Back during my college days, while drifting to sleep, I thought about how the Bible says humans are made in the image of God, and then I thought about how each us us to some extent reverse engineers what God might be like based on what we’re like.
(This is what happens when you double-major in English and Religious Studies. I mean, in addition to having all those high-paying jobs laid out at your feet.)
So with a total arrogance typical for me back when I was a college student, I modified Jesus’s question: “Who would my characters say that I am?”
Ooh, that was fun. I imagined a court room and put my favorite characters on the witness stand. Each one testified under oath as to my personality and values. I kept them in character, but I had them make their judgments based on how their own stories had unfolded. And not just my recent characters: I went back to characters I’d written when I was twelve and thirteen.
The character from my high fantasy testified that I was ruthless and valued success. Another
character said I was a loner who valued community, but didn’t fit into it. A third character said I set tests and expected you to learn from your trials.
Then a minor character from a fanfic took the stand. I hadn’t thought of him for ages, not since I’d written the story where he’d appeared.
He trembled with anger. “Jane doesn’t care. She created me only to use me, have my life benefit someone else, and then leave me destroyed.”
So much for drifting off to sleep.
I wanted to hug him and hold him and tell him it wasn’t true; I wanted to reassure him that I cared about my characters — except he was right. That was exactly what I had done to him. He suffered, and that had been his only purpose. He was expendable.
I wanted to defend myself, and honestly, I couldn’t.
I lay awake when I should have been sleeping, analyzing the way I used characters in stories. I’d invented the “Red-shirt” without yet knowing what one was. My little guy was right.
The more I thought about it, the more my character’s accusation changed the way I write. I lowered my overall body count. I’ve made sure that even if a character has to die, he gets a fair shake all along; he gets a personality; he gets a purpose; at the very least, he has a chance.
Stories being what they are, sometimes characters have to die, but as writers and as readers, we need to handle it the right way. The death of a character isn’t a ploy for easy emotion. When a character dies, it needs to be a fulfillment so while we as readers may feel sad, there’s also a certain rightness to it. It’s an end, but it’s an end the character himself or herself might have endorsed. “I died doing what I wanted to do.” Or better yet, “I died being who I truly am.” Not that their life was taken, but that they gave it. And in doing so, gave life to someone else in the book and in some ways gave life to the reader.
It’s a testimony to good writing that these characters mean so much. But to mean so much to the reader, they need to mean much to the writer, and that means treating their lives – and their potential deaths – with respect.
Jane Lebak talks to angels, cats, and her kids. Only the angels listen to her, but the kids talk back. She lives in the Swamp, writing books and knitting socks, with the occasional foray into violin-playing. You’ll also find her blogging at QueryTracker.net, a resource for writers seeking agents and small publishers