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Murdering Protagonists
Are Long-lived Characters Endangered?
© 2013 James LaFond
Last week I was having a discussion with a friend concerning fantasy and science-fiction. He asked my opinion of Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I admitted to adapting one of Martin’s narrative techniques for my own fiction, and told him that I enjoyed the first four books and the HBO series, but that I would not read the fifth book. He told me that he had decided the same thing. To paraphrase, “At the end of the first book when the character who you thought was the main character was killed, that was a big thing. It was shocking and it made sense. But now I think it has become a gimmick. I just can’t invest any more time getting connected to these characters just to have them killed. It becomes emotionally draining.
“I can’t justify the reading time but I will finish watching the series. A friend and I were discussing this very point. We came to the conclusion that the last episode is going to end when one surviving character finds themselves alone and then commits suicide!”
I used as one example the HBO miniseries The Wire. I prefaced our discussion of the TV show with a statement, “I believe a novelist’s job is to get you to read the last chapter.”
It does not have to be a happy ending or a victory. But I should feel compelled to read that last chapter. I viewed the first season of The Wire almost 10 years after it aired. I had been so up to my elbows in the violent ghetto culture of Baltimore with my violence study that I had never wanted to watch the critically acclaimed series.
Charles gave me the series and asked me to review it. I viewed the First Season, found it very accurate, compelling, with a deep cast of realistic characters. I did not want to continue watching the series because it was depressing me. I had seen so much of that stuff, and had lived with it, that it was troubling. The characters though brought me back. I watched every episode of all five seasons of The Wire with great anticipation. Then, by the time the next to the last episode of the last season was over all of the characters that I had been following were either dead or had been corrupted to the point where they were not the same person. I have never watched the last episode. I simply don’t care how a story without compelling characters ends.
Martin and other authors, such as myself, use a certain narrative device to get the reader to identify with the character. This is extremely useful when developing science-fiction and fantasy settings. However, I found when writing my first novel, Of The Sunset World, that this enables the author to upset the reader. I do not necessarily regard this as being a good thing.
Two of my readers approached me in separate meetings and told me point-blank, that they had been able to handle the death of key characters thus far, as the story was a bloody one. But, after having introduced two handicapped children into the story: Three-Rivers and Arrow-Holder, they were afraid I was going to cross the line and kill one of those innocent children. They both said they would stop reading if I did that. Arrow-Holder was already slated for death. I reduced it to a broken jaw and a concussion, and then realized that I had a more interesting character on my hands, a character that finally felt like he had status.
There are some comics such as The Walking Dead and Crossed that literally dispose of the cast faster than you can keep up with them. Young people seem to like this. I find myself wondering what that means. In the meantime I follow my own guidelines for snuffing protagonists. My style of fiction features a narrative that informs the readers of the thoughts and unspoken feelings and aspirations of certain characters, from whose viewpoint the reader sees the story.
In short fiction I have no compunction about killing the protagonist. In many cases short adventure fiction occurs in an environment so dangerous that the survival of a lone protagonist is unlikely if downright unrealistic.
In a longer work, a novel or a series, where the reader invests a great deal of time, the death of a protagonist cannot be taken lightly, and, if this does occur, there should be an alternative protagonist that a reader that had a vested interest in the deceased character would be able to identify with. If you are writing about a war from the point of view of an infantryman and a general, then the death of the general in terms of the perspective gap will not be easily bridged by adding another infantryman to the cast. Perhaps continuing the strategic half of the story through the eyes of the general’s chief-of-staff or a subordinate brigadier will not result in the loss of those readers who enjoyed the general’s broad perspective at the expense of the private’s narrow view.
Finally, there are two alternative ways of handling character death.
One is fate, or the ‘Achilles syndrome’. The most famous character in fictional literature is Achilles. The reader knows from the outset that he will not survive the siege of Troy. This enables the reader to remain vested in this protagonist and enjoy their fleeting triumphs knowing that the character will not survive. This is a more ancient view of the protagonist as a spiritually immortal vehicle for human aspirations, as opposed to the modern reader’s fixation on personal survival and happiness.
The less common method, which again, remains palatable only if the reader understands the nature of the narrative construct, is the ‘handoff’. There was a western I watched a few times as a boy. I think it was tilted Winchester ’73. The premise was that the viewer saw the Old West from the point of view of a gun that passed through so many hands through violence and misfortune that it appeared to be cursed.
Are we in a period of shock literature that calls for more realism through the death of major characters? Is this coming from video games, or is it a reflection of a pessimistic society? If so, is this cyclic?
I’m not qualified to answer those questions. I can tell you that, as a writer, I feel like I am caught in a changing current of reader opinion between the desire for the traditional happy ending and the expectation of the more ruthless contemporary end.
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JB     Nov 6, 2013

Where have you gone Joseph Campbell, a dying culture turns it's lonely eyes to you.
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