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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Characters... and their ends.

When creating fiction, it is important to consider characters. They are the medium through which a story is told, they are the means by which someone is immersed in a piece of fiction, or even in a historical account. But the latter has pre-set debuts and destinations, while fiction is entirely under the control of the author. And that presents a key difficulty.

There are many ways to create a dramatic story event or turning point within a story, but one of the most widely used and effective is death. Death, by popular consensus a great leveler in real life, is something that can bring you to a sharp halt and take stock of what has happened. There are any amount of sudden deaths done badly, but there are equally deaths that are skillfully introduced with little warning, or even something that is part of a character narrative due to it being slow or destined or something equivalent to the above.

But there is a problem. If you are creating these characters, who are your creations, there is always a risk of getting attached to them, so you may negate any need for death or an equivalent fate to a side character that would not have the same impact. But hey, at least your character survives. That is not the wisest course if you have settled on death as a part of your story. True, there is such a thing as being overly cruel to characters (A Game of Thrones has a fairly brutal example), but there is also such a thing as coddling them or letting them have a presence within your mind as if they are real and breathing.

I have used death in my narratives both for main characters as side characters, and together with maintaining a kind of moral ambiguity, it creates a multilayered impact. Whether you decide on a character death early in the process or decide to direct the narrative that way halfway through, it can be more than useful. Take my own work, "Crystal and Sin". At the end, a key character dies so that another character can escape from their own corrupted existence and live a free life. Other deaths, told in flashback or seen in real-time, show how my characters change.

Another problem is with character death styles. That of course is when your chosen genre must come into play. You may want a character to die peacefully, or for them to suffer a gruesome or ignominious fate. If you put a graphically described execution somewhere in a children's book, then you run the risk of the reader putting the book down in shock or disgust. Conversely, if you have something weighty, then treating characters gently can be a double-edged sword: you both create tension, and can deflate the experience if nothing happens by the story's end. For recommended reading on how to handle violent death in children's literature.... read J K Rowling's Harry Potter series. She is a master at describing the macabre within a family-friendly narrative.

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