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

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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?

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On 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.

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It 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!

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#writerproblems: #writing the cracks into the tough exteriors of #character

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My sons dress in their Transformer costumes  with giggling hops. “Trick or treating!” They chime over and over, so thrilled to begin the candy feast early with a special Halloween event at the zoo. My little Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are ready to roll out against Decepticons and other devious evildoers in the name of candy.

20181013_160513Our exteriors say so much about us. I’m not just talking about donning the armor of alien transforming heroes, but our behaviors around other people. How we are around others can differ vastly with how we think, act, and exist in solitude. We–and our characters–are so often “more than meets the eye.”

 

hungergamescover.jpgLet’s consider a few examples, beginning with the well-known Katniss Everdeen of Hunger GamesThe story opens with Kat being tender to her younger sister Primrose on the morning before the Reaping, when candidates are selected for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is chosen, Kat cries out to volunteer in her sister’s place. Prim tries to stop her, but Kat refuses to give in.

“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don’t want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reapings tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I’ll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. “Let go!” (23)

From here on out, Kat is about as gruff and curt as she can be with nearly every other character in the book. She knows what it means to hunt, starve, and lose a loved one.  Kat’s determined to survive for her family’s sake, which means she will not let any other tributes figure out her skill set or weaknesses.

But I want to note here that Kat does have a tender heart. It’s been burned, yes, but it’s there, visible any time Kat’s with her sister (and her eventual love interests, but blah blah on that for this post). Had Suzanne Collins merely wrote Kat as a hunter without family–that is, made Kat nothing but her tough shell–then what would Kat’s motivation be? The entire tone of the narrative would change from one of survival to protect to…acceptance? Glory? Who knows?

Heroes and villains both can have these tough exteriors with the occasional crack. And cracks they must have, or again, readers will think the character nothing but the tough shell. Take two of the primary characters in The Boys— Homelander, leader of the elite superhero group The Seven who is also the primary antagonist of the series, and Butcher, leader of The Boys, the group created to keep superheroes in line.

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Each has their tough exterior: Butcher can be a right bastard to people, ready to literally rip someone to shreds for being a “supe.” Homelander, all posh and elegance in front of the cameras, is all too eager to make Starlight have oral sex with him in order to join The Seven. He’s also gathering up all the superheros to support a takeover of the American government, all too eager to cut the corporate leash upon him with a blink of his eye lazers.

Yet this same Homelander will cry in a fetal position in the bathroom, asking himself why he can’t remember ripping up human beings with his teeth. This same Butcher didn’t always swing fists or revel in pain. He had a wife once. He had love once. And because Butcher once knew love, he’s willing to give his fellow Boy and friend Hughie a chance to save his girlfriend Starlight before Butcher attempts to wipe every supe off the planet.

These cracks don’t have to appear often. If they did, then readers and other characters aren’t going to see a “tough” exterior at all. These cracks need only be visible at a few important moments for the sake of plot, conflict, or other narrative element.

0ec02f8f9ecca578aff44696813f0596.jpgConsider the classic A Christmas Carol (Yes, I know it’s only October, but hey, there’s ghosts in this.) The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought Scrooge to his years of apprenticeship under Fezziwig. The Ghost points at Apprentice Scrooge and the other youths praising and thanking Fezziwig and says:

“A small matter…to make these silly folks so full of gratitude…He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge. (49)

See that? For a brief moment, Scrooge is no longer the “Scrooge” we saw at the beginning. The bitter miser has been replaced with a man of passion for his first employer and mentor. Only when the Ghost of Christmas Past studies him and calls attention to the crack does Scrooge seal his exterior back up again. But thanks to this moment, the Spirit and readers both know there is more to Scrooge than the opening pages suggest.

I’ve been thinking about these tough exteriors a good deal with my Fallen Princeborn series, especially with my latest short story,  “Tattered Rhapsody.” The last story in my collection Tales of the River Vine centers on heroine Charlotte: her ragged, “goblin-bent” form of broken fingers and boney limbs. Her quick words and quicker fists. Her music. Her sister. And, at last, a moment of true hope.

One of the elements within a timeless story are complete characters: not just HEROES made only of dash and daring, or VILLAINS only vile and wicked, but people. People who don an armor to protect their inner selves, who only reveal those inner selves when least expected by readers–or themselves. What hopes and fears hide behind your characters’ armor? Set them alight, and let readers see–just for a moment–the cracks in the tough exterior.TatteredRhapsody-TitleImage

Thanks so much for reading. As previously mentioned, the last short story in my collection is now available FREE on Amazon, Nookand other outlets.

TalesRiverVine-Cover-COLLECTION-wBranchesShe’s only eighteen, yet scars cover her body.
Both hands are cut and bruised. One finger is broken.
Yet when she touches a keyboard, angels and demons collide.

She has only two cares: her music and her younger sister.
Because they’re all she’s got—
They give her life meaning.

Meet Charlotte Aegir, a gifted pianist, a troubled teen trapped in an abusive home with no way out—
Until she’s offered the chance of a lifetime, a chance to save herself and her sister.

But little does she know that she’s headed for River Vine, an enchanted land where an ancient race of predatory shapeshifters reside, and where protecting those she loves comes at the awful price of sacrificing everything she holds dear.

This is Charlotte’s story: that turning point in her hard, young life before she awakens into the world of the Fallen Princeborn.

Grandma's Special Herbs

Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETINGIt’s been so exciting to read comments and reviews from readers. If you snatched a free copy of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen during my ARC giveaway, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads! You can share your thoughts on the short stories there, too. Seriously, every review makes a HUGE difference for these stories’ visibility on the global bookshelf. Even Kirkus Reviews has some pretty sweet things to say about Stolenclick here and see!

For those waiting to purchase a copy: next week, folks. Next. Week.

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Ahem.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed