Please note: there are spoilers in this essay for Rise Of The Guardians and the novel Dracula. If you do not like to be spoiled, please go watch the movie and/or read the book and then come back, because you’ve been missing out not doing that before at any rate.
There’s been a trend in media lately that I can’t say I’m on board with; the concept has been around forever, but it’s been on the upswing lately, and I kind of can’t wait until it’s back on the downswing.
I blame George RR Martin, and not just because his blog on LJ is more popular than mine.
There’s a pervasive idea in both professional writing circles and in fan circles when discussing writing, the idea that death automatically equals both immediacy and relevance. The fact that any character can die at any time means that as a reader, you are uncertain; you can never be sure anyone in a perilous situation is safe, or what will happen next.
I don’t like this idea, admittedly, in large part because I do not cope well with death. I won’t apologise for that; I want my favourite character to live, and I have a strong enough anxiety reflex that if I don’t, for example, know if the dog will live, I can’t enjoy the story. All I can do is worry about the dog. Or horse, or child, or what have you. When I watched Catching Fire recently, I got worried about whether they’d forgotten the goddamn spile.
In part it’s also that they keep killing my favourites. When I watched the children’s film Rise Of The Guardians last year, I picked a favourite very early on, and sure enough halfway through the movie, they offed him. (Spoiler: he got better, and my rage was assuaged.)
But a huge part of it is the arrogance of the statement, that somehow if you don’t support the killing of characters you are shallow, or lesser, or immature for forming emotional attachments and having a negative view of death instead of embracing its supposed beauty or pain or whatever, I cannot even be bothered with that bullshit. And this arrogance is all the more grating because it’s really a thin membrane of bravado suspended over a vast sea of insecurity and laziness.
Yeah, you heard me, laziness. Because if you can’t make your writing compelling without resorting to random murder, that’s lazy writing.
Recently a friend of mine read Dracula, and she was talking about how enjoyable she found Bram Stoker’s prose. She said to me, “It’s not like I didn’t know how it was going to end; everyone knows Dracula doesn’t win. But there was a chase down a mountain on horses and it was so exciting and I kept turning the pages like I thought the ending my be different if I didn’t read it hard enough.”
Nobody who has ever re-read a book gets to talk to me about the positive effect of unexpected death in prose. Because the truth is, while there are books I’ve read to find out “what happens next”, they are usually not the books I re-read. Because I now know what happens. The books that I return to, over and over, are the ones with compelling prose, with characters I love and wish to reconnect with, with plots that are intricate where I can see something new each time. Sometimes those are also “what happens next” books, but they have a depth that lasts beyond it.
I’m not saying you should never kill anyone in a book. Sometimes death is necessary. But you shouldn’t use “being interesting” as an excuse to do so — even if your prose is excellent, even (especially) if your story doesn’t need all that death. If you’re good enough not to kill, don’t kill. Death matters less when a story is full of it; death matters more when it is the absolute last resort of a writer who has poured the rest of their heart into making their prose live.