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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Limitless: What Authors do to their Characters

When Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer released, my friend and I discussed that someone should die in the last third, to make the story more interesting. But I think, somewhere, a part of me knew it wouldn’t happen. Meyer doesn’t kill good guys in the Twilight saga. Sure, Harry Clearwater has a heart attack, but I mean killing characters fans are emotionally attached to, like Alice, Emmett, or at least Seth. I’ve wondered if Meyer liked her characters too much to kill them.

In contrast, when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Runelords by David Farland, I found myself questioning whether the authors loved their characters much at all. In The Hunger Games, characters not only die, but are burned, poisoned, tortured, have limbs amputated, are forced into prostitution, and even brainwashed. Young, old, male, female, likable, unlikable, good guys, bad guys, named, nameless all suffered at Collins’ hands. Likewise in The Runelords, a stunning princess turns hideous, a stately King becomes mentally handicapped and can't even control his own bowels, and often strong, intelligent people are reduced to insanity and then murdered.

Sometimes in these novels, as a reader, I felt the authors had no limits. And I was scared. What could possibly happen next? Was anyone safe? Would the King ever regain his status, or was he doomed to die in his own filth? I had to read to find out.

Not all stories need to be as limitless as The Hunger Games and The Runelords to be good stories and to keep people reading, but notice that what Collins and Farland did added more tension to their novels. Also note that early in their stories, they let the reader know that nothing is safe. So as a reader, you have the whole series to worry.

And of course, putting your characters through heck doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t love them or that you harm them senselessly. J.K. Rowling loved all the “good guys” she killed. In New York she said she hated writing a particular death scene for The Casual Vacancy, but felt it had to be there for thematic purposes. Collins and Farland didn’t harm their characters for the sake of it either. In their cases, their characters’ ailments came with the backdrop of the story—horrible things happen in the worlds and societies their protagonists live in.

Should Meyer have killed a likeable character in Breaking Dawn? Maybe not in the way we would see in The Hunger Games or The Runelords—the Twilight story didn’t call for it. But perhaps a different death or misfortune may have fit and added tension.  Or maybe I’m just twisted and like to see characters suffer and die. Or both.

Whatever the case, when we write, perhaps we should consider what our stories’ limits are and how early to alert our readers to them. Giving your reader a heads up not only makes them worry and adds tension, but if anything horrific is going to happen to a main character, they need a warning.  Our readers grow attached to our characters, and if we do something awful to the protagonist without any kind of foreshadowing, they’ll feel betrayed.

(Imagine, for example, if in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the main characters was suddenly hit and killed by a random car. Readers would say "Hey! That's not what I signed up for! I wanted a happy ending!" That incident doesn't fit with the limits the story set up.)

Thoughts? Do you like reading limitless books? Can you think of anymore examples?


  1. I LOVE this idea of keeping your torture of your characters to the limits you are setting for your story. I've never thought about it that way.

  2. I tend to write whatever the story needs, and in one story the MC did indeed need to die. He came back later (in a sense) but now I'm wondering if I foreshadowed that enough...


    1. Glad you were willing to kill him or her (as needed). Thanks for reading, Lauren.


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