Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Do Characters HAVE To Die?

This week we're asking ourselves if we have to kill characters for there to be sufficient risk to maintain reader interest. What other threats work better or just as effectively?

Here's my unpopular opinion: 

Death does not present sufficient stakes. 

Not anymore. Culturally, at least in the US, we're increasingly inured to it. It's everywhere in our entertainment. It's every night on the news. It's every morning in our feeds. It's exploited by industries and charities to reach deeper into our pockets. It's a revenue stream in the business of healthcare. Six degrees of separation connects most of us to it at any given time. It's shoved in our faces so often that unless it befalls someone in our immediate presence or our core/chosen family, our reactions are muted or performative. Nowhere is our DNGAF about death more apparent than in our national and individual response to the current pandemic. Over 33 million Americans infected with a virus proven to lead to a gruesome death, and our mental disconnect from mortality allowed prevention to become a culture war. American exceptionalism at its worst. We believe dying will happen to "everybody except me," even though, logically, we know our time on this world is finite. Logically, we know we don't get to choose how we go out. Still, we hide behind our illusion of safety and delusion of "it won't happen to me."

Thus, I think as authors we ought to strive for different stakes if we're going to really connect to the reader. If we want to reach beyond the sameness of "welp, that character was fun while they lasted," then we have to elevate our world-building so that death isn't the most feared consequence of our characters' actions or inactions. Loss of liberty, loss of home, loss of status, loss of mental capacity, loss of physical ability, there are so many things a character can fear more than dying. A loss of love not through death but due to being driven away by one's own actions is far more heartbreaking. As long as there is a clear line of ownership of the consequences, a direct cause/effect of the choices the character made, then I think--I hope--the stakes are more vital to the character and more captivating to the reader.