#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 1: Noooo, Billy!)

You know the scene.

The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.

Every time. Seriously, every time I see PredatorI say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.

This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.

We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.

And then…

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…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.

Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.

What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?

xqbict878a3zOn screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!

Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.

So why did Billy have to die?

As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”

But as a writer, I think I really know why.

It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.

So Billy had to die.

hta_animated-book-cover_catching-fire_02It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.

Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.

Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead.  Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.

Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!

I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.

But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.

Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!

So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?

Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

The Machete and the Cradle

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Jason Voorhees first took up residence a few months after my daughter was born. Most think Voorhees = hockey mask and machete. Well, our relationship didn’t start that way. He came as he did in Friday the 13th Part 2, an ogre of a being with a bag over his head, one cut hole for a yellow eye to peer through. He came in, sat on our couch, and stayed there. No machete, just a second bag and some twine. He sat quietly as my daughter and I played, fed, or worked. If I turned to him, he’d hold out that second bag.

One evening, my husband arrived from work to see our daughter in her bouncy seat, bored, and me sitting next to Jason Voorhees with a bag over my head.

“What’s wrong?”

I tried to open my mouth, but the burlap felt coarse and painful against my lips. So I said nothing, sitting there with one eye on my daughter to make sure she was safe, and the other eye lost to woven doubt and self-loathing. My husband undid the knot, took the bag off my head, and handed it to Jason. Jason shifted himself down to make room. My husband held my hand and slowly worked me off the couch back to our family.

This routine continued on for a few months. All three of us grew tired of Jason, sitting on the couch, filling the hallway, losing the books and movies that we enjoyed for a little escape, hiding our daughter’s favorite snugglers so we couldn’t get her to sleep.

I’d show him the door. He’d hand out the bag. I’d take the bag.

In a rare outing where I actually sat somewhere with no baby (but with Jason), a friend revealed her latest endeavor in the classroom: NaNoWriMo.

“Nano-what?”

“NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. It’s a challenge to write a 50,000 word story in thirty days. My kids are pretty excited.”

Something shifted in me. It had been years since graduate school, where I struggled to write proper literary stuff. If I could write what I really wanted and do my online job and raise an infant…

Jason’s single eye darted between us quizzically, coffee spilling onto his overalls.

I ignored him. “When’s it start?”

At 10:30 on the night of November 30th, I reached the 50,000 word mark. The door to our apartment clicked shut. I found a bag outside my workroom with a small length of twine.

Two years later, I gave birth to twin boys. Within the first month, in the midst of mud and lightning, Jason Voorhees resurrected, and this time, he came with a machete.

How do I describe what it’s like to fantasize killing my own children?

Jason said nothing, but that machete glistened in the softness of the boys’ nightlight. It sparkled like a magical wand. It promised peace with a mere knick knack, paddy-whack. I had to pass Jason nearly every hour of the night to feed one boy, then the other, oh of course one woke up, damn he shat everywhere, which one is this again?

Sometimes Jason held out an oven mitt above a boy’s face. Sometimes his machete pointed towards the stairs. Sometimes I heard a whisper, which could not have been me yet Jason never speaks so…If he wants to scream, give him a reason. Those fingers are so small, no one’ll notice if one’s broken. Drop the little fucker. These could not be my thoughts. But I knew they were me, they sounded like me when I’m thinking about what shirt to wear or what to make for my daughter’s lunch. And with every thought comes a lurch inside, an Honest-to-God turning of the stomach that made me want to take that machete and cut myself open to find whatever was whispering these things so it couldn’t hurt my sons, who in only one month of life had already shown such mischievous spirits.

Then came the colic. Jason Goes to Hell comes to mind.

The lowest moment: driving my younger son to the emergency room. A Wisconsin winter night, bitterly freezing, the road coated with black ice, and my son won’t stop screaming. We called yet again trying to understand why one boy’s colic subsided while the other’s grew worse, and finally a nurse said with a yawn that it could be acid reflux. Of course, there’s no good way to fight acid reflux with infants. You have to wait it out. Fuck you. We’re not waiting it out anymore. Give me meds to shut this kid up or…or…

Jason rode shotgun.

Dump him. Dump him and go home. He’ll freeze fast. He’s baptized. He’ll be happy in Heaven, away from you. You never wanted twins. You don’t want this one. He’ll always be like this. Stop there and dump him.

Silence.

I stopped the car.

My son, asleep. His torso shook up and down to the jerky rhythm of his exhausted breathing. It was, by my meager standards, a miracle.

A few days later, another miracle: all three of my kids napping at the same time.

I opened my novel, the NaNoWriMo project from my daughter’s infancy, and started to read. And revised. Revised some more as I nursed my sons. Wrote notes while I played with them, brainstormed ideas with them aloud. Continued the story in whatever free minutes I could find.

There stood Jason, his machete’s sparkle gone. I came forward with dragons, trolls, shapeshifters, and goblins at the edge of darkness, where my worlds began. I held out my hand, and let the bag and twine fall to the ground at his feet.

My twins are two now, and adorably terrible to everyone, especially their big sister. Jason’s still out there, hacking at the darkness, bursts of spark-light about his face, a fragment of nightmare that will never vanish completely.

The boys climb up my legs while my daughter wraps her arms around my neck. I am bombarded with giggles and toddler tickles. I am armored with a love that no blade can nick.

I am also trapped in the chair.

My daughter bonks me with a hard cover. “Let’s read a story!”

Let’s.