Over the past few months, I’ve found myself almost conditioned to characters dying within the novels I read. It seems like every single one of them for about six months now has killed off at least one character. I think part of this observation is my fault. I seem to be on a dystopia fix. The nature of that genre leads to the necessity of killing off characters—it’s dealing with revolting, after all. But, I have also read urban fantasy and “drama” in the mix of that.
Most who have read my novels know that I am not against killing off characters. In fact, I love to do so when the opportunity of greatest impact presents itself. Although I grew up reading Greek tragedy, so I think my writing has a flare in that direction. I don’t have this “I love them” connection with my characters. Again, I think most of my readers would agree. Someone who loves their characters would never put them through the horrific things I come up with. My focus is not on the characters, but the experience their story creates. So, I’m all for going after the kill if it suits a purpose—even if that purpose is shock value. I remember reading Hunger Games and started hating to meet new characters because Suzanne Collins somehow knew when I would grow to love them and then kill them off in the next page. As a writer, I loved the engagement that ability created in me as a reader.
My problem is this: if it happens too often, it loses its appeal. I hate being predictable—probably because I hate a predictable book. Actually, it really is a love/hate relationship. If a book is complex, I love predicting things. But, if the path of a plot is blatant, then the fun is completely gone. In the book I just finished, the character makes this great connection with one person. As they began a battle, I knew the only friend had to die. It was a given. I don’t think I would have even gone here if I hadn’t read so many other authors who had crossed this bridge. If too many authors kill off characters, than the impact is no longer the same. Readers will expect it. Of course, having everyone live seems to be just too much “happily ever after” for this reading climate.
What’s changed that even YA literature is dealing with death more? It saddens me to think that this might be a sign of real situations teenagers face in their real lives. I would hope not. Regardless, I think the point is that everything needs to be done in moderation. Don’t go for the easy emotional appeal. As authors, we need to strive to be different and unpredictable. That’s the only way to truly capture a reader and impact them.