by Barbara Kyle
A recent fascinating post by Lois Winston on
this blog asked: “Are there
characters that you wish the author would kill off? Or characters you wish an
author hadn’t killed off?”
I’d dig deeper into Lois’s topic with another question: What
character’s death broke your heart?
I once asked that
of my Facebook friends and the replies were extraordinary. People recall with
vivid clarity how a fictional death left them feeling bereft.
Beth March in Little Women. Sydney
Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones.
Charlotte, the valiant spider in Charlotte’s Web.
Characters’ deaths that broke
my heart include Mariko in James Clavell’s Shogun, Robbie and Cecilia in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome
Pic: Yoko Shimada as “Mariko” in the 1980 TV series “Shogun.”
That affecting experience as a reader applies
with equal force to an author. Every time I’ve killed a beloved character in
one of my books, I wept. The poet Robert Frost said it eloquently: “No
tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I must be shaken by a
character’s death myself if I am to render it faithfully to my readers.
Three kinds of characters’ deaths shatter us the
1. The Innocent Friend
The most dangerous relationship a character can
have is being the best friend of the hero. If the hero has been reluctant to
accept his destiny, or his responsibilities, the death of his friend is often the
turning point that galvanizes him to take the next steps and the necessary
risks. By his friend’s death the hero is changed, made stronger, grows up.
2. The Victim of a Wicked World
When we shudder at Fantine’s death in Victor
Hugo’s Les Miserables we
shudder at the hellish poverty that killed her. In Atonement Robbie and Cecelia lose their lives pitifully in
the gruesome grind of war. In A Game of Thrones Ned Stark is executed in a naked political power
3. The Self-Sacrificing Hero
When Mariko, the courageous noblewomen in Shogun, goes to Osaka Castle to obtain the release of
innocent hostages, she knows she is going to her death. She sacrifices her life
to save Lord Toranaga from his enemies, and restore peace.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton takes his awe-inspiring walk to the
guillotine with selfless resolve, sacrificing his life so that Lucie, the woman
he loves, can be reunited with her husband.
These are deaths of valor – to me the most
poignant of all – in which the character accepts death as the price of
saving someone they love. That’s powerful stuff. What reader is not moved to
ask in admiration: Could I do the same?
And, speaking of killing . . .
I hope you’ll enjoy my new
video: “What Makes a Killer Mystery?” in which I
outline the essential elements of the genre and show interviews with five
acclaimed mystery writers, including Denise Mina and John LeCarré (below). Watch the video here.
Barbara Kyle is the author of the bestselling
Thornleigh Saga series of historical novels and of
acclaimed thrillers. Her latest novel of suspense is The Man from Spirit Creek. Over half a million
copies of her books have been sold. Barbara has taught
hundreds of writers in her online Masterclasses and many have become
award-winning authors. Visit Barbara at https://www.barbarakyle.com/