Killing Our Darlings

Mark Medley | National Post - October 25, 2013

His death was announced on a Sunday in late September; the mourning began almost immediately. On Twitter, on Facebook, in the comment sections under hastily written obituaries that appeared in newspapers around the world, his sudden end was greeted with a mixture of shock and outrage. He was still a relatively young man. He was so beloved. How could this happen?

The media and the public both clamoured for more details, yet the circumstances surrounding his death remained under wraps until last week, when Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy, arrived in bookstores.

Mark Darcy dead and Helen Fielding, in the eyes of many, a murderer.

“I turned on the news and there was the Syrian crisis, and then ‘Mark Darcy is dead,’” said Fielding in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s quite extraordinary for a fictional character to be treated as if they’re alive.”

But not uncommon. While Darcy’s peculiar death ranks among the most unique in recent literary history — spoiler alert, now and forevermore: he’s blown up by a landmine while travelling in Sudan — to grieve the demise of a fictional character is a time-tested tradition. Just think back to the death of (no, really, spoiler alert) of Albus Dumbledore in 2005’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, probably the most contentious literary death until Darcy’s armoured SUV exploded. Readers were so devastated by the murder of the Hogwarts headmaster that an international day of mourning might as well have been declared. (To be honest, the death of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows affected me a great deal more; I think someone was cutting onions nearby when I read that passage.)

When it comes to killing off a character, authors best tread lightly. No matter that it’s their character, and their book, if a beloved character meets his or her end before, well, the end, authors should be prepared for a backlash. An armchair psychologist might argue readers become upset because the death of a character represents the intrusion of the real world into the pages — a reminder that, eventually, everyone dies. No one is immortal. Even fictional characters.

There are few authors who haven’t faced this issue, especially those who write series featuring the same characters. Familiarity breeds attachment. Louise Penny, who last month published How The Light Gets In, the most recent instalment in her series of novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, says authors must strike the right balance between “what feels right creatively” and “the long-term viability of the series” or face “the wrath of readers.”

“We spend years hoping readers will see our characters as living, breathing beings, and not simply words on a page,” says Penny, who was hesitant to talk in specifics for fear of spoiling her latest book. “We get people to love the characters, and as soon as they do we kill one off. As Conan Doyle did with Holmes. As Colin Dexter did with Morse. As Elizabeth George did with Lynley’s wife. Agatha Christie waited until after her own death before allowing Poirot’s last case, in which he dies, to be published. How perfect is that? Creator and created die at the same moment.”

At the end of his most recent thriller, A Tap on the Window, Linwood Barclay kills off (final warning) a major character the reader has grown to love. “There have been a handful of complaints,” he acknowledges. “I knew this was likely, but I always felt the story demanded it, and to have taken an easier route would have been wimping out.”

He admits he sometimes considers “reader reaction” when the fate of a character hangs in the balance.

“Despite what some may think, I don’t kill off people indiscriminately,” he says. “I’ve killed off a lot of people in fiction, and, in most cases, I think it’s been justified.”

Sometimes death is the only option. When a particular storyline has run its course, or if there is simply nothing left for the character to do, killing off a character might in fact be the most humane course of action — a form of literary euthanasia. In By The Time You Read This, the fourth entry in a series of novels featuring John Cardinal, Giles Blunt killed off his hero’s wife. “I didn’t have anything more to say about her, so the question became what’s the most effective way of dealing with that?” he says. “I’d say reader response was 98% positive. Of course, killing off someone dear to your series’ protagonist is vastly different from killing off the protagonist himself. I’ve killed off the protagonist and other major characters in several one-off novels. Killing characters is often just the best thing to do with them — best for the story, anyway.”

It was with an eye toward moving the story forward that propelled Ian Hamilton to kill off a major character for the first time, an event which occurs in The Two Sisters of Borneo, to be published in February, the sixth in a series of novels featuring an ass-kicking forensic accountant named Ava Lee.

“It was very emotional, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I loved [the character] as much as anyone did.”

But he never second-guessed his decision. “I thought of three or four other writers who teased me with things like this and then backed off at the end,” he says. “Frankly, it really pissed me off. I didn’t want to do that. There was going to be no miracle cure, there was going to be no hanging on forever.”

He set the stage for the character’s death in the fifth book, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya, which came out earlier this year. Readers, aware that time may be running out, pleaded with Hamilton to change his mind.

“Since the fifth book came out, I have not done a single event or reading where someone doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘You can’t kill [the character],’ he says. “I was at Whistler on the weekend, and there were some women who’d driven up from Vancouver. They grabbed me after the panel had finished and that was the message: don’t kill us off [the character].
I said it was out of my control.”

Not that it’s necessarily easy for the author, either. Very few writers are sociopaths. If the readers have bonded with a particular character, says Penny, the odds are that the writer has developed a bond, as well.

“I’m my own first customer,” she says. “To kill one of them would be a form of suicide. It would be devastating. But sometimes that sacrifice must be made, so that the series can thrive. Take another, vibrant, direction. And sometimes there’s just no choice. All paths converge in that one, desperate, place. And have been heading there all along. The nature of tragedy, no? There was the illusion of escape — but it was never really going to happen.”