Killing off characters

When I was looking through a list of responses to the question, what stops you reading a book? I found that among all the expected reasons such as badly written, poorly edited, dull, boring, unbelievable, pretentious, there was a huge grumble about writers killing off favourite characters. There was grudging acceptance when the death played a significant part, or was a realistic outcome of an event, or had an important part in the plot, However,  when it seemed as if the writer had run out of ideas and wanted some excitement, or was fed up with a character, or didn’t know how to finish of a loose end, and so ended the life of an engaging person, then the readers were in revolt.

Lazy writing, disrespect, poor judgement, self-importance – all criticisms of the author’s decision. I read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a magnificent book, a Dickensian book, a marvellous story of a man’s determination and courage against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Over one hundred and twenty-fie thousand great words, over eight hours of reading and not far from the end, bang! and the main character who we’ve followed over moor and mountain, through encounters with every sort of enemy, is shot. I felt so cheated. It seemed a cop-out. The book could have ended with him in sight of his destination and the reader left to decide what happens. There is, what I thought a twee ending with other characters, a sort of happy ever after for them, but that was too neat…

I read Graham Hurley’s series of books set in Portsmouth, the Joe Faraday novels; I read all eleven of them following the life of Faraday, a detective inspector, the crimes and puzzles he had to solve, and the lives of other characters on both sides of the law. Faraday was a realistic character whose life was difficult – as many people’s lives are. He was depressed, but took solace in his passion for bird watching. Then unexpectedly, in book eleven, catastrophe struck and a main character died. I was shocked, it seemed unnecessary and as if Hurley had run out of interest in him. A subsequent novel in the series was written and the other characters, good and bad continued their struggle, but I didn’t read it.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been reading Jake Needham’s books set in Singapore about the investigations of Inspector Sam Tay. Needham has been compared to Raymond Chandler and I think it’s a justified comparison. I mention him here because in the novel I’m now reading a main character, a favourite of mine has been unexpectedly killed. I was shocked and sorry, however, it seemed perfectly justified in the context, and added poignancy to the scene, and to the portrayal of Tay’s character and gave him extra motivation and determination to pursue a dangerous investigation.

I haven’t written about the death of a protagonist in my books, so far the plots haven’t demanded it… but would I? Would I kill off a character I liked and had worked hard to create if it was needed for the plot? I’m not sure I would, maybe in fear of disappointing my readers!

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