When the Good Guys Don’t Make It: A note about losing your favorite character

Some of you have asked how I make the decisions as to which characters will live and which will die. A few have even written me “How could you kill X?” messages.

It’s true, I’m not shy about killing off characters, and not always just extras. Sometimes not all the good guys make it through, and that’s not likely to change. But I thought I might share my thought process a little.

When I started publishing, I did so with one golden rule; to never lie to the reader. While it’s certainly true that I control the events that happen in my works, I don’t intentionally try to shape them to allow this or that person (save the main/point-of-view character, naturally) to live when circumstances dictate they most likely wouldn’t make it.

Sometimes a character is too strong, and would prevent the events that need to happen from unfolding. Other times, it becomes apparent that my MC isn’t emotionally invested in the events unfolding, and needs a shock to get them into the problem. What better way than to take away part of their foundation? And yes, sometimes I kill someone off just because they’re too darned sweet, or it’s time to give the most important person in this equation (that’s you, the reader) a good hard jolt to keep you from getting too comfortable.

In Stephen King’s Cujo, Tad Trenton, the boy stuck in the car with his mother, dies of dehydration. It’s incredibly moving and sad, and was such a bone of contention that when the movie adaptation came out in 1983, the screenwriters changed the ending to let the boy live. It’s at once both a minor change, and an incredibly huge one.

Now, movies and books are two different creatures, and neither one is changed by the presence of the other. Sometimes, movies let us have the happy ending we want, because they can. Too often, even the best movies don’t stay with us in nearly the same way that all good novels seem to do. For that reason, a good novel can’t afford to flinch. To me, Mr. King’s ending rings more true. A young boy trapped in a car, in intense heat and under crippling psychological stress, doesn’t have a very good chance of coming out alive. But there’s something deeper at work here.

Since a good portion of the novel is told through Donna Trenton’s viewpoint, we have to assume she’s safe (well, okay, not safe, but probably going to come out alive). Since no one wants to see a child die, we tend to assume we won’t be shown that. Well, I think Mr. King had proven long before Cujo that it was never safe to assume anything in his little town of Castle Rock, Maine. But if we assume both characters are going to make it through, there’s no risk. No risk means no real tension, which means we don’t mind putting the book down to go water the rose bushes or catch the latest episode of our favorite TV show. After all, they’re not going to die, so we can come back and check in on them later.

But good stories always have an element of risk. Maybe not always life-and-death risk, but there has to be something vital at stake. So, with that in mind, remember that the one thing I promised to never do is lie to you. Even when it breaks your heart (and mine; remember, I spend weeks with these same characters living in my head. I know them inside and out) I won’t flinch. No one is safe, and the good guys don’t always make it through.

 

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