Sunday, 10 November 2013

Main Characters: A Matter of Life or Death

On the final day of the #ILoveAngelTrilogy signing tour last week, I had a chat with Casey, the uber-cool Finchley Waterstones employee and blogger (Dark Readers). We were talking about books (well, obviously!), and I mentioned that I hadn't read the Divergent series yet.

"Oh," she said. "Some readers are REALLY upset about how the final book ended up."

I got home and Googled it - and wow, she wasn't kidding. Since then, I've been following with interest readers' strong (in some cases frothing) reaction to Allegiant, the final book in Veronica Roth's wildly popular Divergent series.

Again, I haven't read the series, so I'm not commenting on Ms Roth's books or her writing ability in any way, shape or form. However, as a YA author myself, this particular internet brouhaha opens up some fascinating questions - what do readers expect from a story? And should we as authors always give it to them?

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, keep reading.

MASSIVE SPOILER AHEAD! DON'T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT A MASSIVE SPOILER!
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OK, here it is: near the end of Allegiant, the main character - Tris, the sole 'I' voice of the previous two books - dies.

Some people are IRATE over this. Reading Roth's explanation of Tris's death on her blog, I can see exactly where she's coming from: for this particular character, learning selflessness was the culmination of her emotional arc; Roth felt that her death was the only way to fulfill this.

As a writer, I can totally get behind her reasoning. I respect her for her choice.

But as a reader? I hate to admit this...but I doubt I'll read the series now that I know the main character dies. I've heard amazing things about Divergent, and in general think it's something I'd really love - but I have an overwhelming sense now of: what's the point?

I don't think this reaction is particularly fair of me, yet it's my honest feeling as a reader, if not as an author. And I find it quite intriguing, actually. It's made me think about what I, personally, want when I read a book. Why is there no point if the main character dies? Is it because I like to imagine that the books I love contain real places, times, people - and that therefore beloved characters will somehow live on after the story ends?

Certainly with my own books, I love to imagine this. In fact, I'll confess that I have a whole, elaborate 'after-story' worked out for Alex and Willow. I know all about the moment when Willow tells Alex she's pregnant (she's twenty-five and they'd decided to start trying for kids); what their wedding is like (yes, they do eventually get married!), their two children's names (Miranda Jane for the girl, after both of their mothers, and Martin Jake for the boy, after Alex's father and brother). I also know Seb and Meghan's after-story, how it entwines with Willow's and Alex's...on and on.

OK, doubtless I'm obsessive. But the point is, I love happy endings. Really love them. If I've travelled through an entire series with particular characters - either my own or someone else's - then I want to feel as if all the time and caring I've invested will result in them being OK at the end. If they die, then what was the point? Just to break my heart? No, thanks. I already know that real life can be brutal and chaotic and tragic; I don't need that from my fiction, too.

I'm aware that by saying this, I'm officially proclaiming myself on the side of commercial fiction rather than anything more exalted or 'literary'. And you know what? I'm fine with that. Because ultimately, I want to be entertained. I want a safe cocoon. I want to invest myself in characters, knowing deep down that the endings I want - the romances, the survivals - will happen. I want to be surprised by the how, not the if.

But this isn't always the case, and I'm not completely consistent. I love, love, love the HBO series Game of Thrones based on the books  by George R. R. Martin, even though major characters can and do die at any time (end of Season 1, anyone?).

Yet is there a difference? I kill off a significant character in Angel Fever. Talking to readers during the recent signing tour, a lot of them told me how much they loved this character, but no one was angry over his death. There was an acceptance that he had to die - and the awareness that if no one in the series had died, that would feel so unrealistic as to be irritating.


What I didn't do - what I never even contemplated - was to kill off Willow, the series' main character and only 'I' voice. Thinking about it now, from a purely dramatic sense, this would actually have been amazing. Picture it: Willow, at the end of Angel Fever, manages to destroy the angels and Raziel...but the raging energy from the two worlds is too much for her and she also destroys herself. Alex runs to her, he drops to his knees...but he gets there just too late, and she dies in his arms.

Wow. Solely in terms of story, this would have been INCREDIBLE. But I think readers would have hated it, and more importantly, I would have hated it - and I'm the one I have to live with. I couldn't have borne the thought of Alex being alone forever after that (because we all know that he'd never love anyone else). Not to mention that he's been hanging around in my head for a lot of years, waiting for me to write about him. An impatient Alex was bad enough - but a heartbroken, pissed-off Alex, glowering at me for years to come? Yikes.

More seriously, I think there's also a genre issue afoot. Though the Angel series has had a lot of labels, as far as I was concerned I was always writing a romance. And in romance as in some other genres, there are certain tropes: ignore them at your peril. The main, obvious one is that neither of the main characters dies. They end up together. Forever. The End. I love romance as a genre (probably for that almost-guaranteed happy ending), and always knew that's what I was writing.

So Willow and Alex's survival was guaranteed from the start...just as, apparently, Tris's fate was sealed from the start, too. The
Divergent series is dystopian, where the lines aren't as clear-cut. There's a romance in it, but it isn't Romance. The series I'm working on now isn't, either. I'm not sure what it is - it's a bit genre-bending - but it's a darker, grittier world than Angel. And like the Divergent series, although there's a romance in it, that's not primarily how I think of it.

So I can make no similar guarantees this time around (not that I did with Angel, though I did try to reassure readers who were worried by telling them I'm a fan of happy endings) - but I'll confess that I do think there's something a bit sacred about an 'I' voice character. In fact, there's almost the conceit that the character must still be alive after all the story events are done, or else where/how is she telling her story? (And maybe, in fact, there would have been a tiny bit less outrage over Allegiant had there been a dual narrative right from the start.)

But this sacredness of a story's main character isn't confined to a particular genre; as a society, we're used to happy endings in our fiction. Is it good to have this challenged - to have fiction more accurately represent real life, in all its randomness and brutality and beauty?

I think there's room for both, and that both have value...but in large part, our expectations and our resultant anger when things don't go as we expect probably goes back to genre again. For some reason I'm more accepting of a main character's death in real-life fiction...though I still don't like it. Jenny Downham's Before I Die left me shattered for days. I thought it was beautifully written, but would never read it again. And, for me, that's not why I read.

In some Allegiant reviews, a particular word keeps popping up: "I won't read any of her books again, because I don't trust this author anymore."

Trust. Now, that's fascinating to me. Is there an unspoken pact between reader and author? "We give you our hearts. Please don't break them."

I think to an extent there is. Catharsis plays a big role, too: we want our characters to go through hell and back...but the and back part is vital.
  
I don't pretend to have any ultimate answers here, and don't even think there should be any.  I'm glad there are writers who present a darker, more unsettling side of fiction: we undoubtedly need both. But for me, I write first and foremost for my own joy and entertainment...and so in general, this will probably, usually, translate into an ending that most readers are satisfied with - because that's the ending I want, too.



(I would love to hear your thoughts...but only on the larger issue of main characters dying, please! Any negative comments about Veronica Roth or Allegiant won't be posted.)













13 comments:

  1. I think with main characters dying, if it's necessary, if there's no other way that isn't unrealistic/goes against the book/goes against who the characters are, I'll accept that. Here's an example which links back to the post: I've read the Divergent trilogy, and despite the uproar it's cased, I'm happy with the ending, because it was the right thing to do.

    Don't get me wrong, I most certainly don't like it when main characters die. But sometimes, on those rare occasions, as much as I hate to admit it, it's necessary. Just as long as loads of authors don't just start killing off their characters unnecessarily and to shock people.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Chloe! I agree with you - sometimes it's the only (and certainly a brave) choice.

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    1. Exactly. After Allegiant, I wasn't upset towards Veronica Roth, I only respected her because she was brave enough to kill off her main character for the right reasons.

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    2. Another example is the death in Tabitha Suzuma's book Forbidden. I loved the book, hated the death...but deeply respected Tabitha for what was undoubtedly the correct story choice. I know, though, that it shattered her to do it. Maybe I just don't have the personal bravery needed to kill off main characters! ;)

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  3. "I already know that real life can be brutal and chaotic and tragic; I don't need that from my fiction, too."

    "I think to an extent there is. Catharsis plays a big role, too: we want our characters to go through hell and back...but the and back part is vital. "

    I couldn't agree with you more on this subject! (I was actually nodding along as I read this blogpost)

    After Allegiant, I definitely had the 'what was the point?'-sensation you mention here.
    Both as a reader and a writer (well, sort of, kinda, I hope), I prefer an ending that's at least bittersweet. The end of Allegiant, while very powerful, was merely bitter.

    Thanks for putting this out there!

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    1. Thanks, Vanessa, glad you enjoyed the post! That's my feeling, too: I'm reasonably happy with bittersweet endings (though still rewrite them in my head if there's more 'bitter' than 'sweet'!). Endings that leave me no wiggle-room to do even that can feel pretty hard to take. But as with all things, I guess it's a matter of personal preference. My husband has a much greater capacity for unhappy endings than I do - we had some great discussions on this before I wrote this blog post.

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  4. (Oh and thanks so much for sharing that Alex and Willow get married and have kids in their unwritten futures, this brings me great joy!)

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    1. Aw, I'm glad! :D One of these days I should try writing some of it, except that it would probably read like soppy fanfic. ;)

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  5. I really enjoyed this posting and appreciate the way you separated yourself as Author and Reader because I am both as well.

    I myself don't have an issue with a main character not making it out of the story alive under certain circumstances. I am among the outraged mass that you mentioned. Yes, there are the readers out there whose outrage stems from the death of a main character in and of itself but for a lot of us, it's more about the how an MC dies.

    If a writer wants to off characters (as in Game of thrones) each and every death needs to be in character and necessary and I feel that needs to be made clear to the reader. For example, if you have a MC who is immune to any all poison, it wouldn't make sense for him/her to be poisoned to death without a new super poison having been invented.

    I hope that makes sense. lol

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    1. Heather, that's a really good point - and I think readers will often be satisfied (if not happy) with a story's events as long as these seem fair and in keeping with the world and the characters. Readers are in general very savvy - much more than publishers sometimes give them credit for. But imo genre plays a strong role, too. A MC death in a rom-com, for instance, even if it was fair and in character, probably wouldn't go down well... even in Sliding Doors, we had that alternate storyline to keep us happy! ;) Thanks for the food for thought!

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  6. Will we hear more about the "after-story" maybe? :)

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    1. Yes, maybe! I don't want to be revoltingly self-indulgent (though it IS my blog - and hey, what else are blogs for?) - but would be very happy to share some more of 'what happened afterward' if readers want to hear.

      AND, over Christmas, I'll be sharing some unpublished material from an earlier version of Angel Fire - lots of fun Alex/Willow material that's never been seen! :)

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    2. Yay! Looking forward to Christmas even more now :) and I would so want to hear more about the "after-story" so count me (us with Erika) in :) thank you for the hope of more Alex and Willow :) can't wait! - Andrea

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