Authors are not unlike readers, we’re not Chucky (Exceptions probably apply)
I stumbled across this meme on a friend’s wall on Facebook the other day. I commented on it with a GIF because why not. Since we seem to be conversing with memes others make for us, why bother replying with words…
It’s a stupid meme for starters, exaggerating things beyond any measure of what could be considered appropriate given the topic we talk about: books. Words like “murder” and “hate” feel weirdly over the top. This is after all not your children or partners we talk about. I think most readers realize that unless they’re Annie Wilkes in Misery. I know for a fact that my friend is not. Alas, memes… Nuff said about that.
Let’s forget the stupid meme and focus on the topic it seeks to highlight:
- – The loss of an important (main/secondary character in a book
- – The reaction from the writer
- – The reaction from the audience
As a rule of thumb: a book where no one dies isn’t fiction, it’s fantasy (not the genre)
As the writer of seventeen full-length books, I know a thing or two about writing. Books mirror life in general and as such, they have to relate to life. If you happen to write instruction manuals for self-sealing stem bolts, this does not apply to you. Death is the ultimate consequence of life, its culmination. If life were sex, death would be the orgasm. You just can’t have life without death. (Yeah, no, the sex metaphor just died a painful death here…) If you write a book that plays out during a very short period of time, e.g. a day or a week or two, maybe even as long as a year, you can get by without anyone dying within the framework of the book.
But more often than not, books look back, they look forward, they cross decades, span across generations and they get to the point where death becomes a necessity. In my first novel Family Ties, nobody actually dies in the book. It plays out in just twenty-four hours (plus the epilogue) yet death is omnipresent, as a funeral is the spark that ignites the story.
I have been criticized by some who strongly dislike (to avoid the term above) the epilogue in Jonathan’s Hope (don’t believe me? Head on over to GollumReads and check out the reviews… I dare you.) They claim that Dan’s death at the end of the book did nothing to further the plot (as we authors often claim) and that it was utterly unnecessary. They must’ve have read a different novel altogether. And that is fine. Allow me to explain the misunderstanding.
There’s a reason for everything authors do, particularly when they do away with an important character…
You can read a book in many different ways. You can apply feminist glasses, a hermeneutic approach, a biographical one, a queer one, etc. Or you can try and squeeze a book into a genre and read it as such. You can read Romeo & Juliet as a romance novel, but you’d be disappointed with its ending (as it defies the romance genre’s call for a happily ever after.) Or you can read it as the drama that Shakespeare intended it to be and work through all the heartache and get to contemplate the many layers of subtext and the social criticism the play is laced with. Far too many lessons in his play are valid to our days. Alas, since forbidden love is still a thing, the “unhappy ending” makes a lot more sense than that which might make us feel good for the moment but wouldn’t make us think about what the author is trying to say.
Escapism genres tend to be shallow, and there’s nothing wrong with that (you’re probably not escaping fluff on cloud number nine), but if a book, a story, shakes you to the core, chances are the author is trying to tell you something (and no, I’m not about to debate exceptions, because that’s what they are.) In Jonathan’s Hope, there is a very good reason for the epilogue. The book’s title alludes to it, hope. Four letters, but they fuel the very life we lead. Without hope, it is questionable if we’d be able to live in the first place. For Jonathan, the epilogue is hope materialized. The hope of finding love, the hope of building a family, being happy, living a fulfilled, meaningful life. That is what the seventeen-year-old dreams about as he faces what seems certain death in the early pages of the novel.
As an author, I try to provide hope in my writing as well, and the book, despite the “death” of a main character, does provide hope anew. Looking around himself, beholding his family standing all around him, fills Jonathan with renewed hope and the knowledge that life is still worth living.
The death of a character is not something we do easily, the pain is quite physical
Yes, we sometimes have to let a character die. Yes, the plot demands it. My novel Last Winter’s Snow would be utterly meaningless without Casper’s death, the very premise of the book, how do you survive the loss of your partner. It’s what the novel is about. There are countless examples in literature of death being at the very core of the plot. Allow me to mention two from the LGBT world: Death in Venice and A Single Man. Remove death from those stories and consider the truncated stories and the impact they would’ve had on world literature. None whatsoever.
When I began writing the sequel to Jonathan’s Hope, I promised (sic!) myself that the novel would end with Jonathan’s passing. I had one important reason: I didn’t want to write a series around him and Dan, and I thought (naïvely, I admit) that writing a novel about the autumn of Jonathan’s life would ensure that. Alas, what sounded like a great theory was quite a different thing when I finally got to that point in the novel, when I was sitting at my laptop (as I am now), writing the actual words.
I hadn’t really planned for how his passing would come about, had no idea how or when it would occur. Suddenly (probably nudged by the word counter and the setting of the previous scene), I realized that the premise of the book was fulfilled, and that final chapter began to magically pour onto the screen. I remember it all too well. It is one of those moments in my life I will always remember vividly, similar to 9/11 or the Challenger disaster. Before I was done, my view clouded and as the tears were flowing freely from my eyes and onto my glasses. I was barely able to finish it, and the book does end rather abruptly. Quite unusual for me (hope anyone?) I just couldn’t go on.
Now, this isn’t exactly something to brag about, but I suffered a nervous breakdown, sobbing for hours, curling up into a ball of misery in my writing corner. I was utterly devastated. Jonathan, as fictional as he may be, had been a very close companion of mine for two years, and he’d nestled himself into my heart in ways I had not anticipated. It took me hours to pick myself up from the gutter, after long discussions with both my publisher and my husband, before the realization dawned on me: I had to press on. I had to write another book. Not for my readers, just for me. I had to fix it. I had to make it right. I needed to provide closure. Jonathan’s Legacy is probably my ‘sappiest’ book, with the happiest ending ever. So much for us authors killing for fun!
What about readers? Don’t you care about them/us?
There is probably a difference between “artsy” authors and “crafty” writers (and this is not a qualitative distinction.) The latter write primarily for money, but I’d say even they care deeply for their readers, even if it may be for different reasons, aka “I can’t afford to piss them off or they won’t buy my next one…” Needless to say, such books tend to stay clear of the strongest emotional expressions, they won’t deal with the darkest aspects of humanity. Those topics just don’t lend themselves to the business of money-making.
I’m definitely an “artsy” writer. While I like my books being bought (thanks to those who do!), that is not my driving force, or I would’ve taken that hint a long time ago and moved on to more lucrative pastures. Instead, I write the books that I have to write, I explore the topics I must because my brain is strangely wired, which is why I write about losing a child because I’m a parent, it’s a real-life fear of mine. Ask ANY parent. It’s why I wrote Disease because Alzheimer’s is a thing in my family, etc. It’s why I wrote that book about losing your partner, or love at old age or, or, or… Those were all questions that were on my mind in my very personal life at some point or another. Writing allows me to consider the pros and cons in a safe environment. Cynics might say I’m being paid for my own therapy sessions!
Am I aware that it might hurt readers? I’ll be honest, it’s not a concern when I write because I have to do what I have to do it in order to write the story that needs to be written. But I’m not some cold-hearted bastard who shrugs at the emotions felt by people who read my books. Quite the contrary. Readers’ tears are my silent applause. And since I’m not paid much…they keep me going, and I strongly believe that emotions are a good thing. However, and this is an important caveat: I will not allow anyone else’s emotions (or vision or views) influence my writing as it happens, at least not consciously. It is my story after all, and I will tell it the way I feel (strongly) it must be told. I hope that makes sense to you. If my subconscious picks up on stuff is a different thing entirely. Even the stupid meme here did–after all–prompt this blog post and much contemplation on my part.
I look forward to hearing your (side of the) story. Authors, how do you go about writing death? Readers, have I missed something? Let’s have it and please use your words… This is a writing blog after all.
Hans M Hirschi