May 28, 2015

Authors Are Killers

"Bunhill Fields, London" by Paul Wilkinson
Author Sarah M. Eden tweeted on 5/27/15:

My 12yo: “What’s that face?” Me: “I’m trying to decide if someone needs to die.” 12yo: “If you weren’t a writer, that would be disturbing."

As an author, I often decide the fate of my characters. I realize that I have killed characters in my works in progress. Why should authors play God? Of course, we claim that our characters actually drive the action of the novel. However, we ultimately decide what to write. As an avid reader, I've noticed certain patterns of authors as killers. Warning: may contain spoiler alerts.


During college, I read a lot of Anita Stansfield, an LDS romance writer. She had a pattern of a horrible first husband who had to die for real romance to happen. In the novel First Love and Forever, the woman falls in love with a man outside of the LDS faith, but she knows she shouldn't marry him. So she marries an LDS guy who turns out to be financially secretive. So what has to happen to him? A convenient car accident kills the first husband and the protagonist female can pursue her first love who has converted to the LDS faith. Similarly in Christmas Melody, the first husband was addicted to pornography and committed suicide. Cue, perfect second husband.

Another LDS romance writer, Rachel Ann Nunes kills spouses on occasion. In her Ariana series, one of Ariana's sons dies and a daughter-in-law dies. The remaining daughter-in-law marries the still living son. At least this happens over a series of books and the first spouses were good.

In Return to Me, the first wife dies, but enables the second wife to live. And the list goes on with other spouse killer plots. These deaths were at least necessary to the plot.

All of these romance plots influenced me early on in my marriage. Sadly, I told my husband that if he died then I would remarry soon after. Now, I want him to live as long as I do. He wants me to live too. Besides, we don't want to go through the dating process again.

Orphan Makers

"Seriously, you have to get rid of the parents because no good mother or father will allow their child to take a perilous journey or quest to save the world or whatever." -Julie Wright

Children's books often have incompetent or dead parents so the child can be the hero. One of the most famous of our time is Harry Potter. Dickens knew this well too. YA author Julie Wright explains this phenomenon well in this blog post

As a side note, another class of orphans includes children left with stepparents. For example, children without their biological mother or father are at risk in fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and so on. What is it with wicked stepmothers? Were they that awful during the Dark Ages that it survives in so many of our fairy tales?

Tragedy for Tragedy's Sake

Some authors kill off characters just for the shock value or to elicit some emotional response. It's somehow literary and thought-provoking. In my opinion, it often ruins the story and the reader is ticked off. Who hated the ending to City of Angels? There's no point to Meg Ryan's death. I know they wanted to emphasize the fragility of life, but her death ruined the entire show for me.

Shakespeare killed off so many characters in his tragedies that it is seriously a farce after so many times. In fact, we cheer for Hamlet's death in the end. I did anyway. And why did Romeo and Juliet have to kill themselves? Check for a pulse and breathing, for crying out loud! Truly, I hate Romeo and Juliet simply because they are too young. As adults they would have the brains to run away or resign themselves to loving someone else.

When Can an Author Kill A Character Reasonably?

I'm okay with some characters dying in books. Wicked villains deserve to die, rot in jail, or repent in jail. Some plots are more poignant with the death of a character, but it has to be done for the right reason (or because it's based on true events). It has to be foreshadowed and a significant part of the story--not an afterthought or this would be "literary." Tale of Two Cities, is a good example of how to kill a protagonist right. Dickens foreshadows Sidney's death similar to Jesus' death. Sidney sacrificed himself so someone else could live. It's a bittersweet ending that carries hope. The movie Return to Me is another great example.

So if an author kills a character, there better be a very good reason why.

So what deaths in books and movies did you agree with or not agree with?