28 August 2008

Dying as a cop-out

Today I'm broaching POV characters dying. Bernita piqued today's interest in the topic. My feelings? I don't like it. For one, it ruins my suspension of disbelief.

As a fantasy editor and avid reader, I'll buy (figuratively, of course) just about anything. But unless your world includes storytelling ghosts, and it's established early on so that it doesn't reek of deus ex machina, death is the end of the road. For example, I happen to have talking ghosts figure widely in a series I'm shopping, and on about the second page, when Aidan is trying to figure something out, he muses that it can't be a ghost, he'd seen them before and they weren't like that.

Mainly, though, there are fates worse than death, and if you, as the devil of your particular little world (hogwash that writers are gods--good writers are SATAN) don't come up with one, then you're not doing your job. In short, death = cop-out.

It bears repeating, er, repeatedly: figure out what makes a character tick, and then put the screws to them, taking away all that they love and desire. GRR Martin is an undisputed master of this, and millions of books sold can't be wrong. In his SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, one anti-hero, arguably the best swordsman of the realm, loses a hand. A romantic, silly beauty hopes to be married to a handsome prince, but ends up with a deformed dwarf. In these situations, the characters very nearly do want to die, but Martin, in his brilliant demonesque fashion, withholds that, too.

There's no excuse to not tackle this in short form, as well. I see stories all the time in which the stakes are loved ones, death and destruction, or loss of power. Yawn. EVERYONE wants their loved ones safe, they want to stay whole and healthy. Kings want to remain kings. That's every-man, and while such stories have their place, the really unique, interesting stories are the ones in which the character has a really unique, interesting desire. If that desire, and the achievement of it, stands at odds with his world and even his own character, so much the better.


David E. Hughes said...

I don't think I'd go as far as Bets on this one. I do have a problem with the 1st person POV character dying at the end of a story; but not so much with 3rd person. Life/death can often be a great conflict, along with protecting loved ones from death.

I see Bets' point about how life/death conflict can lead to plots that have been done (better) before. On the other hand, we love to read about this kind of stuff when it is done well. That's why trillers remain so popular.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Yeah, I should emphasize that I dislike POV characters dying. Secondary characters--hell, kill 'em all off if it serves the story!

lesleylsmith said...

I'm curious, Dave, what is a triller? A story in which tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary birds are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their nest, or the stability of the free world? Do they have high stakes, non-stop action, egg plot twists that both surprise and excite, nest settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the worm-packed climax? :)
Can you recommend some?

Gremlin Editor said...

I've read:

Birds of a Feather
Worming Their Way In
A Feathered Nest

David E. Hughes said...

Oh man--I had to read Lesley's comment a few times before I got it. I think I'll recommend One Flew Over the Coo Coo's Nest.