Unintended Consequences

After writing about the question of death in fantasy last time I was here, I started thinking about deaths in my own work.  Like who I’ve killed off and why.  My first full-length fantasy was The Stone War, in which I more or less blew up my home town.  Since my home town is New York City, there’s a fairly significant body count before my protagonist even makes it back into the city and starts trying to rebuild. Even once he gets back and starts to gather survivors together to try to keep the city alive, there are people who die.  My niece still can’t forgive me because I killed off a character she liked.  And while I understand her feeling in the matter, at the time I was writing the book it didn’t occur to me that the character shouldn’t die or should die–it was just what happened.  I’m one of those discovery writers who stumbles through a plot and realizes later the why of something.

Of course, my why of something may not be the reader’s.  Sometimes that gets me in trouble.

In The Stone War, the character my niece liked so much is a young woman of color, who is briefly the protagonist’s girlfriend.  When she died in the story, if I’d been asked, I’d have said “she dies because the antagonist is trying to take away everyone important from the protagonist.”  Which is true.  But I read a review where someone complained that the only characters who die in the book were people of color. I don’t think that’s accurate, but I can see why that reader thought of it.  It’s really hard, when you’re soaking in your own privilege, not to see what is plain on the face of your work.

In the same way, in Point of Honour, my first Sarah Tolerance book, I killed off a character named Matt Etan. I really liked Matt: he’s one of my protagonist’s closest friends, funny and self-deprecating and earthy.  He also happens to be a male prostitute working in the brothel run by Miss Tolerance’s aunt.  Because the plot of the book was loosely mapped on the plot of The Maltese Falcon, Matt was also (in my head, at least) the Miles Archer character–which meant he had to die, because, as Sam Spade notes, if someone kills your partner a guy’s supposed to do something about it.  So there’s the mechanical reason, so to speak, that I killed Matt.  He was charming and funny and doomed.  Also gay.  And I have gotten some flak, justifiably, for killing off the only gay character in the book.

Was that on my mind when I wrote it?  Nope.  I built a character who I thought Miss Tolerance would be friends with–someone I liked enough for her to find likable too.  And Matt Etan sauntered in to her parlor and there he was, and I knew he was going to die, and I grieved a little.  In my own head, I killed Matt because I liked him.  But my own head is where my privilege lives, and so I was blinded to a larger context.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t have killed him if I hadn’t been more aware of that larger context; sometimes a writer’s got to do what a writer’s got to do.  But at least I would have done it knowingly.

I’m thinking of this right now because a character in the Sarah Tolerance book I’m currently working on is killed, and she’s gay (although she is not the only gay character in the book).  If I change who she is, it would undo a lot of the underpinnings of the book, things I’m really interested in examining.  So I think she’s going to stay just the way she is–but this time I’m more aware of what I’m doing.  Any consequences are intended.




About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Unintended Consequences — 3 Comments

  1. The only time I got flak for killing a character it was a flywacket–a winged cat.
    But through the previous book in the series, Miri, my main female protagonist had come depend upon the little guy too much. She couldn’t grow as a person until I left her on her own. But he was a cat with wings and my audience loved him.

  2. The most difficult characters to work with may be the red-shirts who refuse to go quietly into that good night. But then, if they do that, they’re no longer red-shirts and, if they still die, they don’t do so merely as part of turning the crank.

  3. Much could be written about reader expectation. You want the reader to care when somebody dies — to have nameless Orcs offed has little impact. But if they care too much then there is complaint. I know of readers who have given up on GAME OF THRONES because beloved characters got the axe. I know of readers who have forsworn all Lois Bujold because of the rumor that a kitten was killed. Friendly reassurances that it wasn’t a real kitten, just a genetic construct; that the heroes are terribly upset; that The Feline is Avenged, had no effect whatever. (It was in CETAGANDA, if that’s the kind of thing that bothers you and you want to skip it).