Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.

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2 thoughts on “Killing off your characters

  1. Richard,

    I thought about this very thing for several years. Yes, I am still writing and haven’t published book number one yet so it is still a working process. But when it comes to killing off a character, which I haven’t done yet. I did realize that they don’t have to actually die in the story arc. What if they are injured so they they are taken out of the fight? What if the characters have to move forward not knowing if their friend actually lived or died? What if the reader has to move forward with the same question?

    In my work, I have found that just creating that drama without actually killing a character can be as if not more effective than showing their death in black and white.

    Hope that helps,
    rob

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    • Thanks, Rob. One of the advantages of killing a character is you can have the other characters react to the death. In Gaskell’s case, she gets to indulge in typical Victorian grief and sentimentality. Which I find dreary, but her original readers may have enjoyed.

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