Thursday, 13 October 2011

Bumping Off Your Main Characters

Over the summer I read two novels in which one of the main characters is killed off near the end. The first novel didn't signal this sudden death and it came as a surprise - a real 'I didn't see that coming' moment. The second novel told us almost from the start that one of the characters wasn't going to see old age. (I'm not going to say which novels, as they're both current.)

With the first novel it's easy to see why a writer would choose to kill off a character - it's an unexpected twist. The drawback is that, because the death comes close to the end, after the character is killed off, the book loses impetus and fades out a bit. This is because the unexpected death doesn't tie in with any particular theme - except possibly the randomness of life (and death). The writer in me suspected that the author used the death as a convenient plot 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, and the reader in me resented that.

However, I think bumping off a main character unexpectedly can work - if you get the timing right. Do it early enough in the book, and the reader realises that this book could go anywhere - Absolute Power by David Baldacci is a great, page turning example of this. (And in Executive Action, a daft film where Steven Seagal - known super hero - dies right at the beginning, leaving saving the universe down to Kurt Russell.)

With the second novel, I'm assuming the writer wanted to add tension to the story - yes, this character is going to die young, but when? how? The drawback for me was that, I disengaged with the character at that point. Put crudely, if she was going to snuff it, why spend much of my attention on her? And in plot terms, knowing beforehand actually reduced the mystery of the plot as it explained why and how two apparently loose ends were going to be tied up.

But it can be done well. At the very beginning of The Secret History by Donna Tartt we learn that one of the friends has been murdered by one of the other friends - but we don't know which one. The novel unfolds with this big question throbbing away underneath it: who dunnit? why? At the very, very end we discover the answer.

I've not killed off any of my main characters - so far. But when I teach I'm always talking about change being the engine for moving a story forward. The absolute removal of a character is about as complete a change as you can have and one which can, unless you're careful, stop the story completely. One to be handled with care...

PS If you want to know which novels I am referring to, email me and I will Reveal All.


Jenny Haddon said...

You know, I really didn't feel that tension in A Secret History. I felt terribly ashamed, as people kept telling me what a wonderful novel it was. But, as a reader, I just felt that I was having my chain jerked. So I got really annoyed with all the characters and the author too.

A shame, because she writes like an angel.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I feel the same way when an author tries to pull a surprise twist. I'm really good at predicting plotlines and working out how the narrative structure and story models fit into a movie or a book. Generally I'm entertained more by seeing how different tropes are employed, rather than something unexpected. I often find myself disappointed when something hits me out of left field.

Sarah Duncan said...

Not everything works for everyone, Jenny. It's not my favourite book - too pleased with its cleverness for me - but I did find it compelling.

Paul, I think twists that work are usually ones where the reader is surprised, but it's also been set up so well that everything fits into place. (Ruth Rendell would be my example for that.)

Anonymous said...

One of the schools where I work has a new library. It used to be the computer suite. Hooray. What a great message.Jacky

penny simpson said...

Amen to that!
Next time you're stuck, would love your thoughts on titles. What they should do, how much they are the responsibiity of the author or will the agent (yes, getting ahead of myself there!) have input, blog, blah, blog

penny simpson said...

Oh, and how about the Booker shortlist? Saw the Review show on Friday and the subtext was that with the exception of Julian Barnes, they were a bunch of...I heard the one about the animals on Woman's Hour and thought it was awful

Sarah Duncan said...

Penny, thanks for the ideas, I'll have a go. I remember we did a class exercise on the Booker shortlist a few years ago, and we v cleverly picked the winner.