, make you think! And thirdly, while mentally contemplating a chapter I’m currently working on, my writing-brain wished a character wasn’t there. Should I kill him off? Flashed across my thoughts. No. Was my answer. But, why not?
Starting with the reading part—if I know from the beginning a lead and/or beloved character is going to be killed off—I seldom will read the book. “But you’re always killing off people,” my hubby (a non mystery-genre reader) would probably point out. To explain the difference between a “plot-revolving-around” murder victim, and a key “on-stage” character is hard to explain to him—but for me, there definitely is a big difference.
On to Book Club. Members pick the books that go on our list, mainly I think, because it’s a book by an author they like, or it’s a book they’ve already read and think everyone else will like. The Hamish MacBeth series written by M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney) is one of my favorites—and having read many of Hamish’s adventures—I put one on our list. In the book I recommended, a character I really liked died, and it soured me on the whole book. Why, I asked myself?
I’m a bleeding-heart-nitwit was my answer. not an “answer” befitting my mystery writer/reader ego. But in fact, I’ve never read/or watched a Morse or Poirot outing where either protagonist got seriously ill, much less die. Avoided on purpose. Indeed, I guess I want me literary heroes to be immortal. Aging is okay, but you can’t go too far.
But time does pass in our stories. As it does in life, and one can only squeeze so much activity in a storytelling year! You have to adopt either a false conceit about time, or ?? Then when it comes to animals, even worse—sigh. I was told by a relative—that even as a child (this was way back when in the dark ages!) when leaving the movie theater after watching “Bambi” I proclaimed I’d never watch another movie like that again in my whole life.
This winding and contradictory mortality thinking road is snaking back and forth for me… For example, in my Rhodes series, it all starts with LC Rhodes setting everything in motion for Leiv’s adventures on his deathbed. And throughout the few books I’ve subsequently written in the series, Leiv often talks to his deceased grandfather, LC.
Clearly, my ramblings here have not brought me a clear understanding—or even a “why”—when it comes to immortality for some, and not for others? Indeed, in my writing reality conundrum mentioned earlier, I’m not killing off one of Leiv’s compadres, but decided to make him fit in. This time. But why? I’m currently leaning toward considerations such as, “what kind of character are they?” Main, supporting, likable, gender, looks, age… I haven’t sorted it out yet.
And why am I continuing down this character immortality road—despite the lack of a clear answer? I didn’t like not liking one of my favorite author’s books! Indeed, Marion Chesney was(still is) very much a guiding-light “STAR” for me. Consequently, I would very much prefer that–not enjoying this particular offering–has to do with wrong-headed thinking on my part!
All thoughts on character mortality are definitely welcome…because as I’ve so often jabbered on about before —I think characters and scenery are the essence of good storytelling. And a key character’s mortality, is probably pretty important to good character development.
Happy Writing Trails!
15 thoughts on “Character Immortality”
Such an interesting post, and dilemma. I like the fact you have continued the grandfather’s role on after he died through other characters – keeps him among the living. I think that if you have a character who has something to contribute to the story and readers like him/her, especially if that character is one who tends to upset the apple cart, then keep ’em among the living. O the other hand, some characters are kept alive through the conditions of their will – who inherits, why, and thus the consequences. Hmm. I think the bottom line is, if you enjoy writing that character, apply the oxygen.
Yes, Jill, your bottom line is a mental keeper I think, if I enjoy writing a character, apply the oxygen. Now, what to do when I’m tired of the character in question…hmmm…ofcourse if they are inheriters…smile. Thank you so much for helping me think this through. You’ve helped.
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I don’t agree it’s “wrong-headed thinking” on your part, Mad, any more than the choices you make about the genres, or authors you like to read. I’ve known many readers who will avoid certain plot lines in stories – child endangerment, or animal abuse, for instance. As for killing off “good guy” main characters, it may be necessary, especially in a series that spans many decades, or centuries. However, beloved people, whether in our real life or on the page, are never completely gone. They remain with us, in the memories and dreams we have and the mementos we keep.
Your thought on beloved people–I’m translating to a beloved character of mine–remain in our memories and dreams. A thought that has reemphasized to me that living or dead, I need to make my characters “beloved,” as in fascinating, even the bad ones. It’s what’s left in the reader’s memory that counts…you’ve really hit on a key point I think. Thanks!
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Madeline, our Resident Philosopher!
Oh, and before I forget, Agatha Christie did kill off Poirot in his last book. I hated it. It was dark and ugly.
Then there is Sherlock Holmes, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected him after a public outcry.
If you find a character is annoying and don’t want them in your story, send them on a journey, an epic journey that will take them years or a lifetime. You can always have your main character get a letter from them or read about them in a newspaper now and then.
Then again, people die. We are not immortal on this earth. If you want to end a secondary character’s presence in your story/series, then do it with a flourish – a spectacular car or plane crash, or a shoot-out at the Ok Corral. And if you want to end a series and truly begin something new – like a cook book series, then you have a choice. End your main character’s life in a good-for-others sacrificial way…. or do a Stephen King horror on him.
And, you “could” always bring him back from the waterfall.
An enjoyable post!
Oh, Jackie, yes on Poirot, and to this day I’ve avoided that episode with David Suchet. Too much of a real person to me. I love your ideas of “killing them off” in other ways than death, like the long, long, long journey around the world maybe…but if I do, the spectacular car crash is a good one–out in a blaze of glory. You’ve given me some good ideas!
Interesting post, Mad. I write a lot of mysteries and romantic suspense, but I’ve never even considered killing off a main character, especially in a mystery series. And I include animals in as many stories as I can and definitely don’t want to kill them off either. I do endanger main characters but they always survive But I suppose if any of my series went on for a very long time, or I started disliking my main character, I might consider endangering them even more… Thanks for giving me this to ponder!
Me too, Linda, in that I never before considered killing off a main character(which of course includes animals!) And never thought about doing until that vagrant thought and the novel… Mentally off putting to say the least! Thanks, for helping me establish in my mind what is the norm, and leaning toward a writer should NOT kill off a main character.
I doubt if I will ever kill off my main characters; I would rather just go on to another series. I have done that with my three detective series. But something else I have done: all my main characters in all three detective series know each other and even the people in my spy novels know the detectives. I created that world and I will let them go on as long as I write them.
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GB, you’ve given me a new thought…in that instead of killing the character I mentioned, maybe he’s just a candidate for a new series where he will shine on his own. Hmmm, puts a new light on everything. Thanks!
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Good thought, Madeline.
Interesting viewpoint, Mad. I feel I invest so much work, time, research and emotion in my lead characters, I couldn’t bring myself to kill them off. I’m too attached to them. Although one of my victim’s character grew – like Topsy – and I’ve become so invested in her, that I am writing a whole new story-line in flash-back – so I can share her with my readers. I just like to kill off the nasty ones -the meanies….
For sure, Rosemary, I love killing of the nasty ones, the meanies…but when an author kills a goodie, I’m not to happy…
I couldn’t possibly kill my main characters. But I like Jackie’s suggestion—if any become too much to bear, banish them! That’s what they do with TV characters.
Yes, Maggie, I’m leaning more and more toward your point of view, and am accepting my disappointment in my book club selection is justified…sigh. Thanks for helping me along!