Write Bites is a new series in which I write shorter, bite-sized blog posts based on whatever writing topic has been on my mind that week. These posts are meant to supplement the longer Writes and Crafts posts, and will appear more frequently.
If you follow me on Twitter, then you may know I’ve reached the climax of the book I’m writing. Climaxes are fun and I always enjoy them (shhhh to all of you thinking “that’s what she said”), but this isn’t any old climax. This book is the final novel in the YA fantasy series I started writing as a freshman in high school, otherwise known as the series that started my novel-writing journey and prompted me to take my writing career seriously. And like many YA fantasy series, the last chapters in the book involve some unpleasant character deaths.
Now, I have a long and messy history with character deaths in novels. As a kid, I never liked character deaths showing up in books if I wasn’t expecting them. They shook me up, and sometimes I stopped reading the book altogether as a result. For example, as an eleven-year-old I happily enjoyed the bulk of the Anne of Green Gables novels—until I found out that in the final book, one of the young characters dies. Mysteriously, I stopped reading the series about a third of a way through the last book.
The character death that really punched me in the face, though, was Cedric Diggory’s in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I was in third grade, and Harry Potter was my safe place. I could disappear into the books and feel like I was in a world I trusted. It wasn’t a Sad Book you were assigned to read in class, and there wasn’t a dog on the cover, so I figured it wouldn’t surprise me with character murder. So I happily skipped through chapters, imagining Cedric to look like a random boy in my class. Suddenly, they turned a corner, and Cedric was dead. I stared at the sentence “He was dead” in utter shock. I remember closing the book right there, even though I never stopped reading in the middle of a page. I lay down for a little bit. I didn’t pick up the book again for a week. At school, I stood in line behind Cedric Boy to sharpen my pencil, staring at the back of his head in horror.
After that, I was ruined. I couldn’t handle it. One of the first things I did when Order of the Phoenix came out was flip to the end to check who died. Same with Half-Blood Prince. I was too attached to these characters. I couldn’t take the suspense. I had the sense not to do this with Deathly Hallows, understanding how sacred the experience was and determined not to ruin it. Once Harry Potter was over, I turned into an adult with a habit of distancing herself from characters in the books I read (a trait of mine that I hate, by the way). Without meaning to, I remain aloof from them, in case one of them dies. The Cedric incident broke something in me. Fred Weasley’s death made it worse. I feel like this cheapens my reading experience a lot of the time, but I don’t know how to let my guard down.
Then, recently, I experienced my first rip-my-heart-out character death as an adult reader. And it only came about thanks to some unusual circumstances.
When I was about twelve—so, before Harry Potter ended, before I detached myself from characters I read—I became obsessed with a certain book series. I read the four books in the series and thought it ended there. Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered a fifth book had been published years before, and I’d somehow never heard about it (I won’t name the series here, in case any of my readers also loved this series and didn’t know about book five—spoilers are ahead). It was about the same characters, except this time they were in their twenties, dealing with twenty-something problems just like me. I was eager to delve back into their lives. I expected a light, easy, relatable read. What I didn’t expect was for the author to base the book’s entire premise on one of the main characters dying.
I read this in a Barnes and Noble café, and for the first time in my adult life, I came very close to bursting into tears over the death of a fictional character (that I hadn’t created, anyway). These characters had slipped through the cracks, since I’d become attached to them as a kid. And now one of them was dead. More than upset, I was angry. How could the author do this to me? How could she throw this in my face when this wasn’t what I expected or wanted? How could she kill off [name redacted], of all people??
Because, of course, my reaction was probably exactly what she was aiming for. And what I aim for as a writer. I want my future readers to be frustrated and heartbroken when a character dies. I want them to feel betrayed. I want them to be invested.
The only characters I’ve allowed myself to get close to since Harry Potter have been my own. Partially because, for me, attachment to characters is what makes it possible for me to write them properly. But also: I get to control what happens to these characters. There are no surprises. The rug won’t be pulled out from under me. I’ll see it coming.
What this means, though, is that when I know from the beginning a character is going to die, I have to work extra hard to get attached to them. Because you know what my instinct is? You guessed it: “Why get attached to them when I know they’re gonna die? Why do that to myself?” Well, if I don’t do that to myself, the death seems worthless, and I won’t be able to connect with the protagonist’s grief, if they’re someone the protagonist would grieve. I also have to be careful not to base character death decisions on how much I already care about a character. As a high school freshman, I remember a couple of the deaths I chose for this final book were selected because they were easier. I didn’t care as much about the characters. That’s lazy, and as a result, I’ve had to do some reevaluating.
There is one character, though, who snuck up on me, similar to the way the death of the character from that beloved childhood series caught me by surprise. Back when I decided they would die, I didn’t know them all that well. I didn’t not care about them, but I didn’t care much about them, either. Now…well. They’re one of my favorite characters. I’m very, very attached to them. I have no idea how I’m gonna write their death without destroying myself emotionally. In this case, I forgot to put my guard up. In this case, I got too close.
In this case, then, I’ve done my job right. Here’s hoping I get better at it. And here’s hoping this character death doesn’t make it impossible for me to function for a week.
What’s a character death that affected you? If you’re a writer, how do you approach character deaths in your work? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
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