Should authors feel bad when they kill off a character?

Here I talk about the problem that pops up when you kill off a character in a series, only to realize later you’d like to have him around.  A more interesting issue is your emotional relationship with characters you create.  Should it bother you when you kill them off?  I was talking to a reader about Pontiff, where (not much of a spoiler alert) a sympathetic character dies at the climax.  She wasn’t especially bothered by this, because it was a bit of a twist on what she was expecting, but it made perfect sense in the context of the plot.  Which was the effect I had hoped to achieve.

But I had grown to like that character.  I wished her nothing but the best!  I was sorry she had to die!  This didn’t stop me from killing her, all the same.  It wasn’t a question of morality; it was a question of aesthetics.  Your readers aren’t going to care about your characters if you don’t care about them yourself.  But you’re the boss — not the characters.

This brings me to the case of the angelic character Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop  The novel was serialized, as all of his novels were, so readers could follow the decline of the little girl’s health week by week. Wikipedia says:

The hype surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last installment in the United Kingdom), “Is Little Nell alive?” In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume of The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Dickens lived life and wrote fiction in a higher key than anyone else. so it’s not surprising that he was as upset by her death as his readers were.

Dickens was traumatized by the death of Little Nell.  As he was writing it he felt as though he were experiencing the death of one of his children.  It also brought back painful memories of the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.

But a novelist has gotta do what a novelist has gottta do.

Here, if you can bear to read it, is Dickens’ description of Little Nell in death:

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favor. “When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” Those were her words.

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird, a poor, slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed, was stirring nimbly in its cage, and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless forever! Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead, indeed, in her; but peace and perfect happiness were born, imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.

This is great stuff, although you may be inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”

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