“I cried for forty minutes afterward.” That’s what one of my girlfriends told me after we emerged – wide-eyed and in utter disbelief – after the Game of Thrones season finale a week and a half ago. Honestly, there was no other way we could react. In horrific, brutal, Shakespearean fashion, Jon Snow met his shocking demise, knifed to death by his gang of “brothers.” I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered.
Of course, those who watch the show and/or read his books know that George R.R. Martin‘s got a rep for doing that. “Don’t get too close to any of his characters” those in the know will warn you, “because he kills them off.” And I have to be honest, I hate that. And I sorta love it, too.
There’s nothing like a major character kill-off to shake readers out of complacency. Keep them on their toes. Just as they’ve settled in with one of the characters – they know his likes and dislikes, his quirks, his backstory, how he overcame near impossible odds to get where he is today – just as they’ve started hoping there are lots and lots more books with this or that character, BLAMO! The rug is pulled out from under them and they’re reeling like an earthquake survivor emerging from the rubble. That character, the one they love, the one they could see themselves having dinner with, is dead. Killed. Game over.
What a f**king betrayal! All that time the reader has invested in the character and suddenly he’s as dead as last season’s cancelled TV shows. The reader is incensed. Outraged! They’ll never read another book by you again. Or will they?
The appeal of killing off a major character is multi-layered for the writer. You maintain your story’s freshness by not keeping the same people around forever. You insert a major plot twist with the character’s demise. You give yourself the opportunity to write hugely emotional scenes, including the death itself and subsequent character portrayals of them dealing with the fallout. Good, meaty stuff! But what about the poor suffering reader? The one who can do nothing but mourn the death? Have they been cheated by you, the writer, doing away with a major protagonist?
Of course they haven’t. What the reader benefits from is a story that’s not mundane, from a plotline that veers like a drunken sailor off the expected course. Authors who throw these monkey wrenches into their stories are making sure their audience never gets too comfortable and stays on the edge of their collective seats when reading those author’s books. That can be a good – and bad – thing.
A major criticism of traditional romance is that’s it’s the polar opposite from unexpected. Readers are never going to be thrown for a loop by having the author kill off the hero because THAT’S NOT ALLOWED. And you know what? It’s A-OK by me.
Think about it this way. There’s no romance without a hero and heroine, right? It is, after all, why readers bother reading those books. They want romance. So you gotta keep your characters alive in order for them to have a relationship. Insight from Captain Obvious. And killing off a major character is obviously not the sole plot device we romance authors can use in order to keep our readers turning pages. But knowing that we’re forbidden from killing off major characters forces us to exercise creative muscle in order to maintain high reader engagement.
What do you think? Would you kill off a major character if you could? Do we need to allow romance writers more flexibility in making this decision so that our genre as a whole stays fresh? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to enter our Lady Smut Book of Dark Desires giveaway!